Satyajit Ray Trumps Pakistan

The gentle - and roughshod - art of gauging news stories.

I have no idea whether they still put you, a prospective newsman, through one of the most gruelling tests in the universe or not. But in my first attempt to be on the payroll of a newspaper in the late 20thcentury, I came face-to-face with the notorious “Let’s See You Make A Front Page, Betaa!” test.

Essentially, you were given five to six headlines that you had to stack up in accordance to their importance. If I remember correctly, the ‘news items’ that came in on my day as Pretend Page One Editor were (in no particular order of importance):

1. Satyajit Ray receives life-time achievement Oscar

2. Berlin Wall falls

3. Pakistan sends troops along Kashmir border

4. Gavaskar beats Bradman’s record of most centuries

5. JyotiBasu agrees to be prime ministerial candidate.

News items No. 1 and No. 5 had a bearing on the fact that I was applying for a job in The Telegraph, a Calcutta newspaper. And being the sort of chap used to drawing up lists such as The Top 10 Car Songs and Five books I’ll save if my house catches fire, I was on moderately familiar ground. But I figured that testing my news sense wasn’t really about my idea of the order of important news. It was about whether my order matched their order.

Which is essentially what having good ‘news sense’ remains to this day: whether your news judgment matches the news judgment (read: that of the newspaper and of rival publications as well). A news editor usually wakes up to scour the front pages of other newspapers to first check whether he has missed any big story. Then he checks how the others have played the ‘common’ stories, sniffing out the exclusives, if any. This is an instinctive act similar to a medium checking out whether there are any disquiet spirits in the room.

But this column’s not a primer on how to develop decent news sense. If the Force is strong with you, you’ll get the hang of it even without the help of an Obi Wan Kenobi constantly chattering about his yearscovering Operation Bluestar and the Babri Masjid demolition. And these days, with ‘personalised’ news on the internet being the rage and everybody having a midget news editor lodged in their brains, it’s probably more about getting the hierarchy of page 1 news different from other publications – rather than the same – that is the object of the game. I’m told it helps you stand out without having the botherof breaking exclusive stories.

Which actually makes sense. Considering that if you have a story on ‘Standard & Poor downgrading India’s credit rating’ following the lead story of ‘Consensual sex with an under-18 (as opposed to an under-16) made illegal’, you get both news items played on the front page but with readers wondering, “Hmm, this paper’s different”. News editors of other papers, of course, will make digs at your ‘weird’ news sense. But even their brains will be humming and going, “Hmmmmm”. (As you may have figured out by now, newspapers make people hum a lot, a distinct advantage they have over television.)

Which makes me come to the crux of the matter: can you have a wrongnews sense?

Like batting in cricket, it’s really about how you act on the pitch while nicking a ball to the boundary. If a batsman makes it apparent that it was a fluke shot, then he’ll be flayed for it by the commentators and back in the dressing room. But if he makes it look -by his follow-through or gesture – that this was exactly the shot heintended to play (even if he actually didn’t), he’ll be seen as the maverick asset. It’s the same with news sense. Get your order of news on page one without flinching and worrying about what other zurnalistswill think. Just wow the reader.

Which is when we come to the glorious landscape of the mountains and the hills. There are three basic news-geological entities we’re dealing with:

1. Mountain out of a molehill: This is the essential bread-and-butter device in these crowded media-social media times. The television media, a continuous Irrawady of information, is a master of this by virtue of what it is. Large swathes have to be filled with news and, without killing the golden goose, as much BIG news as possible. The consequences of making a mountain out of a molehill is much more dramatic and successful in the more truncated zone of newspapers. (Shouting in a church is more dramatic than shouting in a meadow.)

So when a newspaper decided to go full out on the front page about the news of an experiment that found sub-atomic particles to move faster than light, the paper (as well as the news) got full play. It’s another matter that a few months later, there was news that the experiment was faulty and the conclusion bogus. This bit didn’t quite get played up – leaving some of us still unaware that it’s still difficult to catch the flight that you’ve just missed. But the First Day dhamaka on the front page still proves the point of the efficacy of mountain-making out of mole-bumps.

2. Molehill out of a mountain: This is not what it sounds like -playing down a big story by actually playing it down. Instead, this is about convincing the reader about what a paper believes to be a small, moderately inconsequential story that has been played up by others (newspapers, television or non-media sources). This serves two purposes: the ‘corrective’ news making a splash by itself; and, more importantly, the news is made at the cost of others.

So if Rahul Gandhi’s failure in the UP assembly elections was tom-tommed by everyone and his ChachaNehru, making a big deal out of the silliness about how all this focus on one Congressman’s failure made for an easy and heartier lunch. Essentially, this is making a mountain out of a molehill that was turned erroneously into a mountain by others.

Again, because of the nature of the beast, television media doesn’t believe in this routine of denying or playing down things even in a dhamaka manner. How can they shout about nothing? That’s left to the more ‘nuanced’ print jockeys.

3. Mountain out of a non-molehill: This is genuine dodgy territory and is, still, an alien landing zone for most mainstream media outlets. Except, that is, for the Scully and Mulder X Files team at The Indian Express that ran the full frontal story of a potential army coup. It works for a wee bit (read: two days) amongstjournos downloading their rums at the Press Club. (“Why did they run the story?”;“What a strange way for Mukesh-bhai to want to destablise the government.”; “Was this because Shekhar Gupta never made it to the army?”;“Gen VK Singh’s behind it but how does this help?”)

But beyond that, it’s a waste of prime media property that goes into the X Files as yet another case study of unexplained media behaviour. This non-molehill turned into Mount Everest can only work on television since one can always billiard ball such an embarrassing display of news sense with some other ‘big’ news story with minimum damage. But on print, the smear stays.

As for the roster of news stories that I handed in for my first full-time job as a desk hand at The Telegraph, this was my list of stories for page one in order of importance:

1. Satyajit Ray receives life-time achievement Oscar

2. Gavaskar beats Bradman’s record of most centuries

3. JyotiBasu agrees to be prime ministerial candidate.

4. Berlin Wall falls

5. Pakistan sends troops along Kashmir border

I got the job. Go figure.


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