Why does TV news suck so much?

Updated: Apr 29, 2020, 07:04 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Brief history to tell how personality cults destroyed Indian broadcast journalism. Like it did Indian politics!

(From top left) Rajdeep Sardesai, India Today; Barkha Dutt, MoJo; Sagarika Ghose, consulting editor, Times of India who sometimes appears on Times Now; Rajat Sharma, India TV; Suhasini Haidar, former anchor for CNN-IBN; Shweta Singh, Aaj Tak; Rahul Kanwal, India Today; Arnab Goswami, Republic TV; Nidhi Razdan, NDTV; Ravish Kumar, NDTV India
(From top left) Rajdeep Sardesai, India Today; Barkha Dutt, MoJo; Sagarika Ghose, consulting editor, Times of India who sometimes appears on Times Now; Rajat Sharma, India TV; Suhasini Haidar, former anchor for CNN-IBN; Shweta Singh, Aaj Tak; Rahul Kanwal, India Today; Arnab Goswami, Republic TV; Nidhi Razdan, NDTV; Ravish Kumar, NDTV India

Mayank ShekharIt felt totally like a eureka moment to me at the grounds of Jaipur Literature Festival, 2012, soon as my eyes turned and I saw on stage, Oprah Winfrey, seated for a conversation, with Barkha Dutt.

Up until then, one had, of course, followed Dutt's work as an indefatigable newscaster, best known for lending a human touch to her dispatches/reports. Quite literally so sometimes — as she'd tenderly pat her interviewees on the shoulder, gently goading them to reveal issues they faced, before a camera. Audiences were hopefully moved, witnessing the plight of the socially distant other!

Many may have had issues with this style of emotional/exploitative news-casting, as if it was a Bollywood film. But the fact is the penny dropped only when I saw Dutt with Winfrey. It's totally my bad that I had misinterpreted her form of communication as journalism alone. Firstly, given the subject, no, not gonna fall into the tiring Twitter-troll trap that, for years, has been demonising Dutt and the lot as 'biased'/'paid' media. As if there can be any other!

Which loser works in a profession without ever being paid for it? And does the fact that you can't possibly publish all that's fit to print not indicate bias anyway? One only hopes this doesn't veer towards prejudices. And that whatever calls a news-outlet takes, don't involve sneaky, private deals, or peddling blatant lies in public.

Making motivations known only helps consumers make a choice. Mahatma Gandhi, like Bal Thackeray, ran one-sided newspapers. Neither is accused of bad journalism. Do the same arguments apply to news television?

Though all that there is to it are debates and arguments, anyway? It's odd what the medium grew into, given satellite television in India itself owes its origin to a news event—the 1991 Gulf War, that led to an enterprising South Bombay hotel (then Taj President) placing a satellite dish on the terrace, for its guests to access news on CNN!

The first TV channel delivering 24-hours news, of course, came up only at the fag-end of last millennium. For a medium with a history as short as the story of a boy, who's grown up on steroids, neglected by parents, with a much brighter younger sibling (Internet), and having just about attained legal age for marital sex, it's impossible to tell where it stands currently, let alone where it's headed into the future.

Here are a few facts still. That in less than a decade since the launch of the first Indian round-the-clock news station, there were 300 in competition, for unique eye-balls, often across the nation. All these viewers should ideally have been interested in exactly the same visual-item on screen, while the importance of news per se, is determined by the proximity of the event to the consumer!

How does one compete then? In 2002, when the medium was too nascent, all its three main channels were accused of partisanship in reporting the Gujarat riots — ostensibly aimed at their respective viewerships. Wherein Zee and Aaj Tak were called out for mentioning the religion of victims in the Godhra carnage, but conveniently concealing so while covering the riots that followed. Likewise Star/NDTV was accused of overplaying the possible complicity of the state/police; fanning negativity against both.

But this is still within purview of news. By mid 2000s, when the scene had totally exploded with too many channels to keep count, the country, it was assumed, could only be united by cricket and Bollywood. That's what you saw a whole lot of on Hindi channels. And that you don't anymore. Also, religion (bhakti) and superstition (UFO landings/sightings) reigned supreme.

The creative crescendo of this movement away from news though occurred in July, 2006, with the fall of a five-year-old Prince, into a 55-feet pit, in a village called Aldeharhi, 150 kms off Delhi. For 50 hours that it took for the boy come out of the well, several channels had broadcast his rescue (or the lack of it) for over 24 hours! Since general entertainment had possibly failed, this was television news acknowledging its competition was reality TV. No knock.

The turning point for this genre was of course the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks—live-television for three days straight, involving cameras stationed mainly outside hotels Taj and Oberoi-Trident, but with obviously no fresh footage to upload. What do you do then? Open live commentary, package it as debate, express shock, rally around pent-up emotions. 26/11, a reporter's story, turned TV news into an anchor's medium, with Arnab Goswami at Times Now as its patron saint.

Pretty much all stations feel/sound the same since. Leader dictates competition. Goswami, a pop-culture phenomenon inspiring skits and memes, runs his own channel, heating up a studio, introducing nightly villains, firing at folk on multiple windows, picking up cues primarily from social media—feeding off the mob and feeding right back into it. But come what may, delivering weekly ratings at the box-office of television.

It's been 12 years. Obviously he's not just a journalist. Now he has a rep to protect, and expectations of core-audiences to meet. He defined the era he belongs to, and people are used to seeing him a certain way. Read again. Sounds like Shah Rukh Khan to me.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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