[Reader-list] Re: Indian print media: critique

ananya vajpeyi ananya at waag.org
Wed Dec 7 21:41:03 IST 2005

This can be taken as a response to Ayaz Amir's perceptive piece (Dawn, 
Dec 02, 2005):


Ananya Vajpeyi

If it’s not in the news, my editor says every single morning, then 
don’t write about it. Or, if I’m writing something anyway, he wants to 
know what the “news-peg” is, on which I will hang my piece. But this 
article is not about elections. It’s not about the economy. It’s not 
about cricket. It’s not about the Left parties. It’s not about 
international affairs. I guess you could conclude, then, that it’s not 
about what’s in the news. It is about the news. Note, editor of mine: 
this article is about the news.

There are three fields about which I know a little bit, from my 
admittedly limited life-experiences: academia, the arts, journalism. I 
can tell you something about the way these spheres of activity function 
in this and a couple of other countries. I can tell you, after 
struggling for the past few years to find a way to contribute to these 
arenas of public life while making ends meet, in big cities and small 
towns all over India, that at the bottom of my heart I am beginning to 
lose the faith. Just like I was told I would, when I was younger. It’s 
only a matter of time, young people are told, before the dying of the 
light. One doesn’t believe it. Until one day the darkness is upon one.

And the news, again? What does the news have to do with this sense one 
gets, of fighting a losing battle, of being aboard a sinking ship, of – 
choose your own metaphor – not being able to discern a ray of light by 
which to find one's way? This is my hypothesis: the news enacts, 
performs, dramatizes, and exemplifies everything about our society that 
reeks of cynicism. News takes the darkness that lurks on the edges of 
our sight, like an impending loss of consciousness, and writes it 
bright across our television screens, or black on the white of 
newsprint. If news is an index of our collective life as a nation, a 
symptom of what ails us, then our sickness is clear, we suffer from 
that terminal disease of the soul: cynicism. I think I’m in the early 
stages of infection myself, truth be told. Nothing else explains the 
dead weight in my heart every morning. It became considerably heavier 
when I started working for a newspaper.

Here’s the landscape: A war zone gets hit by an earthquake. A clutch of 
cats, the last of their kind, is shot, skinned, sold. A young man doing 
his job is murdered in the back of his own car. People go shopping 
before Diwali, and come home without fathers, children, wives, limbs. 
Liars seize power. Villages are crushed under the slow-turning wheels 
of the perpetual revolution. A man from Kerala is kidnapped and killed 
in the badlands of Afghanistan. Sportsmen perform miserably, unable to 
master either game or ego. Girls are raped, gays treated like lepers, 
and no one has time for the poor and their never-ending poverty. 
Tribals face extinction. Cities rot, inundated with water from the sky, 
flooded with water from the rivers. Forests are a fading memory. Yet 
another Muslim woman takes the consequences of double minority. A 
deadly mafia don proves photogenic, his moll even more so. Workers are 
beaten within an inch of their lives.

Alright, so there’s no appeal against natural disasters, and terrorism 
is practically a force of nature nowadays. Armies will do what they’re 
supposed to do: make war. Human beings are destined to suffer, and in 
such calamitous times, when there is little protection for human life, 
who will save trees and animals? Surely it’s not the fault of news that 
all news these days seems to be bad news?

But no, what ails us is not that there is, as the Buddha stated in his 
very first axiom, suffering in the world. Dukha is old news. What makes 
it all so unpalatable is the shameless voyeurism, the mindless 
reiteration, the immorality, the unscrupulousness, the insensitivity 
and the downright dishonesty which characterise the workings of the 
media, of politics, and of their unholy nexus, news. If it scares you 
to watch this dance of death from afar, then it would turn your 
stomach, trust me, no, worse – it would wipe out your faith, gentle 
reader – to inhabit belly of the beast.

For hundreds of years in our part of the world, people wrote of things 
real and fantastic in the genre of the Purana. Many of these texts 
contained descriptions of the chaos and corruption that would mark the 
world in the Kali Yuga, the last of the four great ages of humankind. 
Teachers will lead their students away from knowledge, rulers will 
drive their subjects to perdition, truth will vanish, beauty perish, 
and righteousness meet an inglorious end. The bull that is Dharma, they 
claimed, will be left standing on its last leg. The ancients got it 
right, apparently. Somewhere in their incoherent prescience of 
apocalypse, in their alarm about the fast-attenuating moral center of 
their society, they threw us a map with which to navigate our own 
nightmarish times.

Kali Yuga: the society of the spectacle. Life on TV. For a civilization 
that has produced some of the truest, most beautiful texts, artefacts, 
theories, ways of life and modes of being, we have arrived at a sorry 
pass indeed, the nadir of ignorance, inanity and unethical consumption, 
an infernal mish-mash of breaking news-page 
three-advertising-globalisation in our faces day and night, killing us, 
killing us, killing us. We rob the poor, we rape the weak, we cheat the 
helpless, we steal from the blind. And then we broadcast it, live, 

As though this can go on much longer. It is not possible to have a 
political life without ethics. It is not possible to do work when its 
only object is destruction rather than creation. It is not possible to 
use language without respect for the truth, to editorialize without 
commitment, to preach when your real objective is to obfuscate, to lead 
when you are headed straight to hell.

At the heart of darkness, incessantly generating its meaningless 
commotion, a television set.

On Dec 3, 2005, at 3:13 AM, Monica Narula wrote:

> In the way things are, this was forwarded to me. Good comparative 
> media reading.
> best
> M
> Begin forwarded message:
>> It's dressing-down of Indian print media. I mostly agree with the 
>> view.
>> Cautionary tale By Ayaz Amir (Dawn 2 Dec 05)
>> IT takes a good two hours in the morning going through a stack of 
>> Pakistani newspapers. It takes about half an hour to go through the 
>> leading English dailies that you get in Delhi. I have had to read 
>> them — newspaper-reading being a habit that members of the tribe 
>> carry with their luggage — these past three or four days (invited to 
>> Delhi for one of those seminars...what else?...in which worthy 
>> subjects are discussed) — and I can say with confidence that I don’t 
>> know what’s happening in the rest of the world.
>> You read them and you get to know more than you probably would want 
>> to about happenings in the film or fashion industry. But if you want 
>> to know a bit about events in the rest of the world you would have to 
>> seek some other fountain of knowledge.
>> You can’t blame television for being chatty and entertainment-driven 
>> because that’s how television sells. But you would expect newspapers 
>> to be slightly different. No such luck with Indian papers which, 
>> driven by the great forces of the market, have been dumbed down to 
>> the point where they are indistinguishable from any other consumer 
>> product. Small wonder if they are marketed in the same way and as 
>> aggressively as, say, a brand of washing powder or the latest cell 
>> phone from Nokia or Samsung.
>> There’s no point in singling any newspaper out. By and large, they 
>> all look like tabloids out of Bollywood, devoted primarily not to 
>> anything as gross or insulting as national or international issues 
>> but to some form of entertainment. After the information revolution 
>> and in the age of globalization we were all supposed to be more 
>> ‘empowered’. Is such dumbing down the new road to empowerment?
>> In Pakistan we are supposed to be overly obsessed with politics. 
>> Newspapers are full of political reporting. Columns and articles 
>> often sound as if they are one long wail about the national 
>> condition. Indeed, we have turned moaning and the pursuit of cynicism 
>> into national art forms.
>> Sounds morbid, doesn’t it? Yet comparing it to the Bollywoodization 
>> of the Indian media, the conscious pursuit of blandness and mindless 
>> entertainment even by such standard-bearers of the Indian press as 
>> the Times of India and the Hindustan Times, you wonder which is the 
>> more insidious, such over-the-top passion as to be found in Pakistan 
>> or the complete loss of passion, at least as mirrored in the press, 
>> you see in India?
>> You have to admit, it’s a neat arrangement. The masses are 
>> entertained — constant entertainment or a form of it the new opiate 
>> of the masses, much more effective than religion in many respects — 
>> while the governing class and the great captains of commerce and 
>> industry have things their own way at the top.
>> This principle the later Caesars observed to great effect in Rome 
>> where, when the empire started falling on hard times, they saw to it 
>> that the Roman rabble and indeed even the more responsible citizens 
>> were kept occupied and entertained by never-ending festivals and 
>> gladiatorial contests, so that no one thought too hard about the 
>> intrigues and power games being played behind palace walls.
>> Do the mass of American citizens think too hard about what is 
>> happening in their country or what their country is doing to the rest 
>> of the world? That George Bush and the cabal around him — a more 
>> dangerous set of characters than the world has known for some time — 
>> could drag their country into a war on the basis of the most 
>> transparent lies doesn’t say much for the collective intelligence and 
>> awareness of the American people or indeed of their chosen 
>> representatives in Congress.
>> The same Roman principle is at work here, the masses stuffed to 
>> overflowing on a diet of consumerism and entertainment while the 
>> leaders of government go about their business undisturbed. If 
>> questions are now being asked about the Iraq war it’s not primarily 
>> because of a rush of any new-found awareness but because the 
>> seriousness of the Iraqi resistance is more than anyone in Washington 
>> had bargained for, and because the lies of the Bush administration 
>> are finally catching up with it.
>> I hope I am not stretching the point when I say much the same dynamic 
>> can be seen in India where the media has managed to do two things 
>> very successfully: (1) brushed some very serious national problems 
>> under the carpet, to the point where there is not much national or 
>> international awareness about them; and (2) celebrated a story of 
>> Indian progress which partly is very real but which also relies 
>> heavily on fiction.
>> Entire regions of India — UP, Bihar, to name only two states — are in 
>> the grip of serious lawlessness and there is not much that anyone has 
>> been able to do about it. But sitting in Delhi or reading the Indian 
>> press you won’t get this impression. Only when something 
>> out-of-the-ordinary happens, a high profile killing, for instance — 
>> although in India’s wild east even this is no longer surprising — 
>> does it figure in the headlines, otherwise not.
>> There is a full-fledged insurgency in the northeast — Mizoram, 
>> Nagaland, Manipur, etc — but you won’t get to know much about it if 
>> your sole source of information is the Indian press.
>> More serious than these two problems is something potentially more 
>> dangerous. From the Nepal border in the north right down to Andhra 
>> Pradesh in the south, a wide swathe of territory almost cutting 
>> through this huge country is in the effective control not of any 
>> government, central or state, but the Naxalite movement. This is a 
>> mind-boggling circumstance, about 160 districts of the country — the 
>> total number of districts in Pakistan being 105 — outside 
>> governmental control. But again the Naxalite movement doesn’t figure 
>> much in Indian discourse.
>> True, India’s stability or integrity is not under threat. India’s 
>> very size is the biggest shock absorber of all, its capacity to 
>> absorb problems of this nature or magnitude commensurate with its 
>> bulk. Still, to insist, or convey the impression, that nothing 
>> troubles the Indian heartland is to close one’s eyes to reality. As 
>> already stated, the Indian media performs this pigeon act very 
>> successfully.
>> India is coming of age as an economic power. It is also flexing its 
>> muscles as a major military power. We all know the story and the 
>> statistics. Indeed, talking to an educated Indian who wears his 
>> patriotism on his sleeve (there being no shortage of this kind 
>> because being relatively new to high-power status, Indians tend to be 
>> touchy about different aspects of their nationhood) one stands in 
>> danger of getting an earful of these statistics.
>> But it is also a fact that the benefits of growth are not evenly 
>> spread, roughly 30 per cent of the Indian population enjoying the 
>> fruits of progress while 70 per cent is still trapped in different 
>> versions of poverty.
>> While the rich-poor divide is true of most societies, the great 
>> success of the Indian media lies in obscuring this distinction. 
>> Watching Indian TV or reading Indian papers one could be forgiven for 
>> believing that the entire Indian population, one billion strong, is 
>> living the high life. This feat the media has achieved by 
>> trivializing national discourse. The biggest temple of all in India 
>> is dedicated to none of the older gods in the Indian pantheon but to 
>> the new god of entertainment.
>> The cautionary tale is for us as we move forward on the road to 
>> democracy (a journey which would be made easier infinitely if 
>> Pakistan’s ruling general, fourth in a line of patriarchs the country 
>> could have done without, is persuaded to shed his fears and his 
>> uniform). If we can get democracy without lowering the standard of 
>> national discourse or without the pursuit of trivia, that would be a 
>> goal worth striving for.
> Monica Narula
> Raqs Media Collective
> Sarai-CSDS
> 29 Rajpur Road
> Delhi 110 054
> www.raqsmediacollective.net
> www.sarai.net
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Ananya Vajpeyi, Ph.D.
Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
Teen Murti House
New Delhi 110011 INDIA

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