By Arnav Das Sharma Nov. 16, 2016
If it isn’t the media’s job to introduce nuance to debate, to question prevailing narratives, to side with the people – all people, and not just the privileged – whose job is it?
Afew months ago, when I met a few school friends for lunch, I was prepared for the usual barbs. You know, the sort where journalists wished they were leading half the glamorous lives we are supposed to be leading, doing cool things. These have been my friends’ stock-in-trade since the time I chose J-school over a B-school. As those of us on the inside know, journalism is neither “cool”, nor does it bring to the majority of us any glamour.
After the usual ritual of hugs, handshakes, and laughter, a friend turned to me and casually remarked how “journalists and intellectuals” have become a rather hazardous category in recent times. His point was, that mediawallahs are consistent in criticising the prime minister over everything. In his words, why did we refuse to see the good our government was doing, and chose instead, to highlight only the ills of the present dispensation? Once the arguments heated up, he delivered a coup d’etat: That journos deserved to be called “presstitutes”, for we are seldom neutral in our reportage. We just refuse to give the government its due.
Presstitute. A pathetic pun coined by Gen VK Singh that has entered our lexicon. I won’t be surprised if, in the following years, Oxford English Dictionary canonises it by incorporating it within its hallowed pages, like that other abomination “YOLO”. But are all the users of “presstitute”, right-wing egg-shaped trolls floating in the ether of social media? My friend, to begin with, is not. He is an articulate man, a MBA from a prestigious business school, works in a posh investment bank, and is interested in world affairs.
He is also one of the most enthusiastic supporters of demonetisation and Aadhar and the most vehement in opposing the entry of Pakistani artists. He loves to wear his patriotism on his sleeve. And it is people like my friend, who have decided that the media has turned against him and the government, that the only “national interest” that matters is the kind that keeps his position in society secured, that every critique of the government must be a “sickular libtard conspiracy”.
As the popularity of right-wing media spaces in our country prove, these disgruntled voices come from a particular demographic: Largely middle-class, young and the middle-aged, and particularly those who have come to believe that Hinduism and Hindus have been given a raw deal and misrepresented by the liberal media. NDTV is the despised poster child of this lot, loosely branded as the anti-Hindu, “communist”, terrorism-supporting ally of the Indian National Congress – which betrays zero knowledge of all the labels accorded to the channel.
The sad fact is that a substantial chunk of India’s populace wants to carve the media in its own image – as populist, brutal, and noisy.
What has fuelled this rapid distrust of mainstream media? Is it because no one in this country, particularly this demographic, tries to understand what the function of a media organisation is? In the aftermath of the Burhan Wani encounter last July and the subsequent eruption of the Kashmir protests, one of the most vocal criticisms of the media was that they were going soft on terrorism; that failure to recognise Wani as a terrorist was a national disservice.
But if it isn’t the media’s job to rise above the chatter, to introduce nuance to the debate, to question the prevailing narrative, to side with the people – all people, and not just those who belong to privilege – whose job is it?
This distrust mirrors what we’ve witnessed in the recent past in the US. In the run-up to the presidential election last year, every media organisation that did not support the Republican agenda, or side with their demagogic candidate, was branded “liberal”. And if you’d been tuned into the debates, you’d know that that’s not a pleasant term.
The sad fact is that a substantial chunk of India’s populace wants to carve the media in its own image – as populist, brutal, and noisy. We have traded spectacle for nuance.
In this case, Raj Kamal Jha’s excellent vote of thanks, made during Ramnath Goenka Awards last year – to maintain our credibility in the face of “selfie journalism” – cuts through the noise. It is reminiscent of Edward Said’s famous point made during his Reith Lectures: That the role of an intellectual and journalist, is to speak truth to power. In all of the noise it is easy to forget that unchallenged elected representatives can sometimes become dictators: Remember that the Nazis did not storm to power, and neither did they usurp it. They were elected.
As was Donald Trump. But it is instructive to see the way that their media has handled the rise of Donald Trump. During the initial years of campaign, they considered it a joke and treated him the same way. But as he grew stronger (and part of his campaign strategy revolved around using the negative publicity to his benefit) the liberal media suddenly realised its mistake.
From then on, through sustained campaigns and exposes – from traditional media outlets like New York Times’ excellent work in uncovering his dubious tax records or the Washington Post’s explosive revelation of the now infamous “Trump Tape” and talk show hosts like Bill Maher and John Oliver – the billionaire-demagogue’s election campaign imploded. Since his election, there has been a sustained scrutiny on him – on his expenses, his handling of international affairs, and his ties with Russia.
If Trump is eventually brought down from his position as the leader of the free world, you’ll know who to thank. The media, for doing its job.
This is an updated version of an article published earlier.
Arnav Das Sharma is an independent journalist and a doctoral fellow at the Delhi School of Economics. He writes on cinema, literature, caste politics and music. He is currently working on his first novel.