Media

Backstory: Everything Wrong With the Media Is Reflected in the Sushant Singh Rajput Coverage

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Film journalism as a genre was potentially a money spinner, which was why almost every major Indian media house at one time made sure to have a film magazine as part of its stable of publications. Some of the most discomfiting aspects of today’s news journalism, especially television news journalism, draw from formulae tried, tested and deployed by the cinema-centric publications of yesteryear.

Let me try and list them: hyper-personalisation; loud, sensationalism; rupturing the private-public separation with voyeuristic intent; the thrill of the chase to the extent that it becomes blood sport; the gossipy edge stained by deep shades of misogyny; the close nexus with powerful interests looking to influence content; the daily churning out of heroes and villains; the intense competition for circulation with rivals; the constant feeding of the insatiable appetite of readers for more; and, yes, the dressing up of fake content to make it appear authentic.

As a copy editor in my early days of journalism, I had occasion to prepare, for publication, the column of Devyani Chaubal, gossip queen extraordinaire and arguably India’s first journalist to adopt Hinglish as her lingua franca. Her column was a simmered down soup of the ingredients she picked up from the numerous “filmi” parties she attended indefatigably, combined of course with her unique capacity to use words intuitively in order to sting and to singe.

I couldn’t but recall Chaubal and the sturdy template of film journalism, while attempting to understand the coverage accorded to the Sushant Singh Rajput story. What began on June 14, 2020 as a tragic suicide ended two-and-a-half months later as a media “investigated” murder, leading to real arrests.

It was not the smiling visage of Rajput that held together this series “streamed” live, hour by hour, day after day, week after week, without a break, but the figure of Rhea Chakraborty, identified by Rajput’s family as the evil intriguer and who came to be modelled as the perfect vamp in the cinematic sense.

We have to be grateful to Tejinder Singh Sondhi, who bolted from the Republic TV stable recently, for fleshing out just what it is that news channels do. In an interview to Newslaundry, he confessed that his real job was not that of a journalist but of  “hitman”. Chasing down the victim of the day with a blunt instrument – the microphone – was all in a day’s work and this may also include Bollywoodian “chase sequences”.

Also read: Backstory: How Facebook and BJP Ring-Fenced India

The arrest of Rhea Chakraborty at the end of that long hard pursuit proved cathartic for those who got addicted to it, going by the numerous celebratory tweets of self-congratulation.

This brings me to two important aspects of the SSR coverage that made it sui generis and which had nothing to do with the earlier template. First was the new ways in which social media instigated and amplified the case. Striking was the innumerable #SSRian groups, both Indian and international, that sprung up on WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, all demanding “justice for SSR”. Some of these groups coordinated their activities with offline media – posters sprang up, for instance, in Australia.

The second distinctive aspect was the pre-election frisson that was invested in the narrative. If Rajput was a son of Bihar; Rhea soon became Bengal’s very own. Sometimes, the same party took on nuanced identities. The BJP – the first to recruit the SSR aura by having the star’s face on its pre-election posters in Bihar – while pumping up the adrenalin on Rajput in that state, was far more calibrated on the issue in Maharashtra. Apart from a few exceptions, the media chose not to systematically expose this opportunism for the benefit of voters, choosing instead to adopt the same cynical strategy of location-specific narratives.

In many ways, everything that is wrong with Indian journalism is reflected in the SSR story. A great deal of valuable analyses of what such coverage means for our already debased journalism have emerged, both in The Wire and elsewhere. As the article, ‘Once There Was News. Now There Are Loud Anchors, Sold Out Editors and BJP’s IT Cell’ (September 6) notes,

“The waters are so muddied by alternative facts, untruths, fake news that only the loudest can be heard, and who can possibly be louder than the likes of sold out anchors, self-seeking editors and the BJP’s IT cell?”

The underlying misogyny has also been called out (‘The ‘Danse Macabre’ Around Rhea Chakraborty Has Exposed Indian Society’s Inherent Misogyny’, September 10) as indeed the return with a vengeance to the shrieking coverage that was accorded to the Arushi Talwar case (‘Arushi Talwar To Rhea Chakraborty: A Tale of Two Media Trials and Zero Lessons Learnt’, September 1).  There was also a recalling of a suicide from the past that was allowed to sink into oblivion in contrast to the necrophiliac detailing of the present one (‘Media and Suicide: Sushant Singh Rajput and Kalikho Pul, Four Years and Two Worlds Apart’, September 10).

Several commentators have pointed to the irony that this tin drum is being beaten at a time when innumerable challenges face India from the pandemic, to the sinking economy and troubled borders (‘Editorial: Time to Show Media Bullies Their Place’, August 29). There was, however, an unmistakable sense of despair underlying  these commentaries, provoked by the realisation that nothing really can done unless, as The Wire editorial points out, viewers protest against it by using their remotes wisely and in sufficiently large numbers. The question is will the “new news consumer”, fed for years on a steady diet of fake journalism and whose media habits have been re-fashioned by the globalised market place, even have the agency to switch off?

Also read: Backstory: Ram Mandir and Kashmir – A Tale of Two Forms of Media Control

Remembering Gauri, with feeling

Three years after her death on September 5, 2017, the many cultural programmes held to remember Gauri Lankesh testified to her extraordinary hold on the imagination of  not just her compeers but a broad swathe of civil society. The ‘Hum Agar Utthe Nahi Toh’ (If We Do Not Rise) campaign, which saw women’s groups, LGBTQIA+ communities and human rights organisations across the country join in a show of solidarity with Gauri and in defence of the constitution, was just one of this kind.

The tragedy is that the pursuit of justice in the case seems a long and hard process, and could see many reversals. As the writer of the piece, ‘On Third Death Anniversary, Gauri Lankesh’s Family Await Speedy Trial’ (September 3), points out, despite the fact that the SIT had gathered 456 witnesses and 1,056 pieces of damning evidence against 17 of the 18 arrested in the case, and despite the police having booked the accused under the special Karnataka Control of Organised Crime Act (KCOCA), there has been very little progress. The reason for this is simple: a special designated court to handle the case has not been allocated by Karnataka’s BJP government. Procedural inertia? Lack of political will? Both?

The Bengaluru Town Hall on Gauri Lankesh’s birth anniversary, on January 29, 2018. Photo: By special arrangement

Look who’s writing the op-ed

Are journalists soon to be an extinct species? Media proprietors in India have exploited the COVID-19 crisis to fire over a thousand journalists in India, so we can well imagine the managements of the future eagerly adopting Artificial Intelligence technology to protect their bottom-lines. An op-ed carried in The Guardian was produced entirely by AI (‘A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?’, September 8). This is a leap from earlier prototypes of automated journalism, where stories like weather reports and stock markets forecasts were drummed up by feeding data into machines. An op-ed, in contrast, needs brain power, and as the creature that goes by the nomenclature GPT-3, who wrote the piece put it, “I know that my brain is not a ‘feeling brain.’ But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions.”

Where this creature stands on the political-ideological spectrum is of course the moot question.

Also read: What’s GPT-3, the Language Model Built by OpenAI, and What’s So Exciting About It?

Middle-class misogyny

Reader of The Wire, Urbee Bhowmik, writes: “I am in complete agreement with Panchali Ray (‘Of Media Trials and Witch Hunts: A Testimony of Survival’, September 8) regarding the heinous media and social trial that Rhea Chakraborty has had to go through. The matter is sub judice and I am not sure how this case will proceed, however, it is incomprehensible to me how she is being framed in this case. The various turns it has taken definitely points towards what Panchali Ray calls ‘middle-class misogyny’. Sushant Singh Rajput’s death was surely tragic, but going witch-hunting to find some form of solace and pulling distant threads to frame an apparently innocent person is absolutely unacceptable.

If stringent laws regarding sexual harassment have left men ‘afraid of approaching women’, I would say this situation has left women worried as to the unintended consequences of being close to a man, who dies by suicide later, without leaving any note, leaving the woman framed for being with him. Hope justice and good sense prevails!

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Distressed students in COVID 19 times

The media coordinator of the Maharashtra Students Union wrote in:

“Many days have passed since the Supreme Court’s verdict, but Maharashtra’s Minister of Higher and Technical Education, Shri Uday Samant, and the vice-chancellors of all 13 non-agricultural state public universities, seem unable to make concrete decisions on how the final year examinations will be conducted. This means that they do not have a Plan B. It also indicates how lightly they are taking education. As a result, it will be difficult for approximately 10 lakh final year students to secure their academic future in the state.

Among the recommendations made by the Maharashtra Students Union (MASU) are the following:

*     The exams should be conducted online or in hybrid mode in which question papers can be sent via e-mail or WhatsApp and the students can solve them at home in the given modes.

*    Examination syllabi should be taken into consideration up to the month of March, and study notes and question sets should be made available to the students by the principal or professors.

*    Degree certificates should be distributed to the students by declaring the results of all the examinations by October 31.

*    Special provisions should be made for students with disabilities so that they are not treated unequally. The examination system/modes should be the same for all the 13 non-agricultural public universities.”

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“We, the students of MNIT, Jaipur, have raised our voice over the unutilised components of the fees charged to us and have mailed the authorities several times. Alas our queries have fallen on deaf ears. There are protests raging in the NITs all over India on the same issue. We hope that The Wire will cover this as it has revamped journalism in India by covering important and genuine concerns.”

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Critiques of The Wire‘s coverage

This is an excerpt from a mail that Sudeshna Chowdhury sent in on the piece, ‘Pranab Mukherjee, Last of the Grand Bengali Politicians of India’ (August 31). She observes that the author, when writing about Pranab Mukherjee, identifies him as a Bengali, to which she poses the question: “But wasn’t he an Indian first?”

She goes on to say: “The writer’s bias towards the community comes out when she writes: ‘Today, on his passing, it can safely be said that the last of the stalwarts from Bengal to have commanded power in Delhi has departed.’ Is she an astrologer? How does she know/or not know that there will be no one after him from Bengal or any other region for that matter?”

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Koustubh Sinkar writes in on the article, ‘The Ship Recycling Industry Must Move Towards a Sustainable Future’ (August 3). “The first name that appears in the byline credit is that of Sara Costa, who is described as ‘an independent researcher working from Belgium’. This claim is false. She is NOT an independent researcher but a project officer who works for the industry lobby group, NGO Shipbreaking Platform. There is nothing wrong in an article being written by a lobbyist, but then they should not masquerade as ‘independent researchers’. I just hope that you shall make the necessary rectification in your description of Sara Costa in the article mentioned above. It would also be great if you printed the full name of Sara as it has been printed on her employers’ website here. This should remove any doubts in the readers’ mind about who Sara is.”

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A reader, Anand Raj, has a lot of anger to express on The Wire’s journalism: “Reading your editorials and news I just feel that you and your team are full of negativity.” He then goes on to launch a diatribe making ugly and unacceptable accusations which had to be edited out.

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Another critic, M.K. Shah, points out that The Wire carried “about a dozen articles on Dr. Kafeel Khan. But not a single one on the Palghar incident.” He wants to know why The Wire gives prominence to “one community alone”. Well, all I can say is that we have received dozens of letters from this gentleman on this one topic. Quite recently, he complained how The Wire presents “Hindus as oppressors and the Muslims as the oppressed.”

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Prasanth Nair writes: “A big virtual hug from millions of readers who look forward to reading your publication. We have changed as a nation since Modi swept the 2014 elections. There stand two parties (one favouring the ruling party who see themselves as ‘nationalist’ and the other which questions the governance of, and decisions taken by, the ruling party, and who are termed ‘anti-nationalist’). The Wire, and its readers, seem to belong to the second category. It must be hard to function independently, but your team’s work will inspire millions of fence-sitters like me. Please let us know if we can be of any help in continuing this journey. I am based out of India and cannot therefore contribute to The Wire financially.

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Naveen Tenyson sends his support: “I appreciate the high quality of journalism of The Wire and daresay that speaking truth to power is what powers it and distinguishes it from those media establishments who have chosen to be fawn and grovel before the powers that be. I hope you continue to strive to ferret out the truth in the years ahead.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in