Media Manthan: Why the show must go on

The nation needs a Hindi television show that puts a spotlight on the media and its many failings.

ByBiraj Swain
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Media Manthan: Why the show must go on
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Full disclosure: The author has been a panelist on few episodes of Media Manthan.

The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.

-Bernard Cohen, political scientist

One such programme shining a spotlight on the role of the press in shaping the mainstream discourse (for good or for worse), our thinking and framing of the debates, was Media Manthan on Rajya Sabha TV. In a country of multiple self-claimed national TV channels and over-presence of media, this was the first and only programme on national TV doing dedicated media-watch since September 2011. Urmilesh, the renowned Hindi journalist, was its creator, curator and host. He started the programme while he was Executive Editor of Rajya Sabha TV but continued to curate and host the show even after he stepped down as the channel’s Executive Editor and became an independent journalist. He has presented episodes week after week, without break, till the end of May 2017.

I am using the past tense because Urmilesh has stepped down as the host while the programme continues. His exit from Media Manthan was without fan-fare and the farewell was declared to the world in a routine sign-off by the anchor himself. No big-bang announcements, no mid-programme break, just a warm heart-felt farewell as he signed off. Watch his last episode on Media Manthan here. He has gone on to start his own show watching the media of the country, on The Wire. Watch the first episode of the series Media Bol here on The Wire Hindi. And his original show Media Manthan has gone on to be hosted by Kavindra Sachan, his first episode is here.

Why should we care about the movement of a journalist-anchor? Various reasons, not least because it was the first and only media watch programme on national TV. But because it was fierce in its commitment to critique the most sacred cow of the press, that is, the press itself (as one of the greatest journalists of 20th century, George Seldes put it). And his week-on-week panel discussion-based critiques came from a place of commitment to the original tenets of journalism, not from cynicism that decried the fourth pillar en masse as presstitutes.

The man

Urmilesh belongs to that old tradition of scholar-journalists with over 8 books under his belt. He has worked with the industry leaders, that is, Dainik Bhaskar, Navbharat Times, Dainik Hindustan. He has written for and been a commentator with those three and Prabhat Khabar, BBC Radio, Aaj Tak, BBC.com et al. It is his exposure to the vast expanse of news media, from print, radio, web portals to television, which convinced him that India desperately needs to watch its media, to reclaim journalism as a public service, to reinforce Dooley’s working definition as the talisman, “The job of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Celebrating the role of activist-journalists with progressive politics and their partisan pens, Jack Schafer wrote, “No politically contentious issue has ever escaped the eye and the pen of partisan and activist journalists. Labor journalist John Swinton used his press to campaign for working people in 1884; Helen Hunt Jackson confronted the treatment of American Indians in 1885; John Muir defended the Yosemite Valley from the timber industry in 1890; Jacob Riis recorded tenement poverty in How the Other Half Lives in 1890; and Ida B. Wells exposed the South’s casual lynching practices in 1892.” Urmilesh embodies those values in the Hindi journalism space.

As Norman Solomon writes in the Huffington Post, “No institutions are more image-conscious than big media outlets. The people running them know the crucial importance of spin, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to promote media criticism that undermines their own pretenses. To reach the broad public, critics of the media establishment need amplification from… the media establishment. And that rarely happens unless the critique is shallow.”

This seems to have been the core concern of Urmilesh in his media critic role. While he was openly partisan to the cause of the marginalised, to the values of democracy and the welfare state, he was equally neutral to the cause of media critique, be it friend or foe. This is best illustrated in these two episodes, one in which he celebrates Ravish Kumar’s labour reportage from Gurgaon, the other in which he calls out Ravish Kumar’s prime-time show for discussing Dalit Ministers and political portfolios with a set of high-caste panelists.

He feels reporting on inequities cannot be devoid from the politics of inequities. Hence his participation in mass organisations, people’s movements, academic discourse, is equally important for him as a journalist. He dons the public intellectual’s hat with as much ease as he dons the journalist’s hat. Some of his episodes have been part of curriculum and master class in many Indian journalism schools.

The Show

Media Manthan will be written up in Indian journalism treatises as the first and only dedicated media watch show on TV for a long time. A studio-based deep-dive panel discussion format, which picked one issue and the way media (mainstream, alternate, legacy, digital, print) treated the same.

But its biggest contribution will be breaking the stranglehold of the G-37. In the 2016 RedInk Awards’ function panel discussion, Sucheta Dalal called out the hegemony of same old, same old panelists pontificating on all issues under the sun and shaping the opinion of a diverse and vast country. Quoting Chitra Subramaniam, she called them the group of 37 who populated TV studio panel discussion night after night, no matter what the topic.

Killing diversity in studio panels has more than one sinister outcome for a democracy like India. Watch her intervention here, and also laugh at the irony that this discussion is being moderated by Shobhaa De! And credit where it is due, Media Manthan did break the shackles of same old, same old experts, opinionators who would pontificate on anything, from particle physics to nationalism! Urmilesh introduced some of the best speakers/experts/panelists and the world of 9pm TV would do good to take them more often. From Vineet Kumar, Ashok Bharti, Beena Pallical, Shambhu Prasad, Ratan Lal, Mani Mala to Vasavi Kiro, Gladson Dungdung, so on and so forth. Making space for people doing real reportage in the distant and invisible parts of India with living and lived experiences of structural violence, is the legacy contribution of Media Manthan.

While film critic Anupama Chopra’s episode with comedians has been panned, and rightly so, for hosting a discussion on female comedians’ challenges with a single female comedian on panel, who barely got to speak, Urmilesh has done the exact opposite. In his episode on Women in Media, he came with an all-women panel of outstanding journalists with almost pan-India representation.

From caste in newsrooms to obsession with South Delhi and South Mumbai in mainstream media reportage, from violation of Majithia wage board recommendations to ownership patterns of media houses and consolidation in journalism, from media black-outs on poverty and inequality to the shambolic state of reportage on police brutality and fake encounters, from over-presence of mythology and misogyny in entertainment programming to the loss of autonomy amongst public broadcasters, no topic was too sacred, no topic taboo. But he always prioritised the issues of the sub-altern, the marginalised, the working class, the peasant folks and their interface (or the lack of it with the media).

As a media critic, the importance of fierce independence was not lost upon Urmilesh. His Media Manthan episodes became fearless speaking truth to power, especially the powerful in the media fraternity and the creeping menace of self-censorship. His was one of the first shows to report on India’s abysmal performance on World Press Freedom Index, much before it became a thing amongst the various media outlets. With his own independence from institutional employment and its accompanying obligations, the episodes had become fiercer. Sample these episodes:

One really hopes the standards Urmilesh set for Media Manthan are carried forward by Kavindra Sachan, in the diversity of panelists and range of topics. As for Urmilesh, he is going on to a very exciting medium, digital! Digital media has lesser censorships, lesser fears, lesser cost burdens and much more irreverence and one hopes he takes full advantage of the opportunities digital media presents in ramping up the unrelenting nature of his programme content.

And for those who pan his long introductions, I feel they are some of the best framing of debates, master-class in setting the context. Sample this on poverty and inequality and media reportage. And stay till the end to listen to his sign-off quoting Thomas Piketty and Dr BR Ambedkar.

The author can be reached at biraj_swain@hotmail.com

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