How the news cycle killed #MeToo in India

When social media sets journalism’s agenda, the Indian fourth estate duly buckles.

ByRahul Jayaram
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How the news cycle killed #MeToo in India
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A couple of weeks ago, this writer argued that despite the most recent sexual harassment allegation against a major Bollywood director, #MeToo India has gone quiet. I had listed some of the intellectual inadequacies of #MeToo in India as a reason. In this context, it’s important to also look at the role of mainstream and social media platforms.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms broke stories and delivered #MeToo in India—not the mainstream media. In the US, it was The New York Times and The New Yorker that exposed Harvey Weinstein. It was then that social media took over. A genuine difference between #MeToo in India and the US is that the fourth estate there not only broke the news, but also provided the still-continuing, multi-layered follow-up. In India, the opposite transpired. Twitter gave us the breakthrough and then social media and mainstream press got together to give readers the #MeToo India stories.

There can be no greater indictment of the current state of mainstream media than that. Some news portals sustained the social media stories and did significant carryovers. Three months down the line, things have almost wound down. Mainstream media is turning away from one of the most vital social issues affecting Indian society.

#MeToo India’s major drawback has been that social media alone set its agenda. It’s been revolutionary in breaking societal, professional and patriarchal codes and “outing” harassers. Yet in sustaining a serious conversation that invites a pluralism of views, it’s been worrying. There’s a real “you-are-with-or-against-me” subtext seared into its nature. One of the reasons #MeToo India has gone mute is because the binary framing has exhausted itself. Well, it had to—eventually.

When the #MeToo fires were raging three months ago, there also appeared a toxic demonisation of men as a species. Men’s historic misogyny was met with its counter. It had to happen. Twitter fanned it. There was also collateral damage and some rank misuse of #MeToo heat to arraign innocent individuals and brand them as abusers—all sure-fire signs of a “movement” burning itself up. At such moments, movements rarely give an ear to dissenters.

This tremor generated from social media forced traditional media to react and pursue with the findings and allegations. But once the revelations began to taper off on social media, traditional media too started to move away from the complexities of the issue. Barring some exceptions like Scroll and The News Minute, our media failed twice. Once, by only pursuing #MeToo because it broke the Internet; and twice, because it wasn’t able to convert the momentum into a series of multi-layered, investigative questions that could expand our understanding of gender relations in Indian society.

The media therefore failed in alchemising this start into a long, meaningful conversation on key matters. When Twitter-Facebook-Instagram solely dictated the schedule of the news pages on this topic, you knew something was broken in our journalism. Social media set the “news cycle” and the “news peg”. With some exceptions, traditional media forgot to hit the pause button and stalled from stepping back to gain perspective or just process the myriad features of long-suppressed abuse, mistreatment and miscarriage of justice. Hook, line and sinker—it fell to the frame set by social media.

Even at the best of times, the “news cycle” and “news peg” are problematic conceptions to decide the worth of a journalistic story. Some phenomena are eternally important. Readers have gained greatly with the continuous—and harrowing—reporting on 1984, 1992, 2002, Kashmir and Chhattisgarh. The Indian Express—one of the “follow-up” pioneers in Indian print journalism—covered each of the 189 lives immediately lost in the July 11, 2006 Bombay train bombings everyday as its front page anchor stories in all their editions well after the event lost its “news value”.

Generations of students and readers know what P Sainath said when he applied for a The Times of India fellowship in the early 1990s to get aid for reporting on farm distress in rural India. An interviewer on the panel told him that the paper’s readers were not interested in the topic. Sainath shot back: when the interviewer last met the readers. He went on to win the fellowship and his reporting went into the making of Everybody Loves a Good Drought, a classic in journalism. The “news cycle” and “news peg” are harmful for they impede important stories from being reported.

Similarly, if #MeToo isn’t eternally significant, it has to be made so by its journalistic interpreters. It cannot and must not be limited to the dictates of the news cycle and news-worthiness or the most recent celebrity being “outed”. Also, each subject comes with its own demands. As we saw with the revelations, women took decades to speak up about abusers. Now this is a deep and complex pain that needs time and space and a situation to be articulated in. Our journalism has to be sensitive and educated enough to realise that such socially relevant issues need to be treated without the problem of the “news peg” coming in the way.

As a phenomenon, #MeToo India is far, far from over—we might really be examining its beginning or middle. We haven’t scratched the surface of its caste, class, community and regional dimensions at all. Which is why, as and when the issues crop up, our journalism has to make the space for its vocalisation to take place—even if it doesn’t break the Internet. Our press can’t let Twitter define its agenda or let the news cycle inhibit socially germane reporting. But this won’t happen without genuine journalistic leadership. Where are the editor-leaders?

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