Why news isn’t a pair of Levis

BY MANOJ KEWALRAMANI

Sometimes there are facts that stare in the face each day, but yet it takes a fictional interpretation of them for you to make a connection. It’s a strange and convoluted route to take in order to identify the apparent. But at least you enjoy the ride of a novel to get there.

That’s precisely what happened as I sped through Andy McDermott’s The Vault of Shiva. It’s the kind of apocalyptic fiction that follows along the lines of the Indiana Jones franchise. Evil, fundamentalist bloke, hell-bent on armageddon, searching for an ancient artifact to hasten said impending doom. All that stands in his path is a charming, gutsy, and invariably lucky, archeologist.

Sorry, I am digressing. It’s just that I get a serious kick out of such fiction. It’s my one real indulgence.

So back to the point. In McDermott’s book, the evil bloke is an Indian tech tycoon who has made his fortune through a unique search engine called Qexia. His master plan is to acquire something called the “Shiva Vedas” – the purest teachings of the Hindu God – before he can bring about an end to Kalyug.

Alright, so if you’re with me till here, this is where it gets interesting, i.e., how he intends to bring about the end.

The man’s master plan is to use his search engine and in way stretch the concept of customization to create and exacerbate fissures between nations and peoples. The example used in the book is that of November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai

After the event, users of Qexia in Pakistan would get news about how the attack was a conspiracy and how India was out to frame and isolate Pakistan, while users in India would be delivered news about how Pakistan was continuing to act with reckless impunity. That, in effect, would harden and manufacture public opinion towards the futility of diplomacy and eventually lead to conflict.

As a doomsday plot, it isn’t all that phenomenal. But it got me thinking. In a way, McDermott’s concept is an indictment of the media and the manner in which it functions today. However, it is also a scathing attack at us the consumers.

And I shall attempt to address both those issues briefly here.

Firstly, I think there has to be a complete rethink globally about the media and what we expect from it. What role should news agencies be playing? It’s a complex question and I am sure that there isn’t one answer that can satisfy everyone.

However, if there is a factor that we all can perhaps agree on, then that’s objectivity. Objectivity, in my opinion, is the lowest common denominator that every news agency or reporter must maintain.

And it must be sustained even when it defies our innermost biases.

For instance (and I’ll welcome the brickbats for this example) in the current upheaval that has gripped the Mideast and North Africa, as much as journalists may prefer, they need to avoid using terms like ‘evil’, ‘radical’, ‘despotic’ etc in order to describe some of the rulers in the region.

Before you recoil in revulsion at this demand. Let me elaborate. I am in no way arguing for shying away from the facts or calling a spade a spade. What I am suggesting is for the media to lay down the cards and let me decide if it’s a damn spade.

So please present the facts; talk about the abuses; talk about the violence; talk about the lack of freedoms; but kindly refrain from passing judgement. It’s not your job to do that. Your job is to offer an objective, nuanced and balanced debate. The rest you must leave for your private conversations during your smoke sessions.

In the Indian context, in the aftermath of the November 2008 attacks, there was a dual reaction by the media. The first was a reflection of public anger and frustration against the Indian government. This, however, was not limited to just the Indian state’s wayward policy on Pakistan and terrorism. It extended to basic corruption and the growing audacity of the political class to flaunt and abuse power.

During those days, the atmosphere seemed so charged that seeking an honest assessment about our capabilities and the consequences if it came to a war was a futile exercise.

Often the argument that people made was that enough was enough, and certain news networks cashed in big on that frustration through relentlessly jingoistic debates, while others bent over backwards to tell us that it was an opportunity for India to reach out to civilian Pakistan. Neither was, or is, a realistic or wholesome assessment.

In sum, the first thing that any news agency or journalist must maintain is objectivity – give or take a little, after all reporters are human beings too. But objectivity is the key, because that’s what distinguishes professionals from the others who can and do express their views on world events.

The second point is the audience and the changing relationship that people share with the news media. Information explosion is a fact of our lives. And that in essence has bred competition amongst providers.

While the old capitalistic notion of competition being good for the consumer may be sound when it comes to pricing of content, the problem here is that news content is a unique commodity.

In the case of most products, the consumer can and should behave like a spoilt brat, seeking complete value for money. But in the case of news, that is inherently harmful to us. It is the first lesson that the information age is teaching us. Information is gold; but is has to be appropriate and timely. Otherwise it can be poisonous.

Moreover, unlike a pair of jeans, it is imperative that we seek information on world events that is uncomfortable. It must challenge our notions; it is only through such an exercise that we can come to balanced perspective.

Controversial as it may sound, facts are a one-size-fits-all commodity. The facts don’t change just because an Indian, an Algerian, a Bosnian or an American is consuming them. Like gravity, they remain the same. It’s our interpretation of facts that matters. And thus, it is critical for the consumer to entertain a variety of interpretations.

Customization here to suit your existing notions, opinions and fancies is vain at best and potentially devastating at worst.

For instance, in India, we have this ridiculous tendency to paint most international news stories with a desi brush. From NASA space missions to Egyptian protests to insider trading cases; it’s horrendous to read stories that begin with the headline “NRI man,” “Indian-origin woman.” That’s a spin that doesn’t need highlighting the way it is.

During the days of protests in Egypt, it was more than once that I heard friends in the media talk about how the story wasn’t going to sell much in India; that is, unless we find the “Indian angle.”

So we had the tales of returning Indian citizens and then that of Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence proving to be an inspiration in Cairo.

But there is a story beyond that to sell to the Indian audiences. It has to do with what these movements are about; how are the occurring; how are they being seen in India; what lessons do they hold for us and the world; and what challenges does the reshaping Mideast pose for Indian strategists; and now what do they imply for the UN, etc.

It’s high time that we treat events in a more wholesome manner; and neither the consumer nor the provider needs to go out looking for their parochial “angle.”

(Manoj Kewalramani is a guest writer with Canary Trap. He has worked with top media houses like NDTV before becoming an Independent Blogger and Writer.)

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