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 came, filed the FIR and the postmortem report confirmed 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 on 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 in 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!

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Peepli Live Returns!!!

Peepli Live Returns or it could be Peepli Live -2 or may be Lagey Raho Peepli Live!!! In Bollywood these are some ways of naming a sequel. And there are more and more sequels these days. Peepli Live is an offbeat Hindi film released few years ago in the genre of satirical comedy. It did make the cash registers ring if not shatter at the box office. That film basically dwells around the way TV News channels make buffoonery around some trivial events happening around us and make a fool of themselves and may be in the bargain we, the viewers as well. Anyone watching the news channels in the past 1 week or so would realise that channels are dishing out the sequel of that Peepli Live franchise. I am referring to the non-stop, wall to wall coverage of the Sheena Bora murder case.

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On 25th August, when news tickers started flashing of the Mumbai police arresting Indrani Mukherjea, the erstwhile CEO of INX Media, on her alleged role in murdering her “sister” Sheena Bora, it was just a blip on the 24*7 news radar. But the events in the next day and after turned that blip into a 24*7 national obsession or so it would seem. The coverage started hitting a shrill pitch when skeletons started tumbling down (literally) of the many relationships, the conspiracy (alleged as of now) and money trail. With accomplices in 3 cities (Mumbai, Kolkatta and Guwahati) more and more reporters and cameramen got busy “chasing” the various actors in the saga sometimes on the road at a signal, sometimes midair inside a plane and where have you.

I’m not surprised at all by the interest of the public or the media in this case. After all this is not an Aam Admi murder mystery. This is a case involving murder of a young girl who was all along touted as the “sister” of the female protagonist who was in reality her “daughter”. I’m not getting into the complex web of relationships which have become the butt of pokes and jokes. Indrani was an extremely successful woman having climbed the corporate elevator in her own way. Similarly her husband (current one i.e.,) Peter Mukherjea is credited to be the man behind one of the successful foreign channels (Star) in India. Together they were part of the successful elite that too in the media business and naturally part of the thriving Page 3 circuit. All till the fateful 25th August and that’s when they moved from Page 3 to Page 1. There is an increased interest when successful people fail. And more interest when successful Page 3 people fall. And even more heightened interest for the media when someone from their own fraternity fail and fall. So the frenzy in the media and the various “forward” jokes on social media (atleast 1 question from the next CAT/IAS exam/ KBC got leaked I would think 😄) in the next few days can be attributed to the overflowing sense of Schadenfreude all around.

But what was appalling was the nature of reporting, coverage and the now infamous media trial of this case. Instead of just letting the police to do the investigation and reporting on the progress made by the police, channels are till today conducting their own trial and delivering their verdicts. Thankfully and rightly so, the Mumbai police so far has been conducting themselves exceptionally well with restraint without falling for the arc lights of the media. Avoiding the trap of feeding news bytes by the hour, by the day or preside over press conferences every evening to sync with prime time “Newshours” of what has become a spectacle. It’s ironical that channels day in and day out debate with so called experts in “increasing boxes” trying to decipher the case and delivering instant judgements based on hearsay leaks from vested interests. Apart from debates you also have analysis as to whether Indrani was a psychopath or some other path😠😠

Is it wrong if the Mumbai police takes its own time to investigate the case thoroughly before filing the charge sheet? Don’t we remember what happened in the other high profile Arushi murder case?? There, within 1 week of the murder, police declared in a press conference that the Talwars were perpetrators of the crime. The media trial in that case swung between giving a clean chit to the Talwars and consigning them to be with blood in their hands depending upon leaks of the day. So it was good to see the Mumbai police commissioner committing that he won’t let Sheena Bora mystery turn into Arushi case. We will wait and see.

The other horrendous aspect was the height to which the channels were going, in the race to be exclusive and breaking first the ever changing twists and turns in the saga. Here I am not referring to twists like “Indrani Mukerjea ne sandwich khaya”😄. To see a reporter shoving his mike into Peter and persistently posing different questions as he walked out of his place and chasing him till the car sped away was comical at times and ironical most of the times. As also a clip showing a clutch of sleepish reporters and cameramen waiting in front of the police station only suddenly to be jolted and woken up when one among them spots one of the Ex-spouses of Indrani being paraded into the station for investigation. I would only say that seeing the coverage of the Sheena Murder case, irony would have committed a 1000 suicides😡😡

Come next week, there is hope. Hopefully, our ex-jawans and veterans would come to our rescue. Or may be already they have. The Govt. announcing the One Rank One Pension and the veterans’ not so favourable response to it may push the Sheena Bora case to the sidelines. Till the next grand press conference by police commissioner Rakesh Maria where hopefully he will establish the motive and bring this Peepli live – 2 to an end.

Postscript: Coming back to naming of sequels, the makers of Bahubali can afford to have just 2 parts and call them as Bahubali-The Beginning and “Bahubali-The Conclusion” respectively. But, in the case of Peepli Live one has to follow the Yashraj’s Dhoom model. Dhoom-2, Dhoom-3,.. where the protagonists are different but the investigating officer is same. No, that was a not a reference to one Mr. Goswami 😜😜😜

“Broken” News!!!

It’s a common belief that “The More the Merrier”. Particularly if you are a consumer. One always gets a better deal if there is choice. The fact that you can exercise your freedom of choice makes marketers to provide a better deal in terms of Quality, Quantity, Value for Money, the works. It is also said that in a crowded market place, brands try to differentiate themselves. Differentiation by way of form, quality, price, positioning in the mind or overall offering and vie for the consumer’s wallet. But in India, there seems to be one product category which defies all these economic fundamentals. Here More is actually Less!!! Even in an overcrowded market place there is hardly any product differentiation. From one brand to another, they only provide good advertisements for “Cloning”. And when the number of players increase the overall quality keeps falling. Irony dies a thousand deaths at our drawing homes every day and night. Yes, welcome to the world of 24*7 News channels in India!!!

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I belong to what I refer as the Doordarshan generation. A generation which grew up without much choice for anything but stayed contented. During our growing up times, DD was the only source of entertainment as well as visual news. So the 9’o clock prime time news bulletins were indeed bulletins which walked us through the important happenings of the day. The news readers were news readers and not “Anchors”. They were reading news and were not engaged in endless hysterical debates. At our homes, one of our favourite games at the dinner table used to be guessing who will be the newsreader that night – Among people like Minu, Geetanjali Iyer, Rini Khanna, Tejeshwar Singh, Usha Albuquerque, Sunit Tandon, Neethi Ravindran,…,… Blame it on my memory if I missed a few others.  Apart from consuming news, as youngsters we also had the opportunity to imbibe the way they modulated their voice, their English diction and the overall presentation.  Even sans the choice the prime time news bulletin served its purpose effectively of keeping us informed of current affairs in India and abroad.

Now cut to what I call as “Boredarshan” times and rapidly transcending now to “Boordarshan” times!!! Today, in the 24*7 news channel space we are spoilt for choice.  Or are we???

At any point in time, try to exercise that power of your choice. Across all channels invariably prime time news will start and end with debates where the participants across channels will be the same. I guess for the political parties, it is easy to prepare one spokesperson for a topic and make him/her parrot the same arguments across all channels. In any case as he/she moves from one channel to another, he will anyway meet the same counterpart from the opposition as well!!! Not just prime time debates. A new book is hitting the store? Between 2 days you will find the author providing “exclusive” interviews to 10 different channels! (As per English dictionary, the word “Exclusive” in its noun form means ‘an item or story published or broadcast by only one source! So how does showing up in different channels is termed exclusive has been elusive to me).  Come Friday and a new film is being released? You will see the film crew parading from one studio to another in the National Capital Region doing the same silly things in the guise of “Promoting” the film! And somebody emerges as the newsmaker of the day? You could meet her/him in all channels that day. (Except if the newsmaker is Lalit Modi 😃 He only gave interview this time to one channel that too in Montenegro! While the other channels also reached the Adriatic coast he changed his mind and refused to oblige). The questioners sound the same. The questions sound the same. There is a race among channels to get interviews from the newsmakers that very same day. And on weekends the channels dish out similar content like Retro Bollywood stuff, Tech reviews,…

Not just content. If you look at the style – Among anchors and reporters there seems to be no differentiation.  All anchors by and large keep interrupting and do not allow the participants to complete one sentence. As I had penned in my earlier post DA 24*7 (Read here) we find Devil’s Advocates in all hues 24*7 in news channels. Come weekends all the “Star” Devil’s Advocates take a break and leave their fiefdom to their juniors who undergo on the job training to what else – interrupt!!!

Even on form, differentiation seems to be zilch. The template across all channels seems be a crowded screen with too many details populated.

And oflate their own marketing and advertising also look similar. Every channel claims to be No.1 in viewership😲 Damn the devil which is in the “*”!!! And all of the channels cry hoarse against Noise, Sensationalism,… and exactly do that. Day in and Day out!

So what’s going on wrong here? One could blame it on the TRP driven advertising revenue model for the channels. So when one channel with a certain content/style/form gets high TRPs, the others follow the same. But I would blame it on the “TRP model” itself. I am not too sure if the present TRP system captures the preferences of the viewers accurately. For a diverse country like India, I do feel a more heterogeneous viewership capture system is the need of the hour. Lest in the garb of “the Nation wants to know” we will continue to hear more noise and less news – across all channels. And if you still recall  “broken Record” of yore, news will continue to be that – “Broken” News as you switch from one channel to another😞😞

Postscript: Recently I was forwarded this clip on WA. Wonder if we will ever get to see such an interviewer who doesn’t interrupt and an interviewee who doesn’t get flustered and stays calm throughout, in these times in India. Check it out.(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MATAqeiL-4)

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 🙂 🙂

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