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

Newspapers had it made for more than half a century, before the marketplace madness started to corrode their credibility. The smoke filled board rooms and dust filled store rooms would speak volumes of all the actions that made up real news reporting - gathering, filtering, judging, deciding and finally printing. The number of levels that were put in place between gathering and printing made sure that only such news items that bubbled its way up the thinking heads' ladder earned its right to occupy the finite real estate in the fourth estate. Two things worked majorly newspapers during their halcyon days - premium on space and lack of immediacy. And it is in this second arena, immediacy, that the newspapers are getting clobbered by its brash brother, the latest entrant to the game, the 24 hrs news coverage on the TV, and ultimately would redefine the way newspapers think about news reporting. The point when all news reporting started to climb down the credibility hill can be traced back to the exact moment when CNN announced the world's first 24 hr news channel - ALL NEWS ALL THE TIME, and suddenly both the handicaps that newspapers had to contend with, space and time, turned in the TV's favor, with its seemingly unlimited bandwidth (talk time) to devote to issues, and all that, while the events were unfolding in front of the eyes. Like it is always with the inventions started off with good intentions that somehow can't seem to shake off unwanted side effects (dynamite, splitting of the atom), not many could foresee the damaging effects of the 24 hrs news, beyond the space and time advantages. And the kind of reporting received even more impetus, when for the first time in the history of human civilization, a war was beamed live (if you can discount Sanajaya's running commentary on the Kuruskhetra war to Drutharashtra), together with the commercial interruptions, to millions of households first during the Gulf war in 1991 when US drove Iraq out of Kuwait. It was hailed as the greatest moment in television broadcast history, beating out Neil Armstrong's baby steps on the moon. What more could be proud moment for a country, when the entire world turned up as an audience to American mighty military histrionics, enacted on the global stage, broadcasted by an American network, with reporters on the ground and commentators in the studio, playing diligently the role of the stage hands. Hail the American spectacle!

The 24hr news cycle couldn't hope for a better advertisement - all's well that started well. And it really thrived when it had something substantial to report on - the 9/11 tragedy, the natural disasters round the globe, and the like. But what about the off-days, the one that White House fondly dubs as the "Taking out the trash days", when there is nothing important to report on, no pressing issue to talk about, nothing of any consequence on the horizon to spin yarns about. It is with this issue that the 24hrs news cycle turned on itself, diminishing its own role, undercutting its own importance. The problem was it never knew how/when to shut itself up, and its own advantage over the newspaper became its own undoing. There is a childhood story that comes to mind which applies quite aptly to this predicament. Vexed up with the tirades and the offensives launched by the wife for not sharing his part of the duties and the responsibilities, a magician husband conjures up a workaholic genie and gifts it to his wife on her birthday. The genie would patiently patiently perform any and every task assigned to it without any grouse, and the wife couldn't be any happier of her husband's thoughtful gift. There's however a catch (isnt' there always?) though - the genie has to have something assigned to it to keep it engaged, and that means, all 24 hours, 7 days, 365 days. Otherwise it would turn on its own masters. Clean the entire house - blink of an eye, do all the chores - snap of a finger, till the arable land - without breaking the sweat. Every few minutes the genie would return to the wife with a 'now what' expression, and even before the end of the first day with her new toy, the wife realizes that the gift of the genie was more than what she bargained for. (Catching on to the similarity here?) Like the Eagles' 'Hotel California' song, 'you can always check in, you can never check out', the 24hr news became an unwitting, unwanted, unwelcomed guest in every household that no one can seem to uninvite anymore. At least the magician in the parable above was smart enough to think on his feet and assign the genie the task of straightening his dog's crooked tail, thus getting rid of the problem for good. Is there even such a reset button to the shut off this (dis)information spew, or has it sailed past the fail safe point? But what has the news cycle done to become the most reviled innovation from being the most revered just a little more than a decade ago?

To answer that question, let's stick to the basic rule of any investigation - follow the money - and that automatically would lead to the motivation. Fair enough. Imagine the scenario of a rich entrepreneur willing to start a new 24hr news channel (like the umpteen that mushroomed all over the cable space in the past few years). Rather than try to second guess the motives and reverse engineer the machinations of the existing media houses, a clearer understanding of the practices of fledgling news network to eke out a living in the current marketplace would help grasp the key reasons behind the contribution of the electronic media to the downfall of news reporting. So the moneybags are in place to bankroll a new channel. Before plunking down the first penny, the powers that be usually decide upon a mission statement. No, this is not that mission statement that is released to the press, as to how it would uphold the values and ethics of journalism and work steadfastly on the side of the people in the constant pursuit of the truth. This mission statemetn is more the promise that it makes to the insiders, particularly its investors. What is it that the founder of the network precisely promises his investors - that no matter the cost or consequence, the network would always place the news above the business, even it means going against the vested interests of its own investors? Or would it be fair to assume that the founder promises the investors to have their investment recouped in no time, and more, get paid top dividend from time to time, just like any other business would promise to its investors? After all, who would want to see their investments employed for losing/charitable causes, unless explicitly expressed so. So, news organization or otherwise, the investors are in the game for the returns (monetary or political). And before anyone knew, the network is in the market fighting for survival, elbowing and edging out of the competition like in any other business, except here, quality does not always come out on the top, as the consumer is in the market for an altogether different commodity, when shopping for news - entertainment, and not mere information. And the race is one of how best to mix entertainment and information, in a way that is seductive and addictive, and whoever has the right formula wins the game.

Why and how did it come down to this, is a different argument for another day. Obviously, the first network that did this, becoming wildly successful in the process, opened the Pandora's box forcing the other networks to follow suit. The name of the game became how to sugar coat the bitter pill of even the most boring news with a wistful taste of entertainment, so as to appeal to the end audience better. Take any news program on any news network and observe if the aim of the program is to entertain or to inform. The motivation of the network is pretty simple. The more people tune in, the greater the popularity; the greater the popularity, the madder is the rush of the companies to book the advertising slots, and thereby, more revenue. There are no hidden angles here to see through the game. If the news dissemination operation is indeed a business enterprise, then none of what the channels resort to, to attract more viewers, would seem as unfair, unholy or unjust. After all, the same practices are widespread in other sectors - propaganda, falsification, exaggeration, over-simplification and many such. How many businesses in the world have thrived on honesty and integrity alone without ever walking on the wrong side of the road even once? So why all this venom towards news organizations alone? What is exceptional business acumen, to increase revenue and profits in other sectors, is pandering and fear-mongering in the news business? Why this double standard? The answer is simple. News reporting is not and should never be treated on par with any other regular business in the first place. News is public property in the public domain and should not be profited upon. News enterprises should be always non-profit in nature like any other philanthropic or charitable organization, equipped with only enough revenue to cover the operating costs, as clearly there seems to be a conflict of interests between profits and news, profits and public welfare.

This discrimination between news business and the rest is primarily because of the former's far reaching influence and the effect that it has on its consumers, well beyond what is normally applicable and accepted to any other business. As an example, consider the news story that made rounds a few years ago that a certain soft drink had traceable amounts of pesticides in it, and therefore harmful for consumption. Had this been played outside of the television arena, the company would have quickly recalled its product, sent it for lab analysis, published the findings that disproved the false allegations, set the PR wheels in motion and went about its way. And what about the recent case of another wild accusation hurled at another corporate house of orchestrating the death of sitting chief minister, where the news channels went overboard amping up the decibel level on this incredulous story picked up from a tabloid site. In both the cases, losses to the tune of the millions were incurred by the companies below the flames were contained. It needs to be argued, in what other line of business can such inflammable statements be made and stories be concocted with impunity and with all the credibility of the accuser in tact at the end of it all. Which makes it even stronger a case to regulate the news business and bring it under the non-profit umbrella.

Sensationalism became a short cut to success, when dealing with the news stories. The tags 'explosive', 'breaking news', 'investigative', 'hidden camera' became synonymous for sensationalism as the news is angled more to titillate the viewers than to educate. Inciting, infuriating and inflaming became the standard tools (tricks) of the trade leaving sensitivity, restraint and objectivity long behind. The objective of the game became how best to polarize the audience by taking the extreme stand points, pitting people on both sides of the fence against each other, one to defend and the other to attack. And lost in all the verbal jousts and shout fests packaged in the form of opinions and reports that surreptitiously push through the agendas of the corporate backers, is the original noble intention of the news, which is to inform and ultimately educate the viewer of the issue. Amid all the cacophony, what becomes of the naive, nascent, young, gullible and impressionable viewer who starts getting his share of the social ways and political plays of the world through the only source of news known to him - the TV? The situation looks bleak with no signs of any improvement, and worse, there seems to be nothing around to stop him from turning either into a cynic who is completely disillusioned with the system or a rabid ideologue who can view the world only through the monochromatic lens of good/bad, right/wrong, with nothing in between. Both these situations are equally undesirable, particularly at this time when today's youth have already turned their backs on anything that is remotely connected to politics. Can't this vicious cycle of self-perpetuating half-truths and hard opinions be broken and things be returned to more moderate middle ground? The solution is quite simple, and all that it needs is the discipline to stick with it. The viewer, on whom majority of the onus resides, has to own up to his own viewing habits and attack the channels where it hurts most - their money purses. Turn off/away from the networks that constantly practice polarization and remain fixated on wedge issues, just to aggravate the viewer, without offering any kind of workable solution to what they perceive as an issue. The reason why the networks turned into propagandists, money, should be the same reason why they should bring back sanity to their mad cap proceedings. In the current crowded marketplace of constantly warring opinions, the viewer has to seek out other sources of objective, non-opinionated, balanced news reporting which are not influenced by the unholy nexus of corporate agendas and profit motives. Evolution, in the social and corporate world, has proved time and again that mighty empires have met their doom unable to sustain the success built on canards and propaganda. And in the sincere wish that the end is near, objectivity lies patiently waiting in the wings, willing to be rediscovered all over again.


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