An underplayed aspect of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film The Post was the role of the New York Times and its reporter Neil Sheehan in acquiring the Pentagon papers. So when I watched the film I couldn’t help but think that THAT was the real story, even though the Washington Post lapped it up after an injunction from Nixon prevented NYT from publishing further.
In retrospect, though, I see the Post’s continued pursuit of the Pentagon papers, even if it was out of competition, as perhaps the greater, more prescient message for our times. That though competing with each other is a crucial aspect of journalism, the broader principles of responsibility and conduct must remain the same, so that journalism not only survives, but remains relevant; something that can only be accomplished by solidarity.
We live in the age of the clickbait model. Traffic is king, and stories are pursued on the basis of possible impressions on the web rather than merit, so much so that websites now offer writers extra money for clicks. On the one hand, though the web has democratised the press, it has also created entities that are basically anti-press, in terms of essence and ethic. Inevitably, a revolution on one hand has eroded principles on the other and led to a media that is more divided than ever before.
In such a scenario, faith in the best practices of journalism and everyone’s right to pursue it, becomes crucial. Which begs the question: Will the media stand up for the right of others to speak? Are we capable of solidarity in this day and age of vetted “exclusives” and “apolitical discussions” with the Prime Minister? Even if it comes at the cost of traffic, views, and TRPs?
More importantly, can this solidarity overcome the class divide in Indian journalism?
The English press automatically gets more mindshare than regional, reducing vernacular journalists to numbers that appear on Impunity indices even though the essence of what they do is perhaps more important than what the English media does. Two years ago when NDTV chairperson Prannoy Roy’s house was raided by the CBI, the Press Club overflowed with journalists, both young and veterans in support. But when vernacular journalists like Jagendra Singh or Sudip Datta Bhowmik die, the solidarity is neither as immediate nor as forceful in scale (yes, we had to Google them too). It is only in their deaths that their work gets highlighted.
In a scathing report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2016, a lack of solidarity among India’s journalists is listed as one of the reasons its institutions have become so corruptible or weak. The competition most media houses have is healthy only as long as the competition is for the right reasons – and not to gain access or leverage the possible perks of selling yourself short to politicians or corporate magnates.
Will the media stand up for the right of others to speak? Are we capable of solidarity in this day and age of vetted “exclusives” with the Prime Minister? Even if it comes at the cost of traffic, views, and TRPs?
Perhaps the most damning evidence of this is the unwillingness of people in the profession to stand up for each other.
During the gag-order trial on The Wire, for a story related to Jay Shah, Amit Shah’s son, only a handful of publications attempted to pursue the story on their own. They might have reported updates on the trial, but hardly a finger was lifted to follow up – or maybe even quash – The Wire’s findings with some organic reporting. Had a large number of institutions pursued the story, stalling its progress wouldn’t have been as easy; the simple idea of making the target bigger. A similar thing happened when Caravan magazine put out the explosive investigation into Justice Loya’s death: It was days before any publication picked up the threads of the story.
Giving up on stories is one thing, but giving up on the lives and careers of your peers is another.
Hardly any institutions have come out in support of journalists like Ravish Kumar, Rachna Khaira, or Swathi Vadlamudi. Freelancers and vernacular journalists have it worse. Independent journalists working in Naxalite regions like Bastar hardly receive any support from those in Delhi. Those working in Kashmir can barely rely on their counterparts in the metros to carry their stories, forget having their backs.
It is not important here to agree with the politics, an op-ed, or an opinion. But to agree on the right to freedom of speech, safety, and the right to pursue stories.
In an age where political empires are built on misdirection, misinformation, and fake news, it should be the norm that the fourth estate comes together and agrees on one thing – the sanctity of the task at hand, irrespective of where they are in sales, money, pecking order, or quality. Journalism in America, for example, is haunted by a similar spectre of a call for unity.
Senior journalists have thus called for a unified front to tackle the government’s divisive tactics of turning one institution against the other. It hasn’t helped much, if the reaction to comedian Michelle Wolf, who dropped bomb after bomb at the White House Correspondents Dinner last year is any indication. As a Washington Post editorial put it: “Wolf called the Trump administration out for tearing down democracy. Then, the people who are supposed to care most about holding autocrats to account called her out in turn for, essentially, not being chummy enough. That persistent chumminess is why Wolf’s performance, in the end, wasn’t really for the press. It was about us. ‘You guys love breaking news, and you did it,’ Wolf said to CNN. ‘You broke it.’… Which means Wolf did a better job of defending the First Amendment than those who say that’s our business.”
Of course, our concerns in India have a lot to do with personal, physical safety, which the media in America doesn’t have to worry so much about.
Journalists who work to expose corruption and malpractice are the ones living the loneliest lives. It must be the prerogative of their peers to ensure they have support in times of need. Because let’s not forget that the tipping point in The Post wasn’t the court’s ruling in the press’ favour, but the fact that several papers followed the Post’s lead in publishing the Pentagon papers.
In doing so, reinstating faith in the fourth estate’s core principle – competition notwithstanding – the tenets of journalism should remain incontrovertibly the same. Which is possible only if we stand up for each other’s right to speak. Even if we believe the other is wrong. So we can stand together the day we are right.