India is witnessing an unprecedented event. It is the largest election to date in the world. We have them every five years, but our population has grown since our own previous record. So has the reach of mass media and social media and mobile phones.
History is in the making, and our primitive media needs to evolve to be worthy of it. Let me not mince words. When I say primitive, I'm not speaking of your monthly air conditioning bill or the size of cars of our anchors, but the refinement of thinking that seems sadly absent.
Today, if we see the coverage of the elections, there really is little in terms of addressing the issues on governance and the priorities of people that will get expressed through the act of voting.
When we look back on a historic election, are we really to see a jumble of perception mongering and nothing that documents the change the country goes through? Are poll surveys, talk shows and campaign coverage all there is to elections? Is politics only about political parties?
What are the changes in the country? Demographics? Economy? Concerns about governance? How are they influencing how people engage with the structure of the country? How have gender rights engaged with the election process? Farmer rights? Tribal rights? Business classes, traders, large corporations? How are people choosing their leaders? What possibilities are there?
Evolution of people can't be about laws and policies alone. It takes a continuous dialogue, and it is where media is failing the country drastically. Our perception of priorities seems unable to exit what is within easy reach of elite areas. Rising devolution to primitive intolerance is further fanned by the media. And it isn't only about religion, it is about everything. Uncompromising conclusions and programmes that begin with black and white views and end there with the same few faces peddling the same few stands with changing "hot topics" that are remarkably similar to each other.
If we leave aside Satyamev Jayate, I can't recall the last time I heard dialogue on rape unless there was a young slim professional woman involved. Child rape, rape of older women, marital rape, gay rape and more are all not interesting enough. Because media is selling what sells, and what sells is violent sex/rape fantasies - even if they are accessed as being the problem. Media treats rape as sex, even when it is to say rape is not sex. The words being said are one thing, but the choice of "victims" tells its own tale. If there is a brief detour, it may be toward pedophilia. The knee jerk sitting up to pay attention of an exploitative population when titillating subjects fall on their ears, successfully turned into a low effort high turnover business. It isn't all that different from rape scenes selling films a decade or two ago. No one was calling the rapist a hero, but the crowd whistling in the theater used to say the film will be a hit.
We can speak of Soni Sori, and be angry about her specific perpetrators, who are not us. But speaking of the exploitation of tribal women or women of minorities... or worse women of the majority touches too close to home. Let us not do it. Who can blame you. Media is patriarchy after all. Male dominated, male owned, catering to a male dominated society, in bed with male dominated corporations and male dominated politics. You either consciously rise above these instinctive defaults, or quit the pretense of being progressive.
This is just one example. Every aspect of the country has vast unspoken sides. Kept silent to suit power lobbies.
What is the cost of living today? How much of our income are we saving as compared with our parents? Are these things the reason why the government faces an undeserved wrath, or has the government created them? What do people think about their ability to save? What do they believe will help them reach a more satisfying situation? You cannot expect your three piece suit to comment on the practicalities of running a home with three kids on a vegetable vendor's income. But there are plenty of vendors on the street who are expert commentators from sheer first hand experience!
This is an election where many of them are on the forefront of the minds of people. Yet media doesn't seem to have much interest into delving into them and bringing out really thought provoking programmes that tell people something they didn't know in ways that are demonstrably scientific rather than opinions. Here's a simple but powerful thought. The freedom to work and earn for a woman instantly turns a single income home into a dual income home. What implication does that have for poverty?
There are the biggies like corruption. And then looking within. Paid media. Both huge issues come election. One herded carefully into safe zones. The other blacked out, because what could be more horrible than looking into the mirror, right?
We speak of paid media, but all media cannot be paid. There is simply no way possible that every article could be monitored and controlled. It may be part of the problem to wring hands and moan about what others do, but it isn't the whole story. The larger part of the story is a lack of integrity.
Today, when Arvind Kejriwal was attacked, Times Now started a hashtag #SlappedAgain which largely got taken over by trolls to celebrate the assault. I don't think I need to comment on Times Now Hashtags. You'd have to be living under a rock to not see them. I can understand that Times Now has its own issues with sanity and does whatever it does. What is more difficult to understand is the complete silence of other channels on it. Apart from prejudicing the public before the elections and being a direct assault on democracy, a tag like this is also a trigger for further assault - being broadcast to massive numbers of followers and viewers.
The quid pro quo is not merely with politicians and business houses. It is with anything with the potential of causing discomfort or worse - real challenge. There is no scholarship or integrity demanded of self or each other.
As a "consumer", I have been reading for ages about how media should self-regulate. What is this self regulate? A channel getting its own reporters to toe lines? A newspaper publishing a retraction if someone sends a notice? What is your responsibility for upholding the quality of national dialogue? Or is the idea to get away with the easy deal till someone makes a law and forces some action that can be complied with minimally?
If there is one news channel with media bias, are the other channels dead? Are they blind that they do not see what is going on? They see. They may even snigger among themselves or readily admit that what is happening is wrong, but the will not leave their cushy chairs to report it and expose it. Because news cannot be about how perceptions are created, right?
In India, media has reached a level of impunity where little can be done about it, and it is a problem as much as a solution. A media that can devote endless time to a toppled metal detector or three month investigations into a 10 year old blog post about spam failed to draw enough attention to stings with an immediate relevance to the upcoming election. Stings on social media "services" that offer to promote your candidate or invent character assassination of your opponent. Services that offer to trigger riots for political purposes - including a recent demonstration of the video of the Sialkot lynching from 2010 being used to incite mobs in the Muzaffarnagar riots.
Media has failed to report adequately on the implications of perception engineering through doctored poll surveys. Media has failed to draw attention to the problems being reported with ballot boxes. Media has failed to provide adequate disclosure of broadcasts of event feeds provided by political parties - which essentially amounts to free advertising time.
Are we to look back on this historic election and find only a jumble of promotion and slander and poll surveys that look nothing like the results? Are we to look back at a historic body of work and find very little on parties other than those able to court limelight in Delhi?
It is not about one channel or newspaper failing, it is a collective failure where failure of one does not get professionally challenged, but cooperated with, resulting in a very poor intellectual capacity of Indian journalism as a whole.
Consider that journalism is a post graduate degree in India, and most news websites - at least the established ones - are at least a decade old. Yet we have news websites with the fundamental inability to link to sources. This is something your average blogger figures out within a week. Yet we have reports of crucial surveys and reports and laws without linking to documents so that the reader may educate themselves. From a profession of spreading knowledge, it is a profession of hoarding and controlling how much people are told.
A culture of intellectual fakery and not acknowledging sources means that reporting news reported by another channel won't do the honesty of naming the channel and linking to the news. Videos stolen from producers like Jay Hind without credit or compensation. Because of course some idiot who learned SEO 5 years ago recommends against linking out to hoard importance with search engines (no longer true). Every interview is an "exclusive" - published on five websites within minutes of each other. Report on some important research will not contain link, because that will be the more authoritative source for it, and you will no longer be the "best information" sabse tej or whatever shit. So FAKE it rather than look like you didn't invent all knowledge in the world. Last year, three news websites actually published news that the NIA (I think) had released sketches of terrorist suspects for people to see and report if they spot - WITHOUT PUBLISHING THE SKETCHES.
It is a lazy, unethical form of journalism that is so bloated on self importance that it fails to see its own importance in a moment when its ability to be a voice of knowledge will serve its country well. It fails to see beyond its own superiority. Sometimes treating AAP with contempt because "unwashed masses" protest and have no ability to rule or some such prejudice. Other times they shove a mic into someone's face that they want bytes from to sell, without respecting the person or understanding why they are important. But then, a media that doesn't sense its own value can hardly be expected to value another.
This can go on and on, but the main purpose of this letter is a reminder. You are more than a job. More than a "make no waves and never be controversial" hen laying golden eggs. You have voice, you have the power to reach the people of this country. You are faced with a historic occasion with an unprecedented number of issues determining the votes and a public with no access to find out realities beyond what you tell them. So far.
The internet is killing newspapers. Very soon it will kill TV channels too, unless they remain useful. The question is whether you are worthy of the responsibility for bringing national dialogue into this century and being the mirror reflecting the country for people to see and self-evolve?
Because there is also WhatsApp and Facebook and Twitter and word of mouth.... which may not have your power or speed, but if they win the trust you lose, you won't get it back, because the world is evolving into new media.
Do yourself the favor of dignity. Be the kind of journalists you idolize and would like to be remembered as, instead of assembly line robots adding a chunk of words into a larger design determined by someone else. Do the country the honor of honesty.