Etymology of the word ESSAY: 1597, "short non-fiction literary composition" (first attested in writings of Francis Bacon, probably in imitation of Montaigne), from M.Fr. essai "trial, attempt, essay," from L.L. exagium "a weighing, weight," from L. exigere "test," from ex- "out" + agere apparently meaning here "to weigh." The suggestion is of unpolished writing. Essayist is from 1609. The more literal verb meaning "to put to proof, test the mettle of" is from 1483; this sense has mostly gone with the divergent spelling assay (q.v.).
Gentler souls have often dissuaded me from writing about the Media: apparently, it is one of the “Three Holy Cows” of Indian society that mustn’t dare be criticized (the other two, if you’re interested, are the Judiciary and Religion- in that order); consequently, the ideal relationship- infact, the only relationship- one can have with the media has got to be one of abject adulation: with one’s lips firmly puckered to its butt even if it decides with all solemnity to shit all over one’s face.
Forgive the scatological imagery but I’ve been there only too often to know what I’m talking about: even before the Central Bureau of Implication (more commonly known as the CBI) charged me with murdering a political-nobody whom I hadn’t heard of before, a news channel, Aaj Tak, had graphically shown me- or atleast an actor who was suppose to look like me- committing the crime in cold blood in its popular primetime program “Hatyara Kaun?” (Who is the Killer?). I suppose it doesn’t make any difference that the Court ultimately acquitted me after I had spent exactly one year locked up in jail. I mean what’s a person’s life compared to TRPs, right?
There are those who see this phenomenon- of a hyperactive media- as Progress: the Fourth Estate, after all, gives Voice to the People. That is indeed true. But the more important question is what kind of ‘people’- and why?
THE NNS SYNDROME
To understand, let’s look back at the last Lok Sabha Election (2004). The mainstream media was unanimous in its prediction that the NDA would return to power with an absolute majority; as a corollary, its rival, the UPA, was slated to be wiped out. When the exact opposite happened, the erudite journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, then political correspondent of NDTV, introspected that ‘it was the duty of the media to disbelieve; and we didn’t’. Disbelieve who?
I suppose he meant politicians. Or more specifically, the propaganda-machinery headed by the late Pramod Mahajan with its hard-selling of the NDA’s “India Shining” campaign. This machinery was cleverly named ‘National News Service’ (NNS) when infact it functioned solely as the ‘NDA’s News Service’. For one thing, it had more professional journalists and reporters on its payrolls than any other news organization in the nation (the Times of India group included). In Chhattisgarh, for instance, it was headed by Ramesh Nayyar, a former editor with the Chandigarh Tribune. Many, like my father, considered him to be the very embodiment of Nehruvian Socialism. After his stint with NNS, he has now become the principal ideologue of Dr. Raman Singh’s government.
NNS had seemingly unlimited resources and a remarkably sophisticated infrastructure at its command to conduct its massive media-blitzkrieg: Feel Good comprised only one part of its operation; a far more lethal side involved making its enemies Feel- and look- Bad. Its CCTV-wired hi-tech headquarters located on the third floor of Delhi’s posh Dhawandeep Apartment building were filled with dossiers containing damaging propaganda on virtually anyone who was considered a threat to the NDA: ‘target-specific’ websites mushroomed in seconds; passwords were hacked and emails intercepted; a virtual cyber war was waged. Even more curiously, millions were raised from the ‘Overseas Friends of the BJP’ and other similar sounding associations of sympathetic NRIs: this extraordinary largesse might well be symptomatic of an émigré’s effort to ‘rationalize’ (again, forgive the Freudian analysis) a deep-rooted sense of guilt- a feeling that springs from having left one’s Motherland for a better life elsewhere- by funneling money into the BJP’s oft-voiced ultra-patriotic agenda of making India ‘Great’ (presumably by annexing Pakistan, Srilanka, Nepal, Myanmar and Afghanistan into an amalgam called ‘Akhand Bharat’).
More conventionally, hundreds of crores of rupees were spent on buying ‘television talktime’, and ‘coverage space’ in the print media. All of this with one very convenient rider: they weren’t suppose to be shown as paid-advertisements; but as neutral, objective ‘news’, ‘surveys’ and ‘exit polls’. Any reference to their being sponsored was reduced to fine print one could barely read; later, many news organizations dispensed with even this fig-leaf.
Under these circumstances, it would be foolish to expect the media- well, most of it anyway- not to simply play along. Unfortunately for the NNS, the People didn’t.
FOIE GRAS, ANYONE?
Now, supposing that the media provides the interface between the People and their politicians, telling the former what to think and the latter what to do, the Lok Sabha results meant that the People were simply not taking this carpet-bombardment of ‘news’, ‘surveys’ and ‘exit polls’ seriously: after all, they didn’t do what the media was telling them to do, i.e., vote back the NDA to power. For a majority of Indians, most of who continue to live outside cities, “India Shining” didn’t make any sense at all: many of them genuinely believed that six years of NDA’s rule had led to their pauperization; to put it differently, the rich had gotten richer while the poor had been, well, forgotten.
It was the media’s job to tell this to Mr. Mahajan. It didn’t. Instead, it believed Mr. Mahajan’s NNS machinery, and parroted word for word what he was saying. Maybe, this was because the media itself had no idea how the people really felt?
Here, let’s stop to look at the United States, where Gallup Polls are far a more evolved ‘science’: in 2000, barring Rupert Murdoch’s ‘conservative’ media-empire (including the Fox TV network), everybody had predicted an Al Gore win; likewise, most of the ‘liberal media’ was not in favor of President George W. Bush’s comeback in 2004. The Economist sought to explain this ‘disjunction’- between the Press and the People of the world’s sole superpower- in terms of: ‘exurbias’. A vast majority of those who lined up to vote for ‘W.’ didn’t live in the big cities: they lead self-contented, some might say insular, lives in nice, little, self-contained townships that are coming up all over North America. Sociologists see this phenomenon as part of the larger ‘exodus’ from big, overcrowded, over-polluted, crime-infested, possibly even ‘immoral’ cities, and a yearning to return to the Jeffersonian vision of yore (as opposed to the Hamiltonian one); hence, I guess, the term exurbias. The genius of Mr. Bush’s campaign team- and more specifically, its manager, Karl Rove- lies in identifying and ‘reaching out’ to these extremely significant entities who were in a way fleeing the negative effects of ‘the liberal ethos’ that has come to grip most big cities, and which were largely neglected by the mainstream media.
As it turns out, this explanation provides a rather perceptive insight into the predicament of India’s Press. All that needs to be done is to replace the term ‘exurbia’ with ‘villages’ and ‘townships’. While India may live- or which is more likely, die- in her villages, its media is ensconced in the cool comforts of its blooming cities. Editors who shot to fame telling the world about starvation deaths in remote parts of Assam are now happily pontificating on the virtues of goose liver making the best foie gras. Perhaps, it would be unfair to blame them entirely for this. The fact is that news about what’s happening outside the metros doesn’t sell. It’s simply not profitable for the corporations, who now own most of the media and almost certainly, cough-up all of its advertisement-revenue (next only to Government- which fact led Noam Chomsky to call media ‘bludgeons of democratic governments’): how many villagers, after all, are rushing to buy Coca Cola when they have to worry about getting work to pay for their next meal?
One boy gets himself stuck in a well in a town near Delhi on a Sunday (which is a relatively ‘news-free’ day), and the entire national media goes agog: in minutes, crores of rupees are generated in SMSs and ‘relief funds’. On the other hand, hundreds of tribals are being killed in the Dantewada district of south Bastar since the inception of Salwa Judum in 2005, and the nation’s biggest magazine- India Today- hasn’t had one word to say about it to date.
Truth be told, there are two Indias really; and the one the media now caters to isn’t the one in which most of our fellow citizens live. In other words, the mainstream media is no longer representative of the nation.
And if that is so, then what- or whom- does the media represent?
End of Part One