Monday, February 8, 2016

News TV Has Offensive Ways & Film-Star Anchors. Luckily This Anchor Tells Unfolding History

Indian news television demeans India. It has tribal characteristics that are eccentric and, more often, offensive. Only in India do news anchors outshout their guests. Only in India do channels crowd the little screen with so many different elements -- multiple layers of headlines on screen top, then the main picture and a subsidiary picture splitting the screen, more headlines further below, a trailing line of spot news at screen bottom plus logos and sponsor's name and, not to be missed, the talking head of the channel's anchor hero popping up now and again, all simultaneously flashing and jumping for attention. One ridiculous channel even has a line of fire raging across the middle of the screen to indicate that burning issues are being debated. Is this what made US Vice President-turned environmentalist Al Gore say: The idiot box judges news by the maxim -- if it bleeds, it leads; if it thinks, it stinks?

This kind of journalism assumes that viewers are morons who will believe anything they are told. Responsible journalism is just the opposite. In print or television, nothing is more precious than trust -- the trust readers/viewers place in the providers of news and comments. The trust is earned through respect for the reader/viewer. In pre-independence India, the judicious prudence of C.Y.Chintamani was so patent that even the power-wielders he criticised would wait eagerly for his editorials which sometimes extended from one day to the next. In the early decades of independence Sham Lal's erudite integrity was so influential that his weekly column, Life and Letters, could make or mar a book.

For comparable cases in television journalism, we must go West. Walter Cronkite, CBS anchor in the 1960s and 70s, was known as "the most trusted man in America". BBC's Richard Dimbleby was celebrated for his running commentary on historic events such as Churchill's funeral. When he was in charge of the microphone, it was said, people felt "they were in safe hands". If the Cronkite-Dimbleby standards had inspired our nascent news television, we would have taken quick steps to maturity. Instead, we followed Fox News style of sensationalism.

This wide-angle view might help us see Barkha Dutt's India in perspective. Ms. Dutt's book This Unquiet Land: Stories from India's Fault Lines cannot be separated from the work that has made her the signature face of India's news television. But she has risen above the quick-fix cheapness of Indian news television and given us a treatise that is as much a summing up of our "uncaring, unequal society" as the case diary of a daring journalist.

She opens with an anecdote to show that "nothing, no matter how crazy, would stop me in my efforts to get a good story". That is so with all good journalists. In print few tomtom it. In TV, too, foot soldiers of ability provide foundational reporting without staking big claims -- Pallavi Ghosh, Arunima, Bhavtosh, Suhasini Haidar to mention a few random examples. But in India anchors are film stars. Ms. Dutt is so well endowed with qualities of leadership and enterprise that her zeal for chasing stories could have been left for viewers to see for themselves and admire.

Ditto with some of the achievements she highlights. True, she carried the Kargil story into the homes of India. But wasn't that really the impact of television? It certainly wasn't comparable to the feat of W.H.Russell whose words-only account of the Crimean War in the 1850s was effective enough to inspire Florence Nightingale to take to battlefield nursing as her life's mission.

The celebrity Ms. Dutt is, she really has no need for name-dropping, no need to tell us how she met Narendra Modi casually at the "wedding of the son of my friend Shobhana Bhartia, the well-liked owner of the Hindustan Times", or how Nawaz Sharif "invited me to the Delhi Taj Mansingh Hotel to have a cup of tea with him". For that matter, she could have avoided justifying her tryst with lobbyist Niira Radia's influence-peddling in Delhi. The more we try to justify some messy situations, the messier they become.

That said, Ms. Dutt's is a timely book. As a feminist and virtual participant in current history, she has used her unique position to paint a realistic picture of India and its wellknown and unknown newsmakers. She writes with courage and candour, above all, without partisanship in an age of sickening partisanship. She is talented and skillful and she has written an honest book. Read it.