Why media critique in India is a double-edged sword

The practice is fraught with risk as most exercises of scrutiny end up becoming part of the problem.

ByAnand Vardhan
Why media critique in India is a double-edged sword
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The practice of media critique is always fraught with the risk of becoming a part of the news media that it is supposed to examine. In India, media criticism has mostly succumbed to such risks.

Across various platforms, the exercises in media watch replicate the fault-lines and the biases that are not different from those seen in the news media. As a result, the crisis of credibility besetting the news media reappears as the trust deficit confronts the media watch exercises as well. Unsurprisingly, there are similar reasons behind the distrust of news media platforms and of those scrutinising them.

First, the projection or even self-perception of the sections of the news media in terms of a lazy binary of pro/anti-establishment is a poor approach. As information has a life of its own, the idea that it’s being disseminated to oppose or favour militates against basic curiosity. In essence, it’s a flawed template to follow when seeking the trust of a large section of consumers whose interest in the news universe is defined by information and ideas alone, and not by how it affects the power matrix. What, moreover, further muddles the matter is that the idea of “establishment” could mean different things in different settings. Neither the romantic appeal of a default anti-establishment tilt nor establishment-leaning can go beyond the echo chamber validation in winning the confidence of information seekers.

When the sources of credible information could be within or without political establishment— provided by the state or non-state actors— the use of pro or anti-establishment positions is contextual and limited. Ruling out state information or non-state information is a slippery slope when the question of credible news-gathering or informed commentary is concerned. People arguing about the state's resources in public communication often ignore the fact that in order to grasp the administrative reasoning and the state's version of it, such information is important.

Moreover, the technology-driven new information hierarchies make the sway of such resources anachronistic to a large extent. In fact, the establishment is one of the many co-claimants of the information supply chain. That, in the process, should entail a reappraisal of the Gramscian shibboleth about agents of ideological hegemony. So, seeking moral capital in a default anti-establishment setting is as fallacious as excluding the alternate sources of information which are critical of the establishment. In essence, information is establishment-neutral and any serious media outlet seeking to serve diverse information-consumers can only ignore it at the cost of across-the-board trust.

In the times of polarised politics, the crisis of credibility of the news media is more evident in its inability to win the confidence of fence-sitters. In such a milieu, media outlets tend to replace well- rounded news gathering with thesis-proving news narratives. While this makes the news outlets smug with the confirmation-bias support of an echo chamber, they fail to inspire confidence among the section of readers, listeners or viewers whose primary impulse is still shaped by a need to know and understand, rather than take definite positions. Constricted in the ideological continuum of left-right-centre and their various hues, Indian news media scene has provided only a few options for open-ended information dissemination.

One, for instance, may look at the coverage of contentious issues like cow vigilantism, new laws on interfaith marriages in some states and the farm protests in the states bordering Delhi. The tendency of media outlets to resort to editorialising the coverage with one section keen on exclusively highlighting the violence perpetrated by the cow vigilantes and refusing to cover the violence perpetrated by cow smugglers and the socio-economic reasoning behind the conflict. Similarly, another section of media had exclusive focus on the latter while ignoring the former. While covering interfaith marriage laws, sections of the media chose to highlight the cases which suited their editorial stand on the issue— either downplaying cases which proved to be false alarm or giving a short shrift or ignoring cases where the women themselves filed formal complaints. Both approaches don't do any good to a credible account of the issue and working of the law. More recently, the partisan coverage of anti-farm laws protests in some states by different news outlets have largely been confined to either uncritical acceptance of the contentious reasoning behind the protests or the discrediting of the stir. All this leaves the fence-sitters with a lot of scepticism.

In the US, despite recent years witnessing media outlets stressing the need for gaining public trust, a Gallup poll from last September found that the credibility of mass media among Americans was abysmally low. If such polls could be taken as a rough measure of the public perception, one could infer that the failure to win public trust wasn't only because of the intensely divisive state of American politics. It was as much a result of the selective and partisan nature of American mass media coming in the way of convincing fence-sitters about the credibility of information and commentary they were offering. While no such polls are available to gauge the mood of Indian media consumers, the results wouldn't be much different.

Second, as a by product, the various platforms of media critique or general news platforms which engage in commentary on the news media, also seem trapped in the pitfalls of deluding binaries. A large part of the problem is that they weren't born with open-ended objectives, but with a constricted mandate of being counter to something or the other. In becoming “dogged counter to co-option”, as media critic Sevanti Ninan put it, a new set of digital media outlets, including media critique platforms, revealed the binaries of ideological divide running through their worldview. One stream is obviously more inclined towards countering the political establishment led by a strong government at the Centre. Another stream identified a different form of establishment, loosely called the cultural establishment, to counter. It saw the danger of co-option coming from the entrenched establishment in media discourse – led by a left-liberal elite, pejoratively called Lutyens media. They also see themselves as challenging the uncritical and ill-defined “common sense” that the left-liberal elite has been institutionalising through media and educational institutions.

Despite very different reasons for resistance and quite contrasting perceptions of danger, the common thread is that both sets of media portals see themselves as a counter to some form of co-option. Any point of departure from such templates comes across as a matter of exception, not the rule. In fact, media consumers over time see such exceptions as tokenism— an exercise which by no means could be of any help in winning the trust of fence-sitting seekers of news and views.

The cumulative effect of the above factors working in tandem isn’t the only reason for the plunging trust in the media, but also a form of deprivation. While the trendy phrase of post-truth politics in the last decade did conceal the essential fact that politics was never a truth-seeking venture, it also looked away from the fact that journalistic narratives were always vulnerable as a record of events and issues. The current distrust in the media doesn’t move that story any further. While individual biases are inevitable and even part of the exercise, the failure of the new set of media organisations has been in their inability to emerge as a fair and balanced register of events and ideas which is greater than the sum total of ideological impulses and choices of people contributing to it. Instead of overcoming the latter, the Indian media scene seems to be creaking under its weight.

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