As a kid I was a huge fan of Amitabh Bachchan (indeed I still am a massive fan) and his movies. I vividly remember the high I used to get while watching the climax of the film where he would pound the bad guy. The crowd in the usually over-packed theatre would cheer for every punch and one liner that Bachchan so brilliantly delivered. So what was the appeal? It was the age-old formula. Bachchan was the good man, the man we supported, the man we wanted to be, the man who took care of his family and helped the poor. The villain was the opposite, he was all that we despised; murderous, immoral, corrupt and ill-behaved, seeing him dispatched and seeing good triumph over evil was what we all loved and wanted to happen again and again and again. That was clearly escapist cinema, pure entertainment, enough to capture the imagination of a seven- year-old boy who wanted to become like his idol.
The next day at school the discussions went like this –
“Did you see how Amitabh kicked Amjad Khan?”
“I loved it when Amitabh slaps the bad guy.”
“Do you remember that scene? What about that dialogue?”
“Wow it was so much fun, I want to watch this again and again and again.”
But with great fun came great pain. I also remember my parents compelling me to watch the news; there wasn’t much choice back then apart from DD News. There was dull incidental music, dull newscasters with dreary monotonous voices and unsmiling faces. I watched it since it was supposed to inform me about the occurrences around the country and the world. It was clear to me, news was the bitter pill that had to be watched to broaden your horizon but it was no fun. The same was true for the newspapers – very few pictures, total black and white and using very complex English.
The next day at school the discussion would go like this –
“Did you watch the news?”
“Yes, my father asked me to watch.”
“Yes mine too.”
“Boring isn’t it?”
“What do I care if something happens in Delhi?”
“My father made me read the paper this morning, I now know the meaning of the word ‘counterpart’.”
“I wish we could watch Amitabh Bachchan movies instead.”
“That won’t happen.”
We would shake our heads in dismay as we knew another edition awaited us that night. As kids, we understood that movies were enjoyment that we wanted more and more of while the news was tiresome and inconsequential, something that, we would have avoided completely had we had a choice. That’s the way it was, movies were made for entertainment and for producers to reap huge profits. DD News was run by the arm of our government to inform and profit wasn’t the objective.
Thirty years later we have a surfeit of news channels, no pressure from the government to censor themselves, relatively bigger budgets and a bigger team. You would think this would work towards its advantage. But strangely enough they have adopted the formula of the Amitabh Bachchan film i.e. the good guy versus the bad guy, they even have background music for news stories, jump cuts and double/triple takes. No longer is the news during primetime a place where information is imparted or any deep investigative reporting indulged in. What we have now is a host who is more like a circus ringmaster, we have a “burning issue”, we have people from either side of the political spectrum of the issue and then the quarrel begins. There are times when the host himself or herself has leanings or interests about the issue and populates his panel according to what he wants the outcome to appear. What happens after that is that our television screen gets divided into sections. And then it all begins – talking, cross-talking, yelling, unsubstantiated allegations, innuendoes, personal attacks, name-calling, hate-mongering, and on some rare occasions when something sensible is said, the rest of the panelists will make sure that this imparter of sense is shouted into submission.
Had these actually been guests at your place, you would have summarily dispatched them out of your house. But since these are people of eminence such as political leaders, journalists and intellectuals “examining a serious issue on a serious news program”, you allow the pandemonium to play out. In the end, you feel satisfied that you spent time watching a news channel – because in reality, you’ve just been entertained.
The conversations in office the next day go like this:
“Did you see how the BJP guy outdid the Congress stooge?”
“Did you see how the Congress man destroyed the BJP man with just one sentence?”
“Wow, that was cool. That was fun, can’t wait to watch this again tomorrow. Maybe my guy will deliver a bigger punch.”
“So much better than DD News.”
We watch it over and over again. Does this help us form a fresh opinion? Not really, we have already chosen our hero and villain and watch looking for more reasons to venerate our hero and despise our villain. Do we learn something? No. But we have deceived ourselves into thinking we have, since it is a news channel we are watching. But actually, it’s fun and addictive and we want more.
So why is there this dismal need for theatricals in presenting information? Thanks to news programmes competing for TV ratings which lead to greater advertising revenues and in a bid to earn higher profits, they’ve decided to cut costs. If you send a reporter into the field for investigation it takes copious amounts of time and money – you have to spend time at the place of the problem, interact with people on either side of the issue, have discussions with your team and then come up with a news story revealing details and perspective which nobody else has. By the time a detailed report is ready, the nation has moved on to the next story. So our news channels have decided that they will address the burning issue right now and all you will remember is the punch lines.
The news people will blame the people – “they want it, so we have no choice”. Much like the film producer will tell you that a formula film with a sleazy item song is needed because “the public wants it”, only to be stupefied when a perceived “unconventional art film” works at the box office without the need of gimmicks. The biggest fallacy is that “being entertaining” is often confused with dumbing down to attend to the least common denominator.
What of the content? Is it fair and balanced? Well, nobody can be entirely fair. The moment you look at anything, it is your perspective. But that’s why you have a team comprising of diverse people to examine and cross-examine and facilitate all points of views to be presented. Instead, what seems to be happening is that most journalists seem to have decided who or what they like and don’t. They then work backwards to populate their panel and script their news narrative to make sure they convey this point of view to their viewer.
People choose their medium based on their ideological proclivity, which means that we have people pushed further and further to their ideological corners. Most of us hear what we want to hear, on Twitter we follow only whom we agree with and insulate ourselves from any difference of opinion. We abuse and demonise those whom we disagree with. It is a fact that humans thrive and grow when exposed to opinions contrary to theirs. But by having these extremely polarised channels, we will soon produce a generation of people who approach issues only through the thick lens of their ideology.
If news channels take it upon themselves, they could present the news in a manner that is compelling yet maintaining high standards of journalistic integrity. We could have investigative reporting and documentaries; we could mitigate bias and eliminate dramatics. We can have points of views that can challenge our own. We could have discussions and not arguments. But even if a Utopian channel was to be established, it may take time to wean the public off their staple diet of news theatrics. The focus on instant viewership and instant profits will have to take a back seat. And this means corporates may not want to participate.
We will have to have channels that are truly independent financially. But will the general public be willing to pay for getting their news right? The other choice is to sit down in front of our TVs every evening, mutter good night and good luck to ourselves, and continue to watch news channels rapidly hurtle down the bottomless chasm of amateur theatrics, petty quarrels and propaganda masquerading as news.