What is the matter with our media? The English press puts out a story one day and then has to eat crow the next. There are flat repudiations. One day we are told that the Kanchi Shankaracharya has confessed to being party to a murder. The next day we are told that he has done nothing of that sort. One day we are told that Appu, alias Krishnaswami, prime accused in the Sankararaman murder case has been arrested. The next day the story falls flat. What sickness is affecting our media?
It is not just the print media, which is rapidly losing its credibility. Television channels first reported the arrest of Appu in Hyderabad, then changed the location to Delhi and within hours confusion prevailed whether the arrest had at all taken place. Then comes the classic misreading of a statement made by Vladimir Putin, visiting Russian President, in the matter of giving India a permanent seat in the Security Council, complete with veto rights. It was reported that Putin had vetoed any Indian claim to veto rights. One headline (Deccan Chronicle) screamed: ?Putin for India in UNSC sans Veto?. Consider the situation: Putin makes his alleged view known at a joint press conference along with Dr Manmohan Singh. It isn'tthat he said whatever he said on the sly. He made his statement in full hearing of several correspondents. Did anyone stand up and ask for a clarification? Obviously none did. That is strange.
And how was his statement assessed? According to Hindustan Times, ?The Russian President made it clear that Moscow was not in favour of having more members in the exclusive veto club that helps the five permanent members to block any resolution or action of the Security Council.? Did Dr Manmohan Singh seek clarification? He was obviously present at the conference. Did any correspondent raise the issue? None, if reports are to be believed. The Hindu (December 4) has an interesting comment. Wrote its correspondent Amit Baruah: ?Asked whether Russia would support India'sentry into the Security Council with veto powers so as not to create a ?second class? category, Mr Putin gave a long reply, leaving some of his remarks open to interpretation.? Any sensible correspondent would have at once stood up and said: ?Sir, we cannot make out what you are saying. Would you please be more explicit and tell us clearly whether you are for India having a veto as a permanent Security Council member or not?? Were additional questions disallowed? Were the correspondents scared to ask for clarification?
The next day we are told that the misunderstanding was because of faulty translation. Putin evidently spoke in Russian. What is interesting is that Putin knows English quite well and if he was misinterpreted, he could have corrected his interpreter on the spot. Putin, it may be remembered, spoke in the presence of Dr Manmohan Singh. And the two had come to the press conference after they had full and frank talks. Why didn'tsomeone ask the Indian Prime Minister what interpretation he cares to give to the Putin statement? The matter is getting curiouser and curiouser.
The last time that our mediamen made fools of themselves was when General Musharraf gave a press conference in Agra. It would seem that amateurs are hired as reporters and it gives credence to a remark made by Seema Mustafa (Deccan Chronicle, December 4) to the effect that ?youngsters joining newspapers today do not even learn the basic tenets of the great profession?. In a strongly worded article, Mustafa writes: ?The young reporter learns that the best way to ride an even beat is to act as a stenographer and print what those in power say without question. This then gets carried over into the coverage of the Central Government, with more journalists taking their leads from the Press Information Bureau today and faithfully reporting every word of Ministry spokesperson than ever before??
Jayalalithaa'spolice hand out stories about the Kanchi Shankaracharya which are published without checking. The excuse given is that the police have a right to say what they have to say and who is anyone to challenge them? Who is at fault: the reporter, or the editor? Or someone in between like a News Editor or a Chief Reporter, if newspapers have any? Writes Seema Mustafa: ?It is the proprietors who run mainstream newspapers today, or the editors they choose, who are the worst enemies of journalism today?? And she adds: ?It is a question that has befuddled serious journalists for a while now, more so as the standards of decent journalism have dwindled to a point where even national dailies often sound as apologists or cheer leaders for politicians and their unsound policies.?
Mustafa'scondemnation of present-day editors is even more severe. According to her, ?many holding top posts today do not know the difference between a good headline and bad one, are unable to define news to the working journalist and, in the process, have abdicated their responsibility of getting a professional standard that encourages good journalism in every sense of the word.? Seema knows what she is talking about and she has a point when she writes: ?Many (and this time I will not name any particular editor or the newspaper) have turned into glamour boys spending more time in interviewing Page 3 celebrities for various television channels than making any serious contribution to journalism through the newspapers they edit.? The trouble seems to be that editors are not editing their papers. They are serving the business interests of the owners of the papers they supposedly edit. And there'sthe rub.
It is difficult to imagine a Devdas Gandhi or a Tushar Kanti Ghosh, a Sadanand or a Srinivasan, a Durgadas or a Chalapathi Rao acting as anchorman on a TV channel. They were editors, not glamour boys. They had self-respect in ample measure. To quote Seema Mustafa again: ?The damage being done to journalism by the self-seeking editors can be seen from the directionless reporting that fill the newspapers today, from the stories that are not printed because they will offend one or the other political lobby, from the reluctance of younger journalists to investigate leads lest they offend the editors and be out of a job??
Enough said. The Seema Mustafas are in a sad minority. Today'sjournalism is not, repeat NOT, the journalism of yesterday. Times, alas, have changed. So have The Times of India and Hindustan Times. Other times, other values.