Frenzied Media Trials Are All About Audience Numbers

Issues like nationalism and separatism are perfect fodder for television channels since they offer an opportunity to drive social media shares and ratings

A screen shot of the Newshour debate on Times Now.

A screen shot of the Newshour debate on Times Now.

The 24X7 news cycles that feed the ratings-driven economics of commercial TV channels such as Times Now, Zee News, and News X depend on topics such as anti-nationalism and separatism to draw large audiences. ‘likes’, shares, and comments on #hashtags feed the ratings frenzy. The more easily a polarizing opinion can be captured in a #hashtag, the greater its likelihood of spinning into the gargantuan numbers that drive the new media politics of news production and dissemination.

This is especially the case now as news channels compete for eyes, social media shares, and engagement, the buzzwords for measurement of news value in the new media environment. The heat index of a media story is proportionate to the amount of controversy it whips up, capturing the buzz for the next spin cycle.

Engagement is the new buzzword in the 24/7 mediascape, captured in public call-ins, comments, and tweets that are livecast on the show.

In this media frenzy for numbers, ratings, and engagement, media trials have emerged in India as a salient genre for driving public discourse. This genre of media trials depends on the powerful role of news anchors in shaping the conversation, replete with #hashtags and subtitles. Fashioned as reality shows, the trials are replete with multiple screens, multiple camera angles, comments screens, and floating headlines.

The genre looks somewhat like this, with some variances in format and modality: The news anchor introduces a topic of debate, identifies the problem, and holds a trial with pundits offering different views around the trial. At the heart of the media trial format is an issue or an individual that is being tried.

The more controversial the topic of a trial, the greater its heat index. The performance of the news anchor in this genre depends upon his/her mastery at whipping up the story, making up the controversy and spinning it to cater to public emotions. The power of media trials as a genre to speak to public emotions also limits the possibilities of debate, argumentation, and dialogue. Small snippets of conversations, eked out from broader events, are framed and flashed onto the screen, anchoring the shouting matches that build around them. The conclusions of these trials are foreclosed, the judgment already having been decided upon even before the trial is set in motion. In this sense then, media trials in 24X7 new media cycles are staged performances, tied to sentiment analysis, audience moods, and market assessment of ratings.

In the latest coverage of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students, a programme poetically titled “Country without a post office” was held, referring to a timeframe in the 1990s when no letters were delivered to Kashmir. The event, an annual cultural performance, centered on the juridical treatment of Afzal Guru and his hanging and was set up in the broader backdrop of the Kashmir question, meant to create a discursive space for discussions of the role of the Indian state in relationship to Kashmir.

After giving approval for a film screening at the event, the administration at JNU later withdrew it. Students and protestors still gathered at the University site and raised slogans. In what appears from the videos circulated on TV and on social media, some of the participants at the event allegedly chanted slogans such as “Freedom for Kashmir,” “Afzal we are with you,” “the destruction of India,” and “Hail Pakistan” (these are not literal translations as the highlighted slogans were raised in Hindi).

What followed the event was a media trial. The nightly “Newshour debate” on Times Now hosted by Arnab Goswami, an exemplar of and an industry leader in the media trial genre, focused on the cultural event, framing the question “Is it freedom of speech or sedition?” that is captioned in a text on the screen.

Opening the event with the question directed at Lenin Kumar, a former JNU Student Union President. Goswami opens, “This is not, this is not, this is not democrat (sic). This is not leftist. This is not freedom of speech to say… ‘India go back’ … It is not freedom of speech to say… So you want another attack on the Indian parliament…And then you want to come out and say, the lasting call of Azadi rings hard in the heart of every Kashmiri. That’s not freedom of speech. I mean, what are you upto?”

Rather than performing the role of a news anchor in attempting even an appearance of balance, the opening is framed with bias, offering a number of loaded statements that have already labeled the students. Far removed from the performance of a debate anchored in bringing out multiple views around a topic, Goswami’s show begins with a frame that has already decided to focus on the slogans raised at the event, clearly indicating that these don’t amount to freedom of speech but are against India. The questions are accompanied by the caption “Is it freedom of speech to glorify a terrorist as a martyr?” once again depicting the foreclosed conversation. The event thus is reduced to the glorification of Afzal Guru the terrorist, far removed from the questions of the judicial process and death penalty that were being raised by the students.

Bringing out the poster of the cultural event, Goswami next zooms in on the subtext of a printed poster “In solidarity with the people of Kashmir” he holds to the screen. He then goes on to ask, “Which side are you on?” Critical to the media trial format of TV performance is the placing of the object of the trial under the lens. Note here once again the leap in logic. The expression “in solidarity with the Kashmiri people” is a heuristic replacement for “anti-nationalism.” The slippery slope of claims-making quickly moves over to the realm of Kashmiri separatism, equating the expression of solidarity with Kashmiri people as anti-nationalist.

Judgment on nationalism

Nupur Sharma of the BJP joins in the chorus: “You are anti-India. You are closet terrorist.” A judgment has been passed on the metric of nationalism, the student organizers of the event having been labeled as terrorists and as anti-India. Accompanied by screaming matches and enactment of rage, there is no opening for interrogating the claims that have been offered. Goswami as anchor, rather than interrogating this leap of logic, works collaboratively with Sharma to feed and magnify the narrative. Such is the nature of the media trial genre. Its effectiveness is not judged by the quality of the debate it generates, but the number of abbreviated conclusions that speak to the collective rage of its audience.

Truncated video clippings that are mostly unclear and hazy are flashed onto the screen, apparently as sources of evidence. The audio in most of the clippings is unclear, and so is the video. The viewer is not offered any evidence. Tools such as highlighters and markers are used on the screen, highlighting students, repeating specific frames, and recycling the frames as evidence. That the frames are of poor quality or don’t really offer the evidence for the claims being made is not relevant. Images of the students present at the event are circled with a red pen, with continuous replays on the screen.

Particularly chilling is the segment when Goswami attacks Umar Khalid, a student. Umar Khalid, the viewer is told, is the organizer of the cultural event. He is an easy target. He appears Muslim. Perhaps he is Kashmiri, the mind of the viewer wonders. Perhaps he is attached to one of those terror outfits. Umar is guilty by appearance, offering an easy narrative that fits the linear stories that Goswami and his audience would like to believe in. His appearance lends itself to the media trial genre.

Goswami opens Khalid’s trial with the statement “Don’t hide behind two things, which you are not. Clearly not. You are anti-nationals.” Framing a series of questions, Goswami speaks over Khalid, without giving him an opportunity to offer his explanations. The harangue continues, with Goswami concluding with a series of rhetorical statements, “You people carry the Indian passport? You are on an Indian campus? You are the beneficiaries of a subsidized government Indian education? Your education is paid for by the Indian taxpayer? You misuse your freedom of expression and then you say ‘this is cultural?’ What is cultural about this?”

Goswami’s rants are echoed by Nupur Sharma’s intermittent accusations “I don’t know how you call yourself Indian.” As Khalid attempts to offer an alternative, Goswami allows Nupur Sharma to speak over him, ending up with the statement to Umar, “Remember this. You. You are more dangerous to this country than Maoist terrorists. I wonder who is funding you?” Nupur Sharma joins in leading the chorus “You are a terrorist. You are a closet terrorist.” The experts and Goswami join in on the one-sided attack on Khalid.

As Khalid attempts to speak, suggesting the relevance of having open debates and alternative views and points toward the McCarthyite environment in India under the current BJP rule, Goswami asks him to stop, talking over him “Umar stop. Someone’s going to call your bluff, and I am going to call your bluff tonight. Someone is going to name you as anti-national, and I am going to name you as anti-national tonight. Someone’s got to say, Who is funding you, and I am going to say, who is funding you…There’s no place for advocating anti-India sentiments in our campuses…At least admit, you are a secessionist.” Without the opportunity of a debate, without the opportunity for Khalid to offer his view, Goswami arrives at the judgment Umar Khalid is anti-national. A judgment that gets picked up in the hashtag #flashpointAfzal and gets amplified.

Raging tirade

At one point in the show, Goswami juxtaposes Khalid with the narrative of Lance Naik Hanumanthappa, the Indian soldier who died in an avalanche in Siachen. As Khalid seeks to offer his point of view, Goswami keeps amplifying his voice, stating he would not tolerate anyone to say anything disrespectful when he is discussing the brave soldier Hanumanthappa. Khalid’s mic is muted as Goswami goes on a raging tirade. Salient in this narrative is the power of juxtaposition as a tool for labeling Umar Khalid as a terrorist, framed as a threat to the nation.

Goswami’s anger leaves no room for debate, forgetting the fundamental journalistic values of evidence, balance, nuance, and engaged conversation. The pivotal question raised by Khalid, the question we all ought to be asking, “Where is the space for alternative voices in India?” is quickly erased. In doing so, Goswami and his team of nationalist guard-dogs performed precisely the McCarthyite erasure that Umar Khalid and the event of February 9 wanted to draw attention to.

As we will later see over the course of the following days, Umar Khalid’s identity becomes the subject of a new witch-hunt, with unsupported claims about his links to Pakistan and to the terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad. News channels such as Zee TV manufacture and circulate falsified reports about Khalid’s terror linkages, turning him into the image of the terrorist needed to prop up the nationalist story. Social media spaces have reified these stories in spite of a later Intelligence Bureau Report brief published in the Hindu that noted the Center denied any such report linking Umar Khalid to Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Arnab Goswami’s “Newshour Debate” is one among many shows in the genre of reality TV media trials. They don’t rely on journalistic ethics or traditional news formats to construct the shows. The performance of hard-hitting questions is not grounded in a commitment to balance or thoughtful debate. Rather, as performances, the shows in this genre are guided by an ever-amplifying spin zone, picking up small frames, capturing these frames in abbreviated #hashtags, and appealing to circuits of anger as bases for connective action. In the national narrative of public outrage, the collective of the public coalesces around instant responses on twitter, brief comments on Facebook, and shares on WhatsApp. As hot spin, the performance of the “Newshour Debate” can’t in principle be a debate as it has to cater to its genre characteristics of condensing monolithic frames into tweets and amplifying them through multimedia stories.

The national frenzy on anti-nationalism and terror offers the perfect fodder for the ratings-driven economy of media trials, feeding each other in an ever-expanding vortex that leaves unquestioned the heuristics and the foreclosed judgments. The voices of students, activists, communities that question the national narrative and its assumptions are marked as the “other,” as the subjects of witch hunts. Voices of difference lay silenced as the national narrative works out the morality of the nation state, having marked these voices as sites to be jailed, controlled, and silenced.

While Arnab Goswami’s brand of spin works well in serving the media economy of channels such as Times Now that depend upon an ever-expanding mass of audience to drive the advertising and circulation revenues, the danger of media trials as a genre lies in its power to suspend judgment. Feeding into cycles of anger as affect, a nation state and its imaginations are quickly marked on the image of the “other” as the “anti-national,” offering the basis for the kind of witch-hunt we are witnessing in the nation’s capital and in its social media sphere.

Mohan J. Dutta is Provost’s Chair Professor and Head of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore.