February 22, 2020
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The Media Is The Message

Incredibly loud, incredibly silent. Indian journalism, caught on tape.

The Media Is The Message
Illustration by Sorit
The Media Is The Message

Confession: Until last Thursday, I never appreciated Niira Radia. Shocking, but true. I work for a lifestyle publication and we have a lot to do with one of Radia’s PR firms. It’s usually a waste of time. For which I apologise. I didn’t realise Radia was running the country.

I’m so embarrassed! I mean, now I think about it, compared to that guy, you know—the greasy eminence behind the lifestyle publication The Free Lunch—I should have offered to coach Mukesh Ambani, or carry secret messages to the Congress. The kind of things that real journalists do. And then, maybe Niira would have told me, “That was really great. Thanks. Thanks to you!”

But did I once offer her a quid or even a quo? Did I ever ask, “What do you want me to say?” Or “What should I tell them?” Noooo! I expected all those press releases for free. As Niira says, “the media is very, very, greedy”. Niira is so right. Niira is an oracle. But one thing Niira  is not, as any real journalist knows, is news. There’s a reason for that.

Back in ’03, the leading newspaper in this land threw many worthy journalists into a spin with a shining line called Medianet. Today it’s prosaically called ‘paid content’ and ‘edvertorials’. Their reasoning was silky: “The role we envision for Medianet is that of a conscience-keeper, auditor and watchdog, regulating the media’s burgeoning interaction with the PR sector.” It sounds like the devil himself. But they were onto something. And they knew you’d object: “Those who are apoplectic about the perceived invasion of the ‘message’ into the domain of ‘content’ may want to consider that the two have long since ceased to be strangers, and are sharing an increasingly symbiotic relationship. Marshall McLuhan famously declared that the medium was the message. In all humility, we’d like to say, Medianet is the messenger—heralding a brave new world of innovation.”

Isn’t that brilliant? Especially the bit where they gloss McLuhan, Huxley’s dystopia and ‘innovation’—a term of art for advertising in editorial places. The old lady of Boribunder is an oracle too. That’s journalism: Tomorrow’s news, yesterday. So when some has-been journalists whine that the leading newspapers and TV channels have been silent on the Radia tapes, just tell them. Of course they’re silent. Have you offered to pay them? I didn’t think so!

Unfortunately, there are alternatives to the dignified, business-like silence of real journalism. There are greedy magazines like this one, and hungry ones like Open. Worst of all there’s the internet, which as you know hasn’t even been properly monetised yet. That’s not journalism!

And yet, sometimes, mostly late at night, I hear a still, small voice telling me something is rotten in Indian journalism. It’s a small voice. Actually it’s not so still. But I know it’s not about conscience-keeping or the national interest, because Medianet and Niira Radia have got that covered. It goes on though, with a catalogue of petty complaints, scandal and mean-spirited remarks. Let me share it with you, it’ll just take one cathartic paragraph.

How can TV anchor-journalists pretend the Radia tapes aren’t viral on the net and then repair to their nightly orgies of Twitterlicking and Facebukkake? How do you go from the indignant maven of We the People to “Okie. Gnite tweeple”? Why does Rajdeep Sardesai describe his own monogrammed opinions on CNN IBN as “our editor’s take”? Why does he shout so much? Why wasn’t it bigger news when the son of a famous newsmagazine editor was apprehended for passing a Rs 10 lakh bribe from a newspaper to the Company Law Board? Why is plagiarism not a firing offence for newspaper film reviewers? How can the editor-in-chief of a newsmagazine explain his plagiarised editorial by telling us it was ghostwritten? How can an editor describe her own prose as ‘searing’ on the cover of The Halka? Is the copy desk just the workstation where you concoct the ‘Letter for the Editor’? What is wrong with Arnab Goswami? Why is every story an ‘exclusive’, even if it’s not? Are TV anchors journalists, or entertainers? And aren’t newspapers supposed to have front-page news instead of one big ad—sorry, edvertorial?

Phew! I have no idea where that came from. A twisted, hypertext-linked, projection of the collective unconscious most likely. My still, small voice is full of Freudulent theories. It tells me that the mainstream media in this country are the untrammeled ego, driven by the compulsions of grand narcissism and greed. That the internet is the id, a bacchanal of schadenfreude, voyeurism, logorrhea and porn. What’s missing is the critical morality of a super-ego. Something like a uniform code of ethics. For journalism. The small voice says, in conclusion, it’s no wonder our multimedia media stars have raving personality disorders.

I know, I know. I’m the one with the personality disorder. Oh god! There it goes again. My still, small voice. It says the headline should read ‘The media are the message’.

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