Media facing credibility crisis

By Rajdeep Sardesai
24 March 2014 17:07 IST

This is open season against the Indian media. Arvind Kejriwal says that he will throw journalists in jail if he comes to power (he later qualified that he was referring to "some" journalists). Manohar Parikkar, the BJP's aam aadmi chief minister, has said that journalists are unqualified and take money to write. The Congress has already boycotted opinion polls and accused the media of being biased against it. On social media - the ultimate space for the "outrage industry" - journalists are routinely accused of being 'paid media'. For Modi bhakts, Congress chamchas and AAP cheerleaders, media bashing has become this election season's favourite sport.

The charge of being "biased" reflects a rising intolerance among the political faithful. So long as the media was hailing Arvind Kejriwal as the ultimate anti-corruption Prophet, we were, in the eyes of aam admi supporters, allies in their war. Now, when we raise hard questions on alleged doublespeak, we are accused of being lackeys of corporate India.

When we questioned Narendra Modi's handling of the 2002 riots, we were accused of being a pseudo-secular, anti-national force. Now, when the same media carries Modi's rallies unedited with the assistance of the BJP's own cameras, we are accused by the Congress of "selling out" to the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. On the flip side, no government has been subject to the kind of media scrutiny that UPA 2 has, yet that has also not stopped the media from being targeted as agents of 10 Janpath.

The response of media associations to this constant barrage of abuse and intimidation has been to either resort to self-righteous rage by invoking democratic principles and freedom of speech, or we have chosen to stay silent in the belief that there is little point in adding to the escalating noise levels. Frankly, neither can the media occupy the high moral ground nor is it in our interest to hold our peace. The time has come to call a spade an axe and tell it like it is: the fact is, that while our political class has lost its nerve, a number of us in the media have also lost our moral compass and worryingly, our credibility.

Never before in 25 plus years in journalism has one witnessed the kind of sharp polarisation within the media, alongwith an equally troubling drop in professional standards. The polarisation is a direct result of the high stakes involved. With almost 400 news channels and thousands of newspapers, politicians are looking to co-opt the media to amplify their message. Well choreographed events like Modi's chai pe charcha, Rahul's "interactive" sessions or a Kejriwal roadshow are designed to manipulate the media image. Rather than interrogate the dominant narrative, the media has, in many instances, become a willing accomplice. The dangers of such collusive, crony journalism at election time are obvious.


Worse, there is the regressive trend of projecting blatantly partisan agendas as "independent" news and views. Many of us are no longer true to our calling: we peddle half truths, and, at times, downright sensationalism in the belief that it is no longer enough to "tell" a story, but that the story must be "sold" in a manner that will attract maximum eyeballs. In this age of hype, when news becomes box office for some and ratings matter more than respect, then you know you are on a slippery slope to tabloidization.

At the core of the credibility crisis lies a business model which is driven by a vicious cycle of TRPs, advertising revenues and hefty carriage fees to cable operators. When a single national news channel still has to pay upwards of Rs 50 crore to cable operators for telecasting a channel, when subscription revenues are still kicking in all too slowly, when the advertising pie is being sliced between dozens of channels, then the space for investing in quality news gathering and investigations or training and mentoring young journalists is shrinking all the time. We will not throw up a CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera in the Indian context if we don't have the financial muscle to match our news vision. So much cheaper to get eight people to scream at each other in a studio.

The second issue concerns changing ownership patterns. Many of the mushrooming television channels are now owned by fly by night operators and politicians whose interests are primarily in using a media platform for settling personal scores, pushing political agendas or in seeking status to match monetary clout. Many of these owners have little interest in the classical idea of journalism as being the relentless pursuit of the truth: instead, we now have a mix of supari journalism that seeks to fix someone or one that promotes mindless infotainment.

But it would be easy, and even misconceived, to blame the fall in journalistic standards on some evil owner out there who is insisting that we place sensation above sense. The buck must ultimately stop at the editor's table. Sadly, the professional editor as a gatekeeper of news is being replaced by editor as fixer, editor as proprietor, or editor as larger than life egoistical 'star', all of which can diminish from the intrinsic values of journalism in the absence of adequate checks and balances.

Whichever kind of editor one chooses to be, the inescapable reality is that the editor must be more accountable to readers and viewers. A few years ago, as president of the Editors Guild, I had proposed that all editors declare their assets. The move failed to take off. I had also suggested that all editors make a written commitment that they would not allow any "paid news" or advertorials without full and transparent disclosure. The proposal met with only partial success. While we demand the highest standards of accountability from other public figures, it is time we turned the gaze inwards. Or become a species that wields power, evokes fear, but loses respect.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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First, these days I pass my time not by listening to programs telecast by CNN-IBN. I tune in to song& dance or old films sections. I do not mind if only one party is exaggeratedly showcased, but I expect this to be factual and not just one sided. It takes all sides for balanced reporting. Rajdeep is a smart writer. He talked of Arvind Kajriwal (AK) being supported during Ram Leela maidan protests but he did not write that at the time even Mohan Bhagwat supported AK. That support was becasue it was anti Congress and whole bravado was made as if the corruption was proved, especially against Congress whereas only DMK was mainly involved, except in CWG cases. And , now that BJP's own corruption and snoopgates and the rest of BJP gate are being exposed CNN-IBN is silent. What about Modi's bumbling of India history? Not a word! Now that AK has turned full heat on BJP, they have become anti-AK. In the above Rajdeep has employed boxing trick, punch and defend, punch again and defend, He almost apologizes by telling about hard times that TV channels face.

In these times Tatas and Ambanis have become Gods, no TV channel touches them,. It's a laughable matter. During Mumbai terror attacks, Tata Hotel at Appolo Bundar had first set up security but when customers complained about frisking, it was let up and later removed. No channel has brought this up, I got to know through print Media. Even otherwise, these two business houses are sacrosanct, so where is the case for defense? A bit neutral program on CNN-IBN is from Cyrus Broacha,'The week that was not' CNN-IBN besides blatant Modiism, very cleverly manipulates the presentation of programs and news items to give prominence to BJP

- Kalidas Sawkar, Panaji Goa | 24 th March 2014 18:48


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