Media(o)cr(e)acy - news business - print

What exciting times these are, standing at the doorstep of the great technological leap. There is no other time in recorded history, where people are this aware of what is happening to/with one another, right at the moment of the transpiring of the event. They called it NEWS, before technology took over and reshaped the word as INFORMATION. Ask any grade-school kid, what NEWS stands for and pat would come the reply - NORTH, EAST, WEST, SOUTH. The acronym worked well in the B.T (Before Technology) era. Because of the dearth and demand of the newsprint, only what was deemed fit to print as decided by a group of wise men sequestered in smoke filled rooms, eventually made it to the newspapers; thereby, whatever made the final cut after much deliberations, considerations and much scrutiny, bore the official stamp NEWS. Most of the times, whatever was published in newspapers was accepted on its face value, and arguments and opinions were expressed after the fact, after the NEWS was published. If the INDIAN EXPRESS (and its brethren from the fourth estate) decided and published that the imposing of Emergency in 1975 by Indira Gandhi was unconstitutional and even evil , there never were any questions as to who made that judgment call and how that conclusion was arrived at, nor were aspersions casted against the editorial boards by the general public accusing them of rabble rousing, simply because the people running the paper were at odds ideologically with the government. The integrity of the information was never a casualty of petty perspectives. The aftermath of the Watergate scandal during the second term of Richard Nixon's presidency (mid 1970s) revealed the role of editorial boards of the newspaper which broke the story first, as to how much discretion and restraint they observed, when tying a few low level operatives, who broke in the Democratic headquarters in Watergate hotel, to the White House and the eventually the President himself. Until there was a solid proof, not speculative, not circumstantial, not hearsay, but solid verifiable and corroborative proof, that caught the President's hand in the cookie-jar, the board flatly refused to publish anything against the President, however much sensational (and eventually profitable) the story would had been to the newspaper (Washington Post).

Just three decades later, when the technological revolution has swept through the entire world, the term NEWS no longer applied to whatever important happend, but instead got modified to whatever happened. While on end of the spectrum stood quintessential journalism (the Woodwards, the Bernsteins, the N.Rams, the Chitra Subramaniams and such honorable lot), the other side is packed with instigators, flame-throwers, gossip-mongers and rabble rousers, turning journalism into sleaze. And no, this is not the kind of yellow/tabloid journalism, that whets the voyeuristic appetite concerning celebrity gossip. At least there is a certain amount of honesty in that kind of flesh trade. People know what they are buying, and what they are buying for. Sleaze is the much more dangerous form, opinionated journalism, masking itself as NEWS. But doesn't NEWS (not the traditional reporting of facts variety, but the editorializing kind) always come bearing an opinion, a perspective? Yes and No. Depending on the facts and merits of the case, just as a judge in the court of the law presiding over a case decides what is right/wrong, the editor is entrusted with the grave responsibility of deciding it for the masses, whether a piece of NEWS is indeed beneficial to the society, and therefore worth writing about, or would send out the wrong signals, and therefore worth withholding. Call it self-censorship or self-restraint, but the practice has been in place, since the advent of the newspapers, and the primary intention behind it being, the greater good. That is the duty of the editor, to provide the information, a proper place in the grand scheme of things, as the objective of NEWS, is not only to just inform, but also educate, and thereby improving the status quo. As an example, consider the piece of irrefutable NEWS that global warming is harmful for the planet in the long run. But the pressure applied by the developed nations on other developing nations to cut down on the emissions, at the cost of the productivity and the growth of the latter, is the perspective that throws a completely different light on the same piece of information, educating its readers of the unforseen dimensions in the said NEWS.

But sadly editors are humans too, with emotions, beliefs, convictions, and worse, prejudices and biases, empowered to skew the information at their disposal to suit their persuasion. And that is exactly what is happening with the current print media. Editorializing has given way to proselytizing. Instead of informing and educating the people, there is a growing alarming trend nowadays to force the agenda of the publishers on the gullible public. When, why and how did this change come about all of sudden - from being the upholders of values, to becoming peddlers of sleaze? The roots of this degeneration can be traced back to when technology opened the floodgates for uninhibited and unrestrained communication, in the form of satellites and internet, that made the creation of the NEWS and the consumption of the same into some sort of a vicious cycle, that constantly feeds on one another - why sensationalism and sleaze, because there is a market for it, why read it, because that is the only thing out there. A recent study indicated that India has the largest population of newspaper readers and thereby, a growth in newspapers as never seen anywhere in the world. What technology has done by ways of facilitating rapid and instant flow of information, is inadvertently pit the publishers against each other, vying for the same segment of the market, forcing the mature and the balanced to fold up, and the sensational and sordid to rise up. In this battle for survival, the term 'fittest' no longer meant stronger and mature, but one who is slippery and silly. And the great responsibility that was entrusted to editors and publishing houses of filtering out the vile, provocative and inflammatory aspects out of the information, and spinning a sensible, balanced and nuanced wrapper around the data, fell on the wayside in the rat race to riches. Sensational journalism existed ever since newspapers came into being, but it is now, more than at any other time, that it has found place on the front pages of major publications, as against being relegated to the ignominious corners. And the reason being, survival, in the short run, and profitability, in the long run.

In short, newspapers have made a Faustian deal with the establishment, vouching to look after its interests and the interests of its masters first, putting its self-preservation before the community's interests. Take a good look at the local newsstand, and notice how easy it is to spot the ones with hidden/overt agendas, and how hard it is to find a publication that has nary a motive. Conservative, liberal, for the government, against the government, for this, against that - amid all this was lost the original motive for the founding of the newspaper, which was to provide a voice for the people, to represent the people, ask what the people themselves cannot ask, write what the people themselves cannot petition. Media, ideally and ideologically, should always be anti-establishment, no matter who is in power. This noble principle however got buried under the collective collpase of objectivity and integrity, the two pillars on which the word NEWS resides on. When one outlet started peddling sensationalism, gaining popularity, publicity and profitability in the process, it became hard for the rest of the players in the fray to remain neutral, watching themselves decimated by the cut-throat competition. If one outlet took a stance towards pro-establishment, endearing itself to one segment of the population, the lure to quickly jump to the other side to grab the remaining share of the anti-establishment segment was too great to ignore. And thus it is easy to see, how one drop of poison polluted the whole pond, forcing even the honest and the just to choose sides, lest they perish.

What now, of the people? Well, what of them? One school of thought is, they brought it upon themselves, this mess, being lazy and lackadaisical, refusing to involve themselves in the process of demanding quality, accepting, encouraging and even egging the mud-slinging matches transpiring on public fora, deluding themselves that justice, however crude and uncivilized, is being meted out to the unjust. And now, when they are saddled with nothing but sleaze all around, they cry foul and look around for a savior, who would never come. But is it fair to lay the total blame at the doorstep of the people who patronized the peddler into producing more of the easily digestible garbage? It is in the nature itself, not just of human beings, but animals and even the elements of nature, to rush out for easy options taking the path least resistance. Place two gratifications side by side, and tell them that one is instant and the other delayed, that they don't have to work at all for the instant one, and for the latter they have to work doubly hard. Chances are that 9 out of 10 times (or even, all the 10 times), the majority would choose the easier option. And they cannot be blamed for that. The responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the wiser heads to not bite the bait of profit and bail out on the foundation principles of the newspapers. What is Hippocratic oath to the medical profession, integrity and objectivity are the same to the journalistic profession. It is a tough job, it is hard task to remain neutral, but such is the nature of the game.

But now that Pandora's box has been opened, and there is no turning back to the traditional reporting, and now that profit making has become the sole objective of the fourth estate, the only glimmer of hope for the discerning minority comes from the same technology the created this Frankenstein in the first place. Since it is the motive of profit that led to the downfall of traditional reporting, how about separating the concept of business from the ideology of NEWS? Decentralize the single source from where the NEWS is disseminated and split it up into tiny broadcasting sources, each independent in its own right, at which level the sustaining costs are simple, the drive for profits is minimal, and ultimately, the NEWS is free of sensation, prejudice and bias. But how can a single provider of information be split up into tiny entities, without losing its core values (if there are any remaining, even)? And the answer, Franchises. What McDonalds or a Pizza Hut is to food business, a New York Times or a Hindu should be to local franchises, in essence, the parent company acts only as the aggregator and disseminator of information, while the majority of leg work, the gathering of the NEWS, is done by local individual franchises. This is where the internet comes in. Since technology has made communication faster, for a far cheaper price, wisdom lies in shifting the operation from traditional newsprint to bits and bytes, where the chances to remain fair and balanced, without succumbing to pressures and expectations of the marketplace, are much more, since the self-defeating need for greed is not as pronounced in this form. When the costs are less and profits are negligible, the business virus would automatically detach itself from the NEWS host, allowing it to return to where it all started - being a platform for sensibility and sensitivity, serving up a view of the world that is fair and just.

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