What the Media in One Republic Can Learn From Its Counterpart in Another

Unlike the media in the US, Indian TV channels and newspapers have stopped taking risks, preferring instead to toe the establishment’s line.

The US media has stood up to Donald Trump (top), criticising him and his establishment. The same, however cannot be said for Indian media who toe Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s (below) line. Credits: Reuters

A little over 100 days ago, I was having a cup of coffee with the worldly-wise editor of a daily newspaper. This was a few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president. Naturally, we talked about the prospects of dramatic change in the United States – and what all of this would mean for its media.

“There is so much the US media can learn from India’s experiences since 2014,” I had said. My hypothesis: “political outsider” Trump would follow in the footsteps of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in “dealing” with US media.

Three months later, I was right on most fronts – barring the final outcome. And, I have never been so pleased to have been wrong.

Within days of taking charge in May 2014, it became clear that the Modi government would actively discourage open access to the media. Instead, in keeping with its social media strategy that helped it crack the 2014 elections, interaction with the government would follow a scripted and multi-pronged approach. Conventional media was no longer seen as the primary messenger.

Bureaucrats were told that any form of self-publicity would be seen as a deviation from the anonymity civil servants should seek. It has been apparent for some time that Modi, and a few of his cabinet, are the voice and face of government. Barring a few babus on the fence, everyone else has to be – to use a term Modi’s star-studded team will easily understand – faceless “contractors” pushing government project and causes.

This is exactly how it has played out in “Trump’s court”. Denial of access – shutting out the Washington establishment – has been a key theme. Trump himself leads the attack on the US media, berating them on a regular basis. In India, some newspapers and magazines sought to bridge the access gap by transferring Gujarat correspondents to Lutyens’ Delhi. In fact, I remember the editor saying that the US media would do well to transfer foreign correspondents to Washington. You see, such reporters have experience of how to get information from taciturn establishments.

Of course, 100 days later, we know that this hasn’t happened. As David Remnick writes in his seminal piece ‘A Hundred Days of Trump’: “Little about this presidency remains a secret for long… Everyone leaks on everyone else. Rather than demand discipline around him, Trump sits back and watches the results on cable news.” Thanks to these leaks and whistleblowers – both, it must be stressed, are vital for democracy – the US media has served up some spectacular journalism. Many newspapers, TV networks and websites have kept up the pressure on the new regime. They have broken tough stories, despite poor official access and blistering threats from, besides others, the most powerful man in the country.

In fact the media set the tone from the word go. Days after the inauguration, Charlie Savage’s scoop on the Trump presidency planning to reopen CIA “Black Site” prisons led to the controversial policy halting. Subsequently, the New York Times bagged a big scalp: Matthew Rosenberg and Matt Apuzzo broke the story about national security adviser Michael T. Flynn’s inappropriate conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the US.

The Washington Post has also done great work covering the White House, including its much-talked about piece about the ‘Democrats’ inside the White House, by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa. The Los Angeles Times’ sharp six-part editorial, ‘Our Dishonest President’, sent a message, as did the Wall Street Journal’s (belated) attack on Trump’s credibility. Across the Atlantic, the Guardian did a brilliant piece on Trump supporter, data billionaire Robert Mercer, which should be mandatory reading at journalism schools.

I could go on and on, but this is just the tip of a long, exhaustive list spanning all forms of media. The Trump presidency has invigorated journalism – beyond investigations, fact-checking, calling out lies by the US administration, and innovative graphics have become key tools of journalism in the ‘post-truth’ era.

All this must be celebrated.

In India, by contrast, most mainstream media organisations were quick to take the cue from the early denial of access. Those that haven’t, face enormous pressures. Sure, all governments have an antagonistic relationship with the media – that’s how the cookie crumbles. But the current regime goes a step further – it arm-twists promoters of media houses, mostly business establishments that have a neck in the game. The bottom-line: top echelons of the mother-ship RSS, the Modi government, and the BJP are “untouchable”. This pressure goes far beyond the commercial – after all, a self-respecting media firm need not hanker after low-paying government advertising.

The fact is that leadership within the media has been wanting. Editors who used to warn us about the dangers of another Emergency are now extolling the virtues of India’s disrupter/leader/motivator/builder-in-chief. Rather than wearing it like a badge of honour, a media baron remains devastated that his newspaper journalists were criticised by the establishment at a time of churn in its TV operations. Slow burn government investigations and accusations of bias have led to “frozen look-over-the-shoulder” at a TV channel. Of course, there are pockets of good work – but these usually remain underplayed or, worse, starved of oxygen by other media. Media on the internet offers some hope, but its time will come too, I fear.

All told, the Indian media has crawled because it chooses to merge ‘business’ with ‘balance’. This gives it sanction to promote views that are patently unconstitutional and divisive, at a time it should be ferociously defending the rights of all Indians. It has stopped taking risks, an essential requirement for good journalism to thrive. For proof look no further than the absence of submissions by many of our top media houses for investigative journalism awards. Worse, a large number have become cheerleaders for the new regime, ratcheting up temperatures in a “new India”. We will bear the consequences of this media warmongering in days to come.

For Modi, paying lip service to media freedom is easy when the interview questions are pre-scripted. When Trump met the Financial Times‘s Lionel Barber recently, the president said, “You lost, I won” and then proceeded to take all questions.

There is so much all of us can learn from media in the Trump era.

Sunit Arora is a Delhi-based journalist and former managing editor at Outlook magazine.

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  • Siddhartha

    Yes, there is a lot that can be learned from US and Western media but not necessarily what the author had in mind in this article about standing up to authoritarianism.
    First and foremost, barring exceptions, the Indian media lack professional depth and domain expertise, seem quite amateurish and out of depth in their technical understanding. The bottom line, no one bothers to be deeply journalistic as most of them have gone into the comfort zone of electronic media – talking head anchors and breaking news field reporters; feature reporting and documentaries are few and far between. And the continuous barrage of breaking news represents the most shallow form of journalism.
    Secondly the field reportage of our journalists borders on the ridiculous at times and lacks any kind of professional maturity – would any senior journalist of US media go to foreign shores to get negative sound bites on the leader of their nation; or would they go into a war zone and put at risk their own armed forces by the manner and content of their reporting – US media knows how to circle their wagons when they need to on critical national issues – this is something the Indian media can learn.
    Thirdly, why is all our geopolitical perspective coming thru the framework created by the liberal gatekeepers of Western media – we still lack the confidence to take up global issues, and thinktanks in India simply do not matter although there are a few in Delhi.
    Fourthly, most of Indian media is based out of Delhi, so the media-politician nexus is particularly strong. So it is in the United States but Washington media does not dominate the eyeballs of all Americans, as they have important media centers in NYC, LA, Atlanta, Chicago etc. So Delhi could do with some “draining the swamp” to spread media coverage and reduce its obsession with the Central Govt.
    Finally, there are certain things Indian media do not need to learn from the US – remember CNN which is now the liberal flagbearer of Trump opposition was the same erstwhile channel which had continuous jingoistic coverage on the “War in Iraq”. CNBC and MSNBC, the channels which were roundly criticized for being PR machines for Wall Street which led to the phenomena of overheated markets and sub-prime disasters. And not to forget Fox News which gave new meaning to filibustering and biased reporting. And Indian media can also do without the in your face vulgarity that is dished out by many cable channels in the US. So the media is faulty on both sides, any learning needs to be selective and smart, and not copycat.

  • PrabhuGuptara

    Thank you, Sunit Arora, for a brave and precise article.

    Of course, it is true, as you record saying to American colleagues, that America also has a lot to learn from India (and not only in journalism). But one article cannot cover everything, and what you say here badly needed to be said.

    During Indira Gandhi’s Emergency we had brave souls who dared to question her actions but, in spite of that, we mostly had to look to foreign media to learn what was happening in India. In our present “undeclared Emergency” we have at least Indian social media telling us what is really happening in our country but, as you say, that too may come to an end – though I hope not.

    That’s because I hope that those who are now the elite in our country will recognise that their silence (and their silencing of the mainstream media) is destroying not only our mainstream media but also our country. India is too big a country to be run by one man (or woman) and once you muzzle the media, you have no one to tell you the truth; so, however intelligent a leader and her/his coterie may be, their decisions are bound to be less than optimal. Indira Gandhi tried the stupidity of muzzling the press for several months before she realised that she was going the wrong way – even for herself. I wonder how long it will be before Modiji and BJP realise that the freedom to discuss, the freedom to question, and the freedom to dissent, are essential to progress.

    In other words, if any individual, any organisation, or any nation, wishes to progress, that entity has to encourage, privilege, and indeed reward those who are willing to be brave enough to criticise. When there is no encouragement, privilege and reward – rather the reverse! – then it requires even greater bravery to speak truth to power.

    I hope that many others will be inspired by your arguments and your example.