For How Long Should We Bear This Television-Induced Insanity?

As sensationalism and the flow of 'breaking news' grips the TV news industry, we need to educate ourselves to distinguish the serious from the trivial.

We tend to lose our cultural fineness – I mean its ideals and aspirations for dialogic communication, empathy, humanistic reasoning and social egalitarianism, when every aspect of culture is seen as a marketable product, a fleeting sensational item, a spectacle for mass hypnosis. And this danger is becoming more and more acute for three reasons – the emergence of a mass society with its rapidly expanding entertainment industry; the cult of instantaneity leading to what postmodernists would regard as the death of all solid foundations of truth and the overwhelming power of technology over our lives, particularly in the absence of the illumination of the inner light. It is in this context that I wish to locate what surrounds our existence – a television-mediated culture.

Yes, like every piece of technological innovation, television too exists with its ambiguous character. At one level, it is immensely enabling. It democratises viewership. With its visual narratives, it is attractive and persuasive; seeing is believing–it gives yet another meaning to the art of knowing. Yet, the danger lies in its very power, its ‘spectacular’ character. As a spectacle–gorgeous, colourful, authoritative (the belief that the camera doesn’t lie) – it imposes itself on vulnerable human minds. With the triumph of magical spectacles, the nuanced truth is forgotten; a serious mode of enquiry is replaced by the only need the market values – the need to entertain, amuse and silence the viewers.  And this happens more frequently because media houses in this market-driven world know it pretty well – everything is a matter of consumption, be it war, death, scams, cricket, rape!

As a puzzled/concerned citizen, I wish to make a set of observations on Indian television news channels, particularly at a time when the CBI raids a leading media house (the prevalent legitimisation crisis makes it difficult for one to be fully convinced of the legal argumentations provided by the investigating agency) and a newly emergent English news channel makes a mockery of the deeper meaning of ‘republic’, with its narcissistic anchor seeking to convey the message that truth can be achieved only through aggression and media-simulated self-righteousness. I propose to evolve a set of ideal type (conceptual abstractions based on empirical realities) formulations to characterise the changing culture of television broadcasting in India.

News-entertainment: celebration of the trivia

My first formulation is: abundance leads to trivialisation.

With cable television and 24×7 news channels, we find ourselves amidst the rapid flow of ‘breaking news’.  This information pollution, as I call it, leads to massive trivialisation of socio-political issues and degradation of human consciousness. Everything is ‘breaking news’ – the rape of a minor, a road accident, a politician’s press conference, a reporter asking Amitabh Bachchan to comment on Priyanka Chopra’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an official in the meteorological department announcing the possible date of arrival of the monsoon in the capital.

With this constant celebration of the trivia, even the serious loses its depth. It becomes exceedingly difficult to distinguish the Indian army’s ‘ victory’ over the terrorists in Kashmir from the thrilling century of Virat Kohli in a cricket match. Is this what the television induced ‘hyper-reality’ all about–the blurring of all boundaries, the impossibility of separating the substantial from the mythical?

Another thing happens. The constant race for breaking news leads to, as one of the loudest English news channels has demonstrated, the fast movement of ‘expose’ – today it is the turn of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s corruption, tomorrow it is Shashi Tharoor and the mystery of his wife’s death and day after it is Robert Vadra’s business deals. Everything flows so fast that by the time you hear about Vadra, you have almost forgotten about Lalu. It demands no serious attention from you; it demands no deeper analysis of the causes of corruption and scams. It only sensationalises the event and stimulates the negativity of idle public gossip, be it the revenue Baahubali has generated, the next political move of megastar Rajinikanth or the farm house that Lalu’s daughter has constructed in Delhi! It transforms you from a reflexive/passionate citizen to a gossip mongering passive consumer.

My second formulation is that news is often packaged as some sort of emotive, non-critical loud reaction. In the recent times, it is manifesting itself in the name of hyper-militaristic nationalism. Reflect on the way some of the channels, heavily funded by the corporates and the ruling political lobby, approach the much talked about Kashmir issue–its continual cycle of discontents and inner turmoil with terrorist violence, encounter deaths and assertive march of the Indian army. Seldom does one see a nuanced understanding of the situation – the multi-layered history of Kashmir, the anguish of a mother, the agony of a college girl, the alienation of young minds, the fear psychosis of children, the constant fear of being reduced into a suspect in one’s own land. Instead, the valorisation of the ‘heroism’ of the army and simultaneous equation of nationalism with militarisation of consciousness become the master narrative; any dissenting voice is nullified, condemned and hated with absolute violence.

Remember the way the TV reporter, almost like an aggressive detective, was interrogating a subaltern historian/political theorist like Partha Chatterjee for his not so comfortable view on the role of the army in Kashmir? There is no debate, no willingness to understand alternative perspectives. There is no background research, no awareness of history. This is a tragic metamorphosis–from the thinking space that written words generate in meaningful print journalism to the instantaneity of the visual medium with the sensationalism of ‘live coverage’.  The danger is that this seems to have become the routinised practice in the name of apparently democratic panel discussions. No matter what the theme is – cow slaughter, Romeo brigade, climate change; they call a leftist, a centrist, a rightist, and possibly an academic expert to debate. We already know the predictable responses: how party spokespersons would shout; any serious reflection would be silenced (I still remember a celebrity TV anchor once asking a noted historian from Delhi University: Professor, I give you 90 seconds, and tell us whether there was really a mosque at the disputed site of Ayodhya) and eventually it would be reduced into the monologue of the assertive anchor, his/her sarcastic smile devoid of a sense of humility, the art of listening and the willingness to conduct a serious debate with communicative rationality.

My third formulation is that television journalism, barring exceptions, is fast becoming an inauthentic performance. Television news channels project their news readers and anchors through huge billboards on highways. They become ‘stars’, look like ‘models’; journalism becomes a performance with glitz and street smartness. The visuals we often see on TV channels – a celebrity reporter devouring jalebi in the narrow lanes of Varanasi and conducting very casual conversations on demonetisation with a group of youngsters; a reporter known in a ‘networking society’ interviewing a chief minister in a helicopter for covering an election rally in the hinterland of Chattishgarh; a big editor who decides the ‘fate of the nation’ every evening becoming extraordinarily cute while interviewing Mr. Narendra Modi; well-dressed anchors roaming around the decorated studio with all theatrical gestures and talking about cricket, war, sexuality, weather, cinema and politics with inflated confidence touching the threshold of obsessive narcissism. When everything becomes a performance, honesty is sacrificed, serious enquiry is lost, superficiality is cherished and we too are persuaded to digest everything as a comic show.

Towards responsible optimism

No, pessimism is not my cup of tea. As an ardent believer in human possibilities, I notice the traces of wonderful journalism–honest reporters (not celebrity performers) educating us with their background work, researched commentaries and penetrating visual narrations. However, what worries me is that this sort of field work is becoming increasingly marginalised. It saddens me because many of us grew up with the writings of great journalists and editors – Sham Lal’s Life and Letters column in the Times of India, Nikhil Chakrabarty’s thought-provoking editorial in the Mainstream, Gour Kishore Ghosh’s powerful social commentary in the Ananda Bazar Patrika and many others.  I refuse to believe that everything is over. There are new experimentations, new efforts to free journalism from the trap of corporate-political lobby and educate the reporters with a sense of history and hermeneutic skill of socio-political analysis.

As citizens, we need to educate ourselves. If we lose the capacity to distinguish the serious from the trivial, if we encourage our own passivity, and allow these loud TV anchors to become our educators and makers of public opinion, none can save us. We should not forget that totalitarianism emanates from this ethical-intellectual numbness. But who can educate us to say no to this insanity? This is a question I pose before the esteemed readers.

Avijit Pathak is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, New Delhi. 

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