The Media Question

A leaflet issued by CORRESPONDENCE & RADICAL NOTES

Admittedly it has been an old problem with most movements, that they have treated the media only as a means to an end, ‘a way of making themselves heard,’ and so long as they got some coverage with the help of conscientious friends within the media, they were satisfied. The larger dynamics of the media, as a certain sort of work, in a certain sort of work place, with human agents who are workers here, has not been addressed. Newspapers and news channels should be and can be the strongest arms of a democratic society; they can make sure that the voice of the people finds representation. Though cliché, one has to point out how the media can raise difficult questions, but the onus is upon journalists as responsible citizens and in their capacity as workers to raise them.

The decidedly undemocratic tenor of mainstream newspapers and news channels, whose editorial bosses seem to be dummies through which the state on the one hand and multinational capital on the other preach their doctrines, is not merely a sign of the larger move away from democratic values, but also of the way in which journalism is becoming an alienated activity. Responsible journalism, bent upon bringing out the democratic truth languishes as the unholy nexus of the state and moneyed interest decides the ‘line’ of a newspaper. The inability of journalists to raise their voices against recent pay-cuts in houses like The Times of India (TOI) is not unconnected from the destruction of democratic space within journalism and mass media.  Both of these get subsumed in the large movement away from true democracy – maximization of profit that a few make, in the last analysis determines all these tendencies.  That is to say that the general antipathy to democratic movements visible in the lack of  honest media coverage and an anti-people, non-democratic shift in the Indian situation at large not only go hand in hand but are also born out of the same tendencies.

Where do we see all this? For one, in the highly disproportionate coverage of various people’s movements by mainstream media. For instance, the space/airtime given to non-violent movements like Narmada Bachao or in Tehri is negligible. One could argue that violent movements catch the media’s attention more, but they are nonetheless covered very selectively. The struggles in the North East against AFSPA are barely covered. No true attempt to understand ULFA or LTTE is to be found in the mainstream, no attempt to go to the depths of the issue and to not simply report (reinforce) the state’s position. While the many social activists who have done serious work in the North East, J&K, or Chattisgarh report the excesses and violence committed by the paramilitary, Special Police Officers or the Salwa Judum on innocents, it is only rarely, if ever, mentioned by the media. At the moment though, with the Maoists taking centre stage on the front pages of newspapers and on prime time news, one cannot complain on grounds of quantity. But on grounds of quality, even here there is a lot to be said.

It has been assumed that the Maoist movement is not a mass movement; it’s only a bunch of ‘outsiders’ imposing themselves upon hapless tribes. The absurdity of the ‘outsider’ clause becomes obvious if one spares a moment’s thought to the way in which they function. The nature and width of their activities could not have been made possible without mass support. This is not the place to substantiate this assertion. What one needs to recognize at the primary level is that this is an open question and needs to be treated as such. If it is an open question with many opinions, the least the media can do is give space to these opinions, and accept the complex nature of the issue.  It might be pointed out that the debate shows on news-channels do bring in people of different opinions. However, a closer look at the dynamics of these shows will demonstrate how easily the biases of the mainstream hijack the entire debate. The newer, uncommon opinion cannot be expressed in the 10 seconds given to the participants, unlike the hegemonic narrative that we are all so familiar with. This inability to say everything in the imposed time limit is read as the lack of substance in these new voices, and a consensus on the issue is ‘created’.

Arnab Goswami is a good example. He seems to have found answers to all questions posed by him on his show. Furthermore, his show is an exercise in forcing his moment of epiphany upon others. ‘Mr. Varavara Rao, is Kobad Gandhy an ideologue or a terrorist, ideologue or terrorist, yes or no?’ We need to move beyond these multiple choice questions – reality is more layered than the media’s projection of it. We can all do with some thinking, including our editor-in-chief. Arnabism is actually symbolic of the lack of depth, and the fear of depths that haunts the journalism of big news houses. Maoist violence is highlighted again and again, often with cheap melodrama (showing the lack of humanity implicit in this form of reporting) as if it exists in a vacuum. Such portrayal denudes an act of its nature as an utterance, which responds to a situation (possibly another violent act on the state’s part) and is informed by necessities of a spatio-temporal/socio-political position. In the same way the struggles for self-determination are defined only in terms of their separatist or fundamentalist tendencies’, (one could go out on a limb and suggest that the refusal to understand or explain Islamic violence, as something more than madness or blood-thirstiness is a sign of the same problem). Just touching the surface, there too a very small section of the surface, the mainstream media presents it to its consumers (for that is what passive reception is) as the entire reality, the sole and complete truth.

It needs to be understood, and this cannot be stated any other way, that the media is responsible for manufacturing consent for war. It has taken the state’s call for war forward by eliminating dissenting voices within. In addition to several other things, the majoritarian nature of the media poses serious questions about any semblance of internal democracy. We have to make a choice between pushing for greater democracy within and allowing ourselves to get subsumed in the state’s narrative. If we choose the latter then we need to question the idea of journalism being ‘free and fair’ and see it as an instrument in the hands of a few who hold power and seek to keep it in their hands.

It is not only that journalists should try and understand the crucial position they can occupy in the struggles of the people. It is important for them to place themselves within these struggles, for even if they try to ‘keep out,’ their attempt to exclude themselves becomes the shape of their inclusion. It is never somebody else’s fight, it is always our own. In the final analysis journalists are nothing but (whether high paid or low) workers working under the imposition of capital, continuously losing control over their own work, unable to determine the conditions of their own existence.

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