Why the Media is Selling Out

Because someone has to pay for journalism, and you, dear reader, are not buying.

Everyone who’s ever read an Indian newspaper seems to have an opinion on the entire Indian media. Most of it is uninformed opinion, but to paraphrase Dirty Harry for family readership, opinions are like rectal orifices. Everyone’s got one.

One popular opinion is that the Indian media is a large monolith that acts to promote certain views and interests. How anyone can come to so ridiculous a conclusion in a country that has 72,000 publications and 300 news channels is astounding. Logic is not everyone’s strong point however, so the view does hold sway especially among extremists and conspiracy theorists who cannot fathom why nobody loves them.

Another view is that the entire media has sold out. The Press Council of India report on paid news took note of a trust survey by independent public relations firm Edelman in 2010 that found that 40 percent of 1,575 Indian respondents trusted the print media. Obviously, 60 percent did not. The report went on to quote a trust survey conducted by Readers Digest, also in 2010 that ranked professionals on how much they were trusted. Journalists ranked 30 – next to barbers and bus drivers.

I don’t understand why people have so little faith in barbers. If they promise you a haircut and a shave, they give you one. What’s more, you generally end up getting the kind of haircut you asked for, more or less.

With news media, too, it’s like that. We promise, and give you, the news, more or less. Sometimes it’s more, as in the 2G case, and the Commonwealth Games scam cases, and the Niira Radia tapes case. Those were all instances that came to light thanks to the eager efforts of the media.

Sometimes, well, it’s less than the whole truth. And the media’s exertions could occasionally seem a little less than necessary when it comes to issues that really matter to most people. By this of course I mean cricket and Bollywood and maybe Sunny Leone. I mean, does anyone really want to know about more scams like 2G, mining, Commonwealth Games, and whatever else is the latest? Heck, is it even possible that our great almost superpower country of superbly honest politicians, business barons and, yes, journalists, could have even more scams that go unreported?

The mind boggles at such a possibility. Actually, all those scams were aberrations, and there is really nothing more going on anywhere else in all of India. That is why we keep you entertained with the things you truly want to know, all of which have to do with either sex or cricket or both.

If we tried really hard, we might be able to find a few other skeletons in a few other cupboards. However to do that requires a lot of stars to align.  For starters, it would need investigative reporters with the ability to uncover such stories. There are very few in India. This is partly because the media environment here does not encourage good investigative journalism.

Eminent journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who was one of two authors of the Press Council of India’s report on paid news, says that there’s a pressure from advertisers and the owners themselves that does not encourage investigative journalism. There is also an unwillingness to spend money on reporting stories. “We have a situation where the media has become increasingly compromised and oligopolistic,” he says.

In case you haven’t heard, here’s why advertisers can browbeat a newspaper into silence: they pay our bills, and your newspaper bills. The cost of production of a single broadsheet daily newspaper on a weekday is around Rs. 15 in any metro in India. It’s sold for around Rs 3. So the loss of Rs. 12 per copy has to be compensated, and a profit generated, with money from somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else’ is the advertiser.

There’s an old saying: he who pays piper calls tune. In the jungle we inhabit too, this is how it works. The advertiser pays the bills, and calls the tune.

Unless it’s the politician who pays the bills. This is directly so in the case of paid news, mentioned earlier. That used to work as follows, according to what emerged in the Press Council’s investigation: advertising department of newspaper would approach politician with offer to feature him or her in jolly good light, for a certain sum. Newspapers in many languages across the country developed this business model to reap election bonanzas. After all, they knew that politicians spend more than Rs. 1 crore in election expenses for an assembly seat almost anywhere in India, and much more for a parliamentary seat.

Of course none of this reflects in the election expenditure, and anyway, the money comes by and by from cuts in deals which beggar the taxpayer, such as you. You get your paper cheap, the businessman and politician go about their business unhindered, the newspaper makes its money, everyone is happy. So maybe you save Rs. 350 a month, and the politician makes Rs 350 crore as a result, but hey, a deal’s a deal.

Or at least, it was a deal, until the paid news report drew attention. It took a bit to become public because a lot of powerful people didn’t want it to see light of day. Now it’s out there and the Election Commission of India has taken it quite seriously. They’re threatening to take suo moto notice of news that appears to be paid news and are keeping a hawk’s eye on the media. This will scare all evildoers into becoming honest citizens and paragons of virtue. Actually, maybe not.

It would take a serious investigation to prove that a particular piece of news or an interview is the result of a deal between a politician and a newspaper. The EC currently doesn’t have the means to carry out such investigations. Media houses and politicians were careless earlier and hence got caught. Now they’ll be more careful. This basically means that the big stories that come to light will appear only when powerful politicians or business barons go at each other, using the media as a tool. That is probably how the 2G scam and the Radia tapes surfaced. That is how other such stories in future are likely to surface.

And practices such as paid news, and private treaties which consist of deals between certain advertisers and media houses, will likely continue.

The poor average journalist who goes about his or her job honestly and for quite poor salaries will carry on with their labours, and suffer routine frustrations. This category is easily the big majority.

The few bad apples in the journalistic fraternity who make money by cutting deals or blackmail will continue to thrive and prosper.

Editors, who are often honest folks, will carry on trying to bring out good newspapers and magazines but find themselves stuck because they will be asked to hire journalists at pays that peons in other industries might reject. They also won’t have newsgathering budgets or proper freelance rates. As a result their energies will be entirely consumed in somehow bringing out tomorrow’s newspaper with as few egregious errors as possible. The discourse will be about commas and fullstops. All ambitions of deep insightful stories will be set aside for better times, which will never come.

If by some accident the honest editor somehow finds himself sitting on a big enough story, the powers that lurk in the shadows paying the bills will start to exert their influence. The editor may decide to go ahead with the story in which case he or she will eventually find himself replaced by a more pliable person.

Of course the honest editor won’t be fired. He’ll just be pushed into a corner by an army of other journalists who are working for some corporate or political interest. These other editors, many in the same organization, will rubbish his decisions and challenge his authority until he quits in disgust or steps aside…or becomes pliable, like the rest. In case he turns out to be a stubborn character he’ll simply have to go.

As Thakurta says, “under the circumstances, more and more journalists would play safe, not ruffle feathers, and just do feel good stories.”

The scene now is that the media is big business, and therefore operates with a clear profit motive. Nobody has time for spoilers. There are huge deals worth thousands of crores being struck, and contracts being snagged, and it wouldn’t do to have some idiot with a conscience get moralistic about corruption or ethics or some such.

The media house, which is increasingly tied to other big business interests, might tolerate a troublemaker if the chap is useful for doing hatchet jobs on select targets. The selection of targets would depend on the powers that be.

Political and business influence can be gained or lost through media. Politicians and big business obviously have an interest in it. That is why they are increasingly buying stakes in it. Only the naïve would believe these folks can pour in their own easily earned money into media ventures to have them tell the whole truth and nothing but, and go after friends and enemies alike.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and there’s no such thing as a free media. It all costs money.

Until you, dear reader, start paying for good journalism, especially on the internet, there’s no chance you’ll get good journalism all in one place. You might discover something of the truth if you read every story in at least three places.

So, do that, or enjoy the cricket and Bollywood and Sunny Leone, and don’t be too frightened of ads that threaten to have pages other than P3. Without enough readers, that too shall pass.


Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/ivydawned/4103363780/]

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  • Abhishek Dwivedi

    You don’t get it dude. We are more than willing to pay. In fact, in today’s world, money shouldn’t be an issue at all. Kejriwal won an election, for god sake, with people’s money!

    But that’s not what you are asking. You are asking that we should pay YOU. Now that’s a bit tricky, because after paying twice I don’t feel like doing it again. Why? Because media means more than Arnab. You guys wash pretty selectively. There are many who need cleaning. But I don’t see bite or balance.

    Don’t mind, but Anand’s tweets are 10 times better than what the rest of you all do together. Appreciate your integrity; bring on the quality and cash has to follow. On my part, I’ll pay for sure.