Medium is the massage

When Markendya Katju, the new chairman of the Press Council of India (PCI), made those scathing remarks against the media in an interview to Karan Thapar recently, you can understand how I, as a senior working journalist, would have felt.  I was naturally shocked that someone actually managed to speak in lengthy sentences in a Karan Thapar interview.

For, as far as I have seen Karan Thapar allows his ‘guests’ to speak in a manner as if they are auditioning for a Mani Ratnam movie.

This would have been the transcript of if it were a typical show of Thapar.

Karan Thapar: In a recent interaction with newspaper and TV editors, you said the media have become irresponsible and wayward, and that the time has come when some introspection is required. Are you disappointed with the media?

Justice Katju: But…

Karan Thapar: (interjecting) So you mean to say one of the basic tasks of the media is to provide truthful and objective information to form rational opinions. Is that not happening altogether?

Justice Katju: The point is…

Karan Thapar: (loudly interjecting) I thought you had very low opinion of the media, that you were deeply disappointed. Now I get the impression you don’t think very much of the media at all?

Justice Katju: As I was …

Karan Thapar: (not interjecting but just continuing to speak): So, in your opinion the media is in effect is letting down India. Thank you Justice Katju for speaking so elaborately and so openly. It was a pleasure listening you speak. It was my privilege to have you on my show.

But it turns out that it was not a typical Thapar show and Katju had indeed quite a lot to say on the media, and the sum and substance of that being:

1) There is too much of cricket

2) But there is only one P Sainath

The day after Katju’s dressing down there was no major cricketing event (involving India) and it was also the F-1 (Indian Grand Prix) weekend.  So was cricket off the pages?

The curtains on the inaugural Indian F-1 Grand Prix was rung down with Sachin Tendulkar dramatically waving the chequered flag with Indian cricket team captain M S Dhoni in attendance in the presence of Test discard Harbhajan Singh who was accompanied by the injured Virendera Sehwag. IPL franchise (KKR) owner Sharukh Khan was one of the guests of Vijay Mallya, the owner of eternal finalists but never winners, Bangalore Royal Challengers. 

A German named Sebastian Vettel was also present  ‘on the occasion’ when Tendulkar waved the flag.

Agreed, it was a made-up report.  But seeing the news photographs and news tidbits on the jamboree in New Delhi (Noida) last weekend, you could have been forgiven if you got the idea that the F-1 was a social event comprising cricketers, celebrity women and some strange blokes in strange outfits the chief virtue of which is when you want to pee you have to unzip at the neck.

So Katju is right.  There is not only too much of cricket. But too many cricketers, too.

But before you start criticising, you must understand the nitty-gritty of newspaper journalism. As a media veteran you can take it from me that this is broadly how we work.

You give me advertisements, I write about your company: It’s business journalism.

You give me advertisements, I badmouth your opponents (especially in your own party): It’s political journalism.

You pose with me for photos that I show off on my Facebook account, I interview you: It’s film journalism.

I have to write about Sachin Tendulkar. It’s sports journalism.

Nobody reads you. It’s editorial.

Nobody reads you including yourself. Well, we’re humour columnists.

The main problem for print journalism today is much of its talent has migrated to the electronic media. Do I mean the top names are now working for television? No, I mean they have migrated to television while working for the print media.

Today if you want to know the views of Indian Express on a particular issue, you —- OK, this is the most obvious — tune into NDTV.  For, that is where Shekhar Gupta usually holds forth on a regular basis while writing an occasional column for his paper.

If you want to understand Outlook‘s opinion on an important matter, CNN-IBN may be the place to go. Vinod Mehta gives his learned ideas on various subjects there, while preferring to write about his dog for the enlightenment of those who actually pay money and buy Outlook.

Also, if you feel like getting to know the mind of whoever edits the TOI, well, you probably may have to check out the Tele-Shopping Network.

So Katju is right. We have a problem in the print media. Major changes are the need of the hour.  But since it may be impossible to get individual media companies agree to a collective move, we will have to begin the changes with the Press Council.

And I think we have to start at its top.