The Hindu (November 30) carried an interesting column on its Op-Ed page concerning bridging ?the Media-Academic Divide?, by Hasan Suroor. Suroor referred to a recent talk delivered at a gathering of academicians and journalists at Oxford University by a distinguished Oxford professor, Timothy Garton Ash. Apart from being an academician, Prof. Ash also happens to be a respected newspaper columnist. But the general opinion is that while an academician can be a columnist, a journalist cannot be an academician-an assumption that calls for analysis.
Time was when the vacuum between academia and journalism was too vast to be easily filled. The media did not lay down any specific rules and regulations or qualifications for an aspiring journalist to observe. No newspaper laid down academic qualifications to reach journalistic heights. Till the advent of the computer and the mobile the utmost that was expected of a young man dreaming of being a reporter was a knowledge of shorthand and typing. If he was familiar with three or four languages, that was and additional qualification. If one were acquainted with politics and politicians of the day and could write well, an assistant editorship was within his reach. Most journalists literally ?grew? in the profession the hard way. There was no need for them to flaunt a Ph.D in any discipline, be it history, politics, sociology, whatever. Many rose from the ranks without even a Masters to a show-off. If they knew how to write well-and many did-they went on to become columnists or editorial writers almost routinely.
Many went on form being reporters to sub-editors to reach the more exalted position of assistant editors as if by right. They were men and women of the earth-earthy. There was no need for them to be apologetic about their lack of academic standards. They did their job conscientiously, doing what an academician would call ?research? but for an investigative reporter merely meant digging out facts. Academicians frequently made use of them.
According to Suroor, ?even the most media-friendly tend to be rather sniffy about journalistic writing? an that when an academician used the term ?too journalistic? what he meant was that it was ?superficial?. That may have been partly true in the second and third quarter of the twentieth century. It doesn'thold good any longer.
?New journalism? is more about ?back-grounding? and analysis. A reporter who can go behind the breaking news and is able to analyse its implications has an edge over a mere news-gatherer, though the latter has also his place under the sun. Some one has to gather news, report an event as he sees it. He has no time to do research because of the nature of the job. But significantly more and more news organisations worldwide tend these days to have trained academicians on their staff. What is not often realised is that a journalist is often under severe pressure from various bodies, like his own newspaper proprietor, industry and political organisations. He is not always free to be ?academic? in the sense of wishing to distance himself from events, much as he may want to.
An academician has all the time to look back and see things in perspective. That luxury is often denied to the reporter who has to ?break news? as fast as possible and to be the first to do so. The reporter has another problem to deal with. He has to be ?readable?. He has to be ?reader-friendly?; in other words he has to know how to catch the eye of the reader and sustain his interest. It is a task more difficult than an academicians can imagine. An academician tries to sound profound. A reporter cannot afford that luxury. This does not mean that newspapers, in the nature of things, are ?shallow?. Far from it.
One has only to read the Op-Ed pages of newspapers like The Hindu or The Pioneer or the edit pages, additionally, of newspapers like The Free Press Journal or The Statesman which have distinguished writers engaged in analysing events-and they have been doing so for years. This is not a new development.
Good journalism does not see itself as a mere dispenser of news and, as Suroor correctly states it, it has ?an extended role as a form for debate around issues such as terrorism, nuclear technology, environment, global markets and IT?. Often, newspapers employ excellent staff though the ?generalist journalist? cannot just be ignored. The latter, because of long training, can deliver copy in record time, while the academician would be still struggling over his copy.
This is not meant to denigrate or underrate an academician. He his own professional standards to maintain and his work should be understood in that light. This again does not mean that a reporter is always stating the truth. What is truth, asked jesting Pilate, the Bible tells us, and paused not for an answer. There are reporters and reporters. Some either willingly or under orders get ?embedded? with the powers that be, most notably the government. It would be, in this connection, most instructive to read Prem Shankar Jha'sexcellent study, The Twilight of the Nation State detailing the chaos and war following the globalisation of the economy, the total lies that the US Government concocted to attack Iraq and the manner in which many in the media took the government line without questioning. There were so many involved in the plan to destroy Iraq and they included policy-makers, academicians and many in the media as well.
When so-called ?national interests? are involved the line separating the media and academicia starts to get blurred. The events that led to a US war against Iraq makes and excellent case study. Prof. Ash may not have had all this in mind when he made his innocuous remarks. Far too often academicians see things not in the larger context because they tend to concentrate on details. But what he did say makes an excellent subject for debate.
By way of rounding up one might be permitted to point out that presently there are over three hundred schools of journalism that turn out academician journalists. Not all schools, understandably, are well equipped but at least there is an admirable effort to turn out journalists whose competency lies not just in use of the computer and internet but also in the technique of analysis and fearless comment.
In other words contemporary journalists can take on academicians with as much competence as the latter in educating and informing the public, with, perhaps-modesty apart-a feeling for entertainment!