Where’s the good news? Not the sort that energetic evangelicals bring with their tracts and their spiels for Jesus, just ordinarily good (good as in cheering, uplifting, heartening, encouraging) news? Where’s the story about the honest member of Parliament who used his discretionary funds to actually help his constituents? About the judges who outlawed state vigilantism? About the district where payments under NREGA are made in full? It surely can’t be any editor’s case that honesty, scruple and inspirational work are absent in India, so why don’t we, as consumers of news, hear about them?
The reasons aren’t complicated.
First, bad news—corruption, violence, sexual scandal, man-made disaster—is spectacular, vivid and (this is important) self-explanatory. Princess Diana dying in a car crash, planes flying into tall buildings, killers machine-gunning innocents in a great city: these events need no gloss, no footnotes, no clarifying information. These are compelling scenes of real-life drama tailor-made for saturation coverage, the broken world as breaking news.
NREGA, on the other hand, crucial though it is for an enormous rural population impoverished by a stagnant agriculture, is alphabet soup, an acronym that perhaps one in one hundred thousand Indians can expand into the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. And even after spelling it out, most people would be hard put to explain what the act mandates. Development as good news is complicated. It needs context, caveats and information. It’s worthy, it happens off-stage, it happens slowly, it isn’t dramatic, ergo, it’s sometimes dull.
Secondly, though we’re reluctant to admit it, pleasure in the misfortunes of others takes on a keener edge in the midst of scarcity. Schadenfreude is a universal failing, but in a poor country where life seems a zero-sum game, the misfortunes of others are obscurely reassuring. If you think this is self-hating or unfair, you only have to pay attention the next time you pass the scene of a road accident. If you’re in an autorickshaw, your driver will slow and both of you will rubber-neck, dozens of people will have closed in on the crash site and will be staring at the wreckage, eager to suss out hurt and injury. Bad news panders to base instinct in a cruel, hardscrabble world.
Thirdly, there’s a strange way in which good news in India is local while bad news is national. Thus, bad sex ratios in Punjab and Haryana are a pan-Indian embarrassment while near-universal literacy in Himachal Pradesh is, at best, the local achievement of a small hill state. Some years ago, there was a report about an ngo’s success in making municipal government in Bangalore transparent. In a small country, this might have inspired the reader to believe that this was a model for municipal reform for every large city in the nation but sitting in Delhi, Bangalore seemed impossibly far away and Kannadigas just too different in terms of language, temperament and habit for me to believe that Delhi’s municipality could be reformed in the same way. So a national newspaper or magazine can’t be blamed for assuming that bad news is the short-cut to a national readership.
Another reason for the relative absence of good news in India is that in a country as unequal, poor and malnourished as ours and as visibly crowded with the homeless, the unemployed and the sick, good news is fundamentally deemed implausible. This is, of course, not to argue that our news media use their resources to hold up the mirror to brute Indian reality. Both print and television successfully ignore the rural hinterland and the urban poor because the middle-class eyeballs they court have no interest in either. But they know that an obvious disconnect between the pages they produce for their readers and the world those readers inhabit will be bad for business. A practical concern for what in film-making is called continuity keeps bad news in business.
There is a professional reason for the usual absence of the sort of stories that fill this special issue of Outlook. Journalists are experienced sceptics, temperamentally disinclined to write warm, fuzzy stories. They’ve seen too much wickedness to set much store by good intentions or happy endings. This hard-won disbelief is reinforced and given intellectual sanction by a general disenchantment with the nation-state.
This disenchantment is rooted in the Indian state’s failure to keep the peace or organise just economic development. The state’s abdication of its law and order responsibilities has been highlighted by its chronic inability to pre-empt or suppress communal violence. The great urban pogroms of 1984 (Delhi), 1992 (Bombay) and 2002 (Ahmedabad) showed the state in times of crisis to be complicit in murder, less the guardian of the republic than an event manager with a nice line in violent spectacle. The brutal suppression of secessionist movements in Punjab, Kashmir and the Northeast further discredited the state in the eyes of liberals and progressives.
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
The process of liberalisation flagged off by Manmohan Singh in 1991 did nothing to redeem the reputation of the Indian state on the Left or the Right. The free-market Right saw liberalisation as a way of liberating the economy from the stifling incompetence of the licence raj while the Left saw it as a process that dismantled even the minimal commitment of the republic to public provisioning and welfare. Through the first decade of the 21st century, the standing of the republican state has continued to decline. To the votaries of laissez faire, the state’s continuing opaqueness and corruption hinders India’s ascent to the promised heaven of the free market, while to liberals, civil society activists and the non-Communist Left, Nandigram, Posco and Vedanta are signs that a state debauched by global capital now acts on its behalf as a predatory pimp and land tout.
Once the fourth estate and its mentors give up on the nation-state as a project, the very notion of progress, the idea that there are stories of individual betterment that are representative enough and replicable enough to be newsworthy becomes hard to sustain. For the first 40 years of the republic, the nation-state was so central to the idea of progress that once it was discredited it became hard to cleave to a coherent story of improvement. There were attempts to create alternative narratives with new heroes. There was the upbeat story of salvation through the stockmarket which lifted the poor out of poverty, made the rich richer and democratised opportunity through (for example) the massive penetration of mobile phones. Some bits of this new take on improvement were true but since its unfolding required the systematic expropriation of India’s poorest peasant communities, its status as good news was contentious.
In recent times, the news has been dominated by a new narrative: civil society embodied by a set of hectoring busybodies (Ramdev, Kiran Bedi, Anna Hazare) nagging a state gone rogue back on to the straight and narrow. Unlike the nation-state, however, it is hard for self-appointed self-righteousness to remain hegemonic for any length of time and the headlines have moved on from Hazare’s high noon.
The independent Left has chronicled the violence of the nation-state, i.e. the bad news, but remains uncertain (owing, no doubt, to the chequered history of revolution) of the nature and shape of the good news. In the context of India, it sometimes supports the sponsors of smaller, therefore possibly more virtuous states (Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland) as also the right of insurgent peasants to violently oppose the authority of a corrupt republic.
But setting aside the state and its capacity to be a force for good, looking for the good news doesn’t merely mean hunting for the upbeat story. It can mean seeking out humanity even as you report on villainy and horror. In his account of the pogrom of 1984 in Delhi, Amitav Ghosh reflected upon the need to resist the idea that times of violence are times of unalloyed evil:
"When I now read descriptions of troubled parts of the world, in which violence appears primordial and inevitable, a fate to which masses of people are largely resigned, I find myself asking: Is that all there was to it? Or is it possible that the authors of these descriptions failed to find a form — or a style or a voice or a plot — that could accommodate both violence and the civilized, willed response to it?
The truth is that the commonest response to violence is one of repugnance, and that a significant number of people everywhere try to oppose it in whatever way they can. That these efforts so rarely appear in accounts of violence is not surprising: they are too undramatic."
Magazines, newspapers and television report on the world as it turns. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, journalists need to make sure that in the press of events, goodness doesn’t go unchronicled.
Three cheers to Mukul Kesavan (The Moon Also Waxes, Aug 22) for talking about the path less cynical. Among the good news we’ve had of late, we could count Jairam Ramesh, whom I have had the privilege of knowing since 1974. One of his first acts in the rural development ministry was to invite cag to audit all its schemes. To that, you should add nrega, nrlm and pura. Instead of pointing fingers, why not get into a tech partnership with the government for improving conditions in our villages? At some 650 districts in India, at five to ten committed individuals per district, we need just 3,500-6,500 people to get things going. A bunch of my friends is joining up with the ministry to improve things in the Dumaria, Dhalbhumgarh and Chakulia blocks of Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district.
Ricky Surie, Jamshedpur
Contrary to what Kesavan thinks, newspapers should not consciously put out just good news (for inspiration) or bad news (for sensationalism). They should put out all news: good or bad, in proportions commensurate to reality.
Jyoti Rani, Delhi
Is Vinod Mehta trying to back-pedal by giving us good news because all the bad news the media has pushed to the foreground is proving costly for the Congress?
Ronny Lal, on e-mail
With a great deal of sophistry, Kesavan is preaching what Dr Manmohan Singh preached to some editors a few weeks ago.
Manish Banerjee, Calcutta
Kesavan echoes my thoughts. Every time the media paints India as a land of rape, scams and murders, I wonder if there is nothing good to report on.
R.C. Acharya, on e-mail
Good news is no news, Mr Kesavan. We don’t learn anything from happy stories; unhappy ones caution us, or make us change for the better.
Aditya Mookerjee, Belgaum
Mukul Kesavan is just a B-grade version of Arundhati Roy. Perhaps you didn’t get Arundhati, which is why you settled on a second-rater.
Pankaj Kumar, Mumbai
Apropos Mukul Kesavan’s piece (The Moon Also Waxes, Aug 22), in man’s first society, good news never drew the attention of the majority. The same habit has stuck with people. We’re eager to read about calamities and catastrophes. Good news only generates a feeling of well-being. Bad news sells.
M.K. Somanatha Panicker, on e-mail
Reporting the bad is the ethos of good, courageous journalism.
R.C. Mohan, Neyveli
Shun corrupt politicians, stop worshipping reel heroes and admire real heroes instead.
M. Rama Krishna, Kakinada
No news is good news. Good news is no news.
A.K. Chandra, on e-mail
Such reports are welcome
The comments emailed by me was much more than the one small which appeaqred in print. For your benefit I am reproducing below the entire email sent on 14. Aug.' 11 to the editor Outlook.
<The Editor, Outlook, New Delhi.
Reading Mukul Kesavan’s article ‘The Moon also Waxes’ made my day ! He has echoed my thoughts when ever I saw the print and electronic media vying with each other carrying stories portraying India as the land of scams, rapes, murder, embezzlement, police brutality, political shenanigans and what have you !
Perhaps negative image is what sells and Kesavan has rightly asked as to why isn’t good news getting the space it deserves ? I for one would happily read reams of success stories, see hours of video images of a silent revolution in the making in some distant village, difficult even to locate on the map, such as the one on ‘One seed one land’ .
Nothing wrong in hard hard hitting journalism (Arnab Goswami’s ‘The Bullet bites you’ ) but does it have to be always aggressive often incorrect and based on half baked information to prove the point ? In most of the cases uncovering dirt seems to be the main objective often on hearsay evidence without much independent verification of facts.
Let the excellent trend set by ‘Outlook’ continue with at last two if not more such ‘feel happy’ articles to make me feel proud of our people, culture, traditions of thrift, honesty, hard work and the spirit of innovation to get over hopeless situations , where the ‘mai baap’ (government) has miserably failed to rectify !
Believe me, the ‘Independence-Day Special’ issue shall be a collectors item, for me at last !
R.C.Acharya, 18,Sector A, Pocket C, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi 110070 >
PANKAJ KUMAR, MUMBAI
@ Pankaj Kumar, Mumbai :
Mukul Kesavan and Arundhati Roy both owe their reputation to a novel. And both after having produced their one novel have devoted themselves to writing in newspapers and talking on talk shows. But whereas Arundhati Roy is internationally known after her best-selling novel as an opponent of multi-national corporations and supporter of the Indian underclass and minorities, Mukul Kesavan after his (putrid) novel is known mainly in India as a simpering supporter of the completely corrupt Congress.
Mukul Kesavan should speak to Saba Naqvi. Saba has just written a pice - in this same edition - titled "The Throne And The Gutter" - 'Why is it that feel-bad reportage makes the reporter feel so good?'. And here Mukul is asking why there is so little 'feel good' reporting. Saba answers very eloquently...
"Unlike the nation-state, however, it is hard for self-appointed self-righteousness to remain hegemonic for any length of time and the headlines have moved on from Hazare’s high noon."
Thats prescient, Mukul Kesavan.
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