The Four letter F word News!!!

As far as I know, A.R. Rahman is an accomplished music composer. A musical genius, he is also known to be a very humble and genial human being. Usually minding his own business which is churning some out of the world, awesome music day in and day out.  Hence my antenna went up when I saw a post on Facebook and WhatsApp recently attributing him to a quote in a publication called ‘Verve’ claiming to be “the World’s No.1 Bulletin”. The postcard with his picture quoted him of being a Sufi Muslim and conveyed his stand against Cow slaughter. The post ended with him welcoming the Govt.’s recent move to curb Cow slaughter.  Only that, as I suspected this was a Fake News and the post entirely made up with his quotes taken out randomly from old interviews.  He had nowhere opined on Cow slaughter at all.

Welcome to the “New Normal”. Where it is quite normal to see “Fake News” being packaged and circulated as authentic News. Not just A.R. Rahman. Few weeks ago, a similar quote was attributed to Google’s chief Sundar Pichai as well. There was a time when there was just News. Not prefixed by any adjective of any kind. But the situation today is different. We have News of all kinds. News, Fake News, False News, Authentic News and so on.  If we just go by the Fake News around is, our National Anthem is the best in the world, the new 1000 Rs. note has an embedded GPS chip and some more inanities like that.

In Tamil Nadu, where I grew up, ‘The Hindu’ Newspaper was then the “Gold” standard for Newspapers. The joke then was even if there was a murder in broad daylight in front of the newspaper office in Chennai, The Hindu will not carry the News of that murder till the police come, file the FIR and the postmortem report confirms that it was indeed a murder! From that to what it is now, we have come a long way. I don’t know if The Hindu still maintains the same yard stick for reporting or not. But in general we know that with a smart phone in hand, everyone has become a reporter of sorts. And in the era of limited attention spans and competitive journalism, “Speed” of breaking the News has taken precedence to accuracy. In this race of “Breaking News” by the minute, truth and validation of News have fallen by the way side. Ironically.

While the above could be attributed to the tyranny of competitive journalism and not probably malafide intent, what is of more concern these days is the deliberate intention to spread False News, thereby outrage and influence opinion. Day in and day out factories in remote corners of India equipped with Internet, Photoshop, Video editors and Mixers churn out “Fake news” taking off from happenings of the day around the world. Thanks to the much empowered Social Media the output from these “Fake news factories” quickly attain ‘Viral velocity”. And when one gets up in the morning into your smart phone as usually it happens, these Fake News posts are on your face.  And without realizing, we contribute our might to the viral velocity by forwarding/Sharing the posts on a dozen odd groups we are usually part of these days and in our social media timelines. All these posts with an intended objective of colouring our opinions slowly do the trick in our mind. Result – we feel happy that though Rahman is a practicing Muslim he abhors Cow slaughter and quote this when the opportunity arises to few others.

You and I doing this is still fine. But the “Fake News factories” of late have started imbibing it its ranks opinion leaders, leading politicians, senior journalists and the like. They also seem to be falling prey to this and in their own naiveté or intent add value to the barrage of Fake News.  While the print medium is still immune to this Fake News syndrome, I feel that the Online medium where our consumption of News is the most these days is seriously afflicted. So when we see any News these days it becomes imperative to step back a bit and decipher if it is indeed News or News preceded by the dreaded 4 letter F word. “Fake” I meant.  Though Social Media sites like Facebook and Twitter have in the recent past resolved to put an end to the “Fake News” problem, the nature of the platform makes it almost impossible to put a stop to this. Yes with better technology and resources they can attempt to minimize. In India, the advent of few sites who now have taken up the role as watch dog for News/Media like Newslaundry, Altnews,.. does provide some hope.  By calling out Fake News as quickly as possible, these sites at least help to contain the damage before hell breaks loose.

So next time you stumble upon a vicious and seemingly propagandist post on WhatsApp or Facebook, step back a little and don’t jump to forward to other groups or share in your timeline!  You could thereby avoid becoming part of the “sleeper cell” of Forward factories trying to manufacture outrage by setting a convenient narrative.  As the old adage goes, “News comes first and then the Narrative”. And not the other way about as is the wont these days.

Postscript: And as far as those rib tickling LOL memes on Alia Bhat or for that matter on tomorrow’s Ind Vs Pak match, bring them on!

Neutral Media???

Aam Admi Party’s most khas admi Arvind Kejriwal’s diatribe against media few days back brings back the neutrality of media in sharp focus once again. The last time it happened was when Radia tapes were leaked and hell cut loose only to be forgotten and forgiven in a few months. Stung by the open attack, most of the TV channels and newspapers picked up cudgels for media neutrality against Kejriwal. In fact the channels AAP subsequently named, (India TV, Timesnow,..) unleashed an all-out war against Kejriwal and AAP and came up with hour-long defences to shield themselves. In Timesnow’s case it was not defence but complete offence as Arnab Goswami’s (who else 😊) as is his wont ripped apart one hapless AAP chap that night in Newshour (where else 😊). The key question is – “Is Neutral Media an oxymoron???”  Before answering that question few associated ones pop up.

  • Is media neutral today?
  • Was media ever neutral??
  • Can media be neutral at all???

Is media neutral today? – Certainly not. How can it be? In the age of cut throat competition and proliferating options – it is struggle for existence and survival of the smartest. Being smart include being owned by corporates and barons who have deep pockets, being flexible in editorial content, packaging “News” with “Views” and taking a slant politically to reap the rewards. So it is not surprising that many of the media groups are owned by politicians or corporate bodies. They have not invested certainly for charity. If a channel or publication is owned partly or in full by a politician, can we expect neutral reporting on the wrong doings of his/her party? In the same lines if the channel is funded or owned by a corporate group with varied interests, can we expect the channel to report any scandal happening in that group?

Was media ever neutral? I don’t think so. Today when we say media, we mostly refer to the 24*7 TV news channels. But much before histrionics and hysteria took over our drawing rooms every evening, mainstream media was mainly newspapers. Even in the glorious print era of The Hindu, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Malayala Manorama, The Indian Express,.. it was a known fact that the owners of most of these papers belonged to political parties and used their paper legitimately to pedal their parties’ cause. So, while you had news reports and events there were the editorial and Op-ed columns to proliferate opinions with a particular slant. This tradition if I may say so continues till today whereby newspapers give a particular angle as per their compulsions. This is more than evident in the Radia tapes.

Can media be neutral at all? I doubt. For reasons espoused earlier like rampant competition and lesser value system these days it is and will be increasingly difficult for a media house to stay neutral and survive. Many proclaim to be but it is difficult to fathom how they can be.

While it is a fact that media plays a major role in forming and influencing public opinion, it is for the same reason that it is manipulated. It is extremely difficult to pick up one anchor/journalist today who can be said with confidence that he/she is neutral and his/her opinion can be respected. So the only option as readers and viewers is to understand and realize that Neutrality and Media cannot go together and take what we read/see with a fistful of salt.

  • As responsible citizens it may not be very wise if we take decision on who to vote based on what is mentioned in the media. For example the same Bihar which till a year ago was the emerging state with all round development is back to being a “BIMAR” state (after Nitish broke off JDU’s ties with BJP). Similarly the same press which hailed Akhilesh Yadav as “THE” Yuva Neta when he won, is trashing him to the dumps. To me there was nothing spectacular about him then and nothing so worse now.
  • The concept of WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) may be popular in the context of “Text Editors”. But in the context of “Gen Next News Editors” it seems to be an obsolete idea. We saw that in the leaked Kejriwal-Punya Prasun Bajpai video (watch here) where even Kejriwal’s shenanigans were exposed.
  • As we also saw, there exists in India an “Opinion poll marketplace” – where one can order data and opinion poll results in the way we want and get it delivered at your place and someone will say OLX pe bech de 😁
  • As I mentioned in my earlier post (read here) for the same reasons of survival, a marketing plug is masqueraded as news item and slipped in. So at our own peril we can decide on buying that product believing what is written in that news item. Same is true for political stories.

Bordering cynicism, let me say this and close. In our great theatre of democracy our media provides 24*7 (mostly free) entertainment. So lets’ enjoy as the Arnabs and Rajdeeps battle it out with the Kejriwals, Lekhis and Tiwaris and “experts”. But form our opinions and cast our vote as per conscience and not based on what we read or see. Neutral umpires in Cricket became a reality long time back. But Neutral umpires in Media is still imaginary.

journalism

Cartoon of Satish Acharya from http://cartoonistsatish.blogspot.in

The fine art of Writing nay “Plugging”!!!

Just realized that this is my 50th post 🙂 🙂 On the New Year eve in Dec 2011 when I wrote my 1st piece, my endeavour was just to populate my WordPress blog account which was dormant with atleast 1 post. As I sit to write this one, I thank all of you who read, who comment, who like, who share, who re-tweet, who favourite in short who encourage my writing. Without this oxygen I wouldn’t have dared to continue. I can say now that this was one “New Year resolution” which stood the test of time!!! Thank you once again.

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by writers and writings mostly of the non-fiction type. I would think most of my generation has been. There was a time as a student, reading the ‘Hindu’ newspaper from the masthead to the “Printed and published by…” line was a daily karma and its phala were few. Apart from updating you on the current affairs and general knowledge it helped in brushing up the language.  I refer to all this in past tense the reason for which you will realize by the end of this piece.

Just a couple of days back on the 1st of Nov 2013, the 1st page of Times of India (TOI) Mumbai edition ( Well actually it was the 5th page the 1st 4 pages being full page advts.) of which I “glance” through these days carried an item as under:

Goodies for mobile users signal new market war

Pankaj Doval TNN

New Delhi: Mobile phone users have a lot to cheer about this festive season. It’s raining freebies and discounts on phone buys as well as internet data charges. And with the Diwali weekend coming up, the pitch may get stronger.
    One of the most attractive offers comes from Anil Ambani-owned RCom. The operator is offering the latest Apple iPhones, 5C and 5S, at never-heard-before prices. RCom will give you the 16 GB versions of the devices without any down payment. The 5C will cost you Rs 2,500 per month for two years and the 5S Rs 2,850.
    This payment comes bundled with free unlimited calls and SMSes (local and STD across network), apart from zero cost for 3G data usage. There is also no charge on national roaming.
    There is a down payment though for higher versions of the two devices, 32 GB and 64 GB.
    Sony, which is also expanding in the Indian mobile phone market, is offering free limited-period 3G data packs as well as other accessories along with its premium Xperia Z range of phones.

One read of the above piece will tell any reader that this so called “news” item has no news value and it is purely a “marketing plug” for one of the mobile phone vendors. I am certain that this is paid content masked and carried under the garb of a news item. And to feature this in the front page brings me to the topic of this piece which is – Has the fine art of writing given way to the fine art of “plugging”???

It seems absolutely so.  News in its conventional old world form is supposed to be “Neutral, Objective and Fair”.  The joke those days on ‘The Hindu’ reporting used to be that even if there was a murder right in front of the office of that newspaper on broad day light they will not report the same till the FIR is filed and the police confirms so 🙂 Well the joke was almost true for ‘The Hindu’ and many newspapers those days. But today it seems in the age of “competitive journalism” and “struggle of existence” of the media, “survival of the smartest” is the mantra and if that means blurring the lines of news and paid views so be it. So there are news items, news plugs, columns, plugged columns, editorials, advertorial, paid news…,… The challenge before the common reader is to distinguish one from the other.

Again a few days back in the TOI I read a piece about the virtues of “Natural Mithai” with a head line – “Adulteration prompts housewives to prepare sweetmeats at home”. In the middle of the festive season it seemed to be a pretty innocuous and timely piece till one saw an advt. in the same paper few pages away for ‘Himalaya fresh’ sweets – which promised “Freedom from Adulteration” as its caption!!!

It’s not my brief to trash the ‘Old lady from Boribunder – The Times of India’ in this piece. I think the muck is widespread and there are very few media exceptions these days. But certainly Bennett and Colman the publisher of TOI has been a torch-bearer in this front. In fact reportedly one of its owners mentioned that they are in the business of “Space” and not “News”. Ergo they came up with an innovation called “Medianet” which basically carries  ads masquerading as news with a “blink and you will miss” footnote that it is an ad. So when the film ‘Chennai Express’ is about to be released you will find plugs which will say “lungis are today’s fashion statement”, or “SRK’s mom is from South”,.. and other puerile stuff like that.

The other day I read with interest a piece on how the much maligned “Butter, cheese,.. can be good for heart!!! My 1st instinct was to wonder if it was a plant from Amul, Nestle or Britannia to sell more butter and when I shared this on my timeline in FB I had to do so with a caution akin to “Mutual funds are subject to market risks, please read the offer document carefully before investing”!!! Similarly I routinely get to see how coconut oil is not bad for health one day and why coconut oil must be replaced with other less fatty oils another day depending on who has plugged the item on that day.

Moving away from products and marketing, this virus has spread into the political space and threatens to corrupt our democracy. One saw or rather heard in the now infamous ‘Radia tapes’ how corporates were using PR machinery to influence public policy making. Radiagate brought to open the secret which was closely held within interested parties that journalists and so called experts were open to being swayed to take a slant in their columns. As a proof for this, If you have not heard this conversation between Niira Radia, the PR pro and Vir Sanghvi a reputed columnist you must and now.  Check this out. Radiagate has driven home the truth that Media Ethics is nothing but an oxymoron.

In the world of journalism it is a common practice for reporters, journalists and columnists to rely on PR sources to source news. For a PR pro, pitching his/her story is part of the job. But for the journalist it becomes important to carry out his homework on the pitch and come up with a balanced news piece or article. Therein lies the credibility. As some body said “Quid pro quo norm in journalism has led to poor copy and lazy PR”. The cozy “you scratch my back, I will yours” bond is as old as the profession itself. But I guess what is new is the institutionalized form of plugging products in news items which needs to be watched out for.  So today whenever I read some article my first instinct is to check if it is indeed genuine opinionated writing or some prejudiced plugging!!!  I guess in today’s schools of journalism the lessons for the fine art of writing would be searched and replaced by the fine art of “plugging”. So if tomorrow one expert journalist writes “for” or “against” Foreign Direct Investment in retail, one has to take that with a fistful of Desi salt!!!  The plug could be a “Desi” Reliance one or a “Videshi” Walmart one.

Postscript – Is calling the mining scam as “Coalgate” a conspiracy of one toothpaste manufacturer??? Think about it 🙂 🙂

The-Paid-News-of-India