The Hour Of Destiny For The Print Media
Serious concerns have currently been voiced all over India about the mission of the media in a critical situation or while enquiring into some vital matters. The electronic media’s conduct, practically unchallenged during the first phase of its much-awaited advent in our country, had come under suspicion before long, thanks to its gross amour for commercialism. But the suspicion matured into various degrees of displeasure at its gradual descent into sensationalism. Particularly its action that was obviously a kind of reflex action—during the Mumbai terror practically rang an alarm about the effect of the mechanical spontaneity with which it could function, while setting out to cover the scene of a crisis that had far reaching consequences.
This should be an opportune moment for we the people for whom the media exists and by whom it thrives, to also reflect on the role of media as a whole in our life vis-à-vis our role in patronising it. I focus on the print media. It seems we the people have developed a gargantuan appetite for news. This writer, before he could find any publisher for his creative exercises, had been presented to the readers by journals and magazines like The Illustrated Weekly of India and the imprint, among others. Where are they now? Where are the Sunday literary pages in most of the prominent English newspapers? Barring one or two, how many of them carry short stories, poems and belles-lettres? Who will bring a creative writer to the notice of the public today? A plethora of news magazines had swallowed up all the literary journals. Luckily it is still different with papers in non-English languages in India.
Primarily we the readers are to blame, though it may be argued, following the age-old chicken-first-or-egg-first enigma, whether the print media slowly soiled the readers’ taste or it only pampered the readers by dishing out to them the stuff of their choice. The blame obviously must be shared by both. But a vital difference cannot be ignored. It is the Press that is the active party in this relationship; the readers are the passive party.
What is it that altered the posture of the Press? A very serious observation has been made by a veteran member of the fraternity, Hiranmay Karlekar, a former editor of The Hindustan Times: “What is happening can only be described as the colonisation of the print media by television. The latter is imposing its culture on the former in the same way colonial powers imposed theirs on the colonised. Even when they do not have supplements, pull-outs and special and regular features relating to television, they are acquiring the latter’s orientation towards entertainment in a competitive market whose ethos are increasingly influenced by television. The more serious publications still involve themselves in serious discourse. They too however are changing and, in an environment in which people demand to be continuously entertained and want to avoid thinking, their role as media of critical discourse is liable to be overshadowed by their role as media of entertainment. The minority of readers who are interested in the more serious parts of newspapers like editorials, reflective editorial page articles, book reviews and in-depth articles in Sunday magazines, are rapidly becoming fewer in relation to the total readership. …The trend is destined to gain further momentum. As the market economy has society more completely in its grip, people drained by the effort to hold their own in an increasingly competitive environment, are increasingly inclined to seek nothing but entertainment outside working hours.” (“The Media Evolution, Role and Responsibilities” in Looking Back: India in the Twentieth Century edited by NN Vohra and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya)
If this contemptuous situation is true even potentially if not literally, it is crucial that the print media makes a thorough introspection of itself and liberates itself from the witch-hold of the glitzy and illegitimate colonisers.
What is the character of the latter? Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar defines television viewing as “the Indian drug of choice” and whoever is not addicted to it will find no exaggeration in the definition. It is in vain that we can hope for this upstart prodigal of the media world to change its approach towards its viewers who are to it nothing more than a gold mine to be exploited. But the readers’ relationship with the print media, going back to more than a century, had certain sanctity about it. For the masses of the vast Indian readership the printed word is still trustworthy. It can and should continue to be so if the Press takes the state of affairs created by its electronic counterpart as a challenge and stick to its Swadharma, its commitment to sanity and objectivity. It will be cynical to believe that the majority of readers and viewers have lost their taste for serious matters; often they tolerate the superficial, the cheap and even the vulgar, because they cannot do away with their interest in the items that are news, and views they cannot do without knowing.
This is also the moment when a regenerated Press can courageously correct its past errors to become the true alternative to the clout that had usurped much of its territory. No doubt the power of the print media is no longer what it was once upon a time. But it should remember that in the heyday of its undiluted authority it did not always promote the cause of truth. While it performed the role of a great unifier of people in regard to information, once in a while it also unified them in exercising a fatal prejudice championed by it. Take for example the role Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolf Hearst’s New York Journal played in 1898 when the US interest in Cuba was greatly hampered by its Spanish rulers. The two papers did their best to excel each other in sensationalising Spanish brutality against both the natives and the Americans settled in Cuba to a degree when a reluctant President, McKinley, was obliged to despatch the battleship Maine to Havana. As an explosion destroyed the ship killing all 266 of its crew, the two papers vied with each other in ‘proving’ that it was the handiwork of a Spanish submarine. It was primarily their assertion which very much suited the mass sentiments of the time that made US declare war with Spain. Hearst sent correspondents and a gifted artist Frederick Remington to report the valiant war fought by the Cuban patriots against the Spanish. But by the time the team arrived on the spot, there were no visible conflicts to be sketched. Remington wired Hearst, “No war seen. Request to be recalled.” Pat went Hearst’s all-time classic response: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures. I will furnish the war.”
And that is what Hearst did. He even produced a sketch of the submarine showing how it sabotaged the Maine. It was only in 1976 that the US Navy’s research indicated the explosion to have been caused not by any enemy action but by an accident in its magazine store. (The outcome of the uneven war of course was a bonanza for the US. It took over Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.)
If the impact of newspapers had been diluted today, it is not simply because of their proliferation and the emergence of the electronic media, but because of an impression being formed, gradually but steadily, that they do not care for the sense of dignity of their readers and the very fundamental values, not necessarily moralistic ones, that identify a harmony of ideas governing the collective relationship in the society. Here is an illustration of this unfortunate trend in journalism. In September 2006 the administration of a women’s college in Chandigarh prohibited the use of mobile phones during the class hours. This infuriated the young ladies and they at once went on a spree of destruction, smashing flower pots, glass windows and sundry properties of the institution. A TV channel covered their bravado elaborately and focused prominently on the most militant one among them. We wonder how the guardians of the heroine took it. We should expect them to have felt at least embarrassed. But then strikes the irony. The young lady had hardly entered home when telephone from an upcoming Mumbai director informed her that he had chosen her to play the heroine in his large-budget film in the offing!
A big newspaper that had printed the picture of the chaos at the college excitedly informed the readers of this marvellous development. It did so several times under different pretexts, claiming credit for being the first to highlight the event and hurried to inform us that the lady had requested them to thank the TV channel concerned.
Nobody would feel surprised at a film director’s strategy to gain a million-rupee publicity complimentary. We are rather pleasantly surprised whenever a sense of social accountability is marked in them, but we are surely disappointed at the newspaper abdicating its unwritten commitment not to glorify rowdiness.
This sort of gross and unabashed credit-hunting is a big loss to the people and the newspapers. The people need a credible media and the TV channels, however alluring or apparently influential, cannot qualify for that honour. The Press needs a readership that trusts it for fulfilling its social responsibility. Indeed, it will be sad if we view this statement of relationship as a truism or platitude. Certain truths do not change. What Henry Wickham Steed, a distinguished editor of The Times wrote in 1938 in his classic work on the discipline of journalism entitled The Press, and what Lindsay Ross, Director of Commonwealth Press Union said while visiting The Hindu office in May 2008, are separated by eventful seven decades, but united in their warning that is of prime importance. Wrote the former, “The underlying principle that governs, or should govern, the Press is that the gathering and selling of news and views is essentially a public trust…The same kind of trust is implied in the relationship between a doctor and his patients…But the dishonest doctor can harm, at worst, only a few dozen or a few score patients, while a dishonest journalist may poison the minds of hundreds or thousands or millions of his fellow men.”
And said Ross, “It is absolutely imperative for every journalist to self-analyse and self-reflect on a regular basis…When you have relative freedom for a long time, it is very easy to fall into the trap of complacency. The most important thing for a journalist is responsibility. Without that we are nothing.”
Now is the moment of destiny for the print media to reassert trust.
(The writer is internationally recognised and is the recipient of Sahitya Akademi Award and Padmashri Award.)
By Manoj Das