By inviting viewers’ opinions and giving the impression that they matter, Indian news media is opening the floodgates of stupidity.
Until recently, I had only seen The Newshour in snippets because when I want to listen to incessant screaming, I usually put on my favourite Norwegian black metal band. However, while travelling on a business trip for the last three weeks, I was forced to watch Times Now by miserly hoteliers who refuse to get a better Tata Sky package. I finally see The Newshour for what it is: a pissing contest between pissants.
Each night as I saw Arnab Goswami tower over the rest of India in the opening credits, it really set the tone for the show. As if having Goswami’s head plastered all over the screen like some leviathan Peeping Tom wasn’t enough, the credits end with the claim that “you are watching India’s most watched anchor”. It’s the equivalent of telling a McDonald’s customer that he is about to put the billionth McAloo Tikki Burger in his mouth. One doesn’t know whether to revel in one’s selection or feel like an accomplice in some horrendous crime.
Seasoned viewers and dedicated critics of the show must find me late to the party. For years people have been telling me to follow The Newshour but I have always resisted. I’m a keen observer of American politics and as such have subjected myself to more Fox News than I’d like to admit. It was immediately perceptible to me when Goswami broke onto the scene that he had lifted his entire jingoistic format, warts and all, from Bill O’Reilly’s programme The O’Reilly Factor. Even the American anchor has a penchant for extreme patriotism and shouting over panellists like a demented headmaster if he doesn’t agree with them.
However, the good thing about American TV was that while it allowed a Bill O’Reilly to flourish, it also allowed a Jon Stewart to ridicule him and help balance the scales. We have no such luck.
While The Newshour serves up an ersatz nationalism, the show never fails to pat its own back by constantly bringing up its ratings (another O’Reilly tactic). The viewers of the show also point to its ratings as proof that it speaks for The Nation. “How can he be wrong if he is so popular? His show must be resonating with a lot of Indians!”
In Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour, William McPhee observed that, “a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better.”
I think the same applies to news. People who watch Times Now are less likely to be avid newspaper readers (Times of India doesn’t count) and, like faithful sheep, are content to be led by their Good Shepherd into the promised land of 200 feet flags.
Goswami is widely quoted as stating that, “The journalism I follow is journalism of opinion and is not PR driven. If my opinion helps bringing about a change, I will opine and not shy behind the wall of neutrality.” The only problem with this argument is that it goes against the tenets of journalism.
In their book Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel note that “Journalistic independence is not neutrality. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform – not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, journalists must avoid straying into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.”
|This is what The Newhour looks like on most days. (Illustration by Viraag Desai.)|
It is my opinion that Arnab Goswami suffers from the Messiah Complex. The only time he appears human is when he occasionally leans into his ear-piece like a dummy awaiting instruction from its ventriloquist. While he sits on the fence on a number of issues, he is strangely intransigent when discussing patriotism. After I watched The Newshour for three weeks, a pattern began to emerge…
Arnab Goswami: Today we will be discussing JNU/Soldiers/Pakistan
Suhel Seth: This reminds me of the time I was in Vienna and ran into Elizabeth Hurley. Actually, it may have been the time I was playing golf with Lakshmi Mittal in Nice. You know, Indrani Mukherjee and I used to sip our drinks on many a warm evening at Tollygunge Club-
Arnab Goswami: Yes, yes we all get that you are a compulsive namedropper. Mr Sambit Patra, what is the BJP’s stand on this?
Sambit Patra: One two ka four.
Arnab Goswami: Sorry, it appears you are quoting lyrics from the song “My Name Is Lakhan” from the hit movie Ram Lakhan. Mr Surjewala what do you make of this?
Randeep Surjewala: Four two ka one.
General GD Bakshi: ALL CIVILIANS ARE COWARDS! ONLY ARMY PEOPLE SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO LIVE IN INDIA! I DIDN’T SEE MY FELLOW SOLDIERS DIE IN KARGIL SO THAT YOU BUFFOONS CAN HAVE A LOGICAL DEBATE!
Serene activist person: I think if you look at the Constitution –
Arnab Goswami: No, no, no, no, NO! I will not allow you to continue anymore with your unpatriotic nonsense. It is ridiculous! You should be ashamed! How does the Constitution have anything to do with constitutional rights?! You see, this is the problem with our great country that is reduced to catering to the rights of these ungrateful terrorist worshippers! By the power vested in my by Twitter users, I hereby declare you an anti-national!
Varun Grover, a comedian, recently talked about how The Newshourconducted an SMS poll on whether or not India should attack Pakistan. “Is this war? Are we going to decide whether to attack or not on Arnab’s show? Imagine the chief of Army staff watching TV, calling up his people and asking, what if it’s a ‘Yes’? What is the plan of action then?”
While I found Grover’s observation funny, it also made me question why the show is so keen on hearing from its viewers. The show regularly has callers at the end of the show but often it also has an “Interactive Special” where viewers can tweet live with #BuzzwordOfTheDay. On the top-right corner there is a minute by minute count of how many tweets are put up as if it means anything at all. These inane tweets then appear in a special panel like drunken WhatsApp messages from an ex.
Mayank214 opines that “my tax money iz not for terrorists of JNU” (I have never met a Mayank who makes sense). RajkotBoy98 complains that Mumbai is getting full of migrants (missing the irony). And Rekha4Ever tweets that “all alcohol should be banned because my husband is an alcoholic” (to which I would retort that marriage should be banned because Rekha4Ever is married).
By inviting the opinions of their viewers and giving the impression that these opinions matter, news channels and newspapers are opening the floodgates of stupidity. I watch news to get information; if I wanted to read illogical, racist and poorly structured comments then I would log onto YouTube or Twitter.
Baba Ramdev, the patron saint of nincompoops, recently said that he would behead those who don’t chant “Bharat Mata ki jai” if it wasn’t against the law of the land. Not to be outdone, Rakhi Sawant held a press conference after TV actress Pratyusha Banerjee’s suicide and suggested a ban on ceiling fans as, according to her, they were causing suicides. I think whenever Rakhi Sawant has a brain fart, a car backfires in India. I can’t for the life of me understand why the media gives oxygen to this wall-to-wall lunacy.
We are entering a dangerous era where people aren’t content with simply voicing their opinion. The thing to do now is to hurl a shoe at someone if you disagree with them. Not content with simply sharing their opinions on the many platforms made available to them, the keyboard warriors are bringing their unpleasant online personas into real life. The blame for this, in my opinion, lies squarely with the fissiparous format that The Newshour encourages.
In early 20th century Germany, there was this horse named Clever Hans that could apparently do math on stage. Everybody thought Clever Hans was very clever as he would tap the answer to arithmetic questions with his hoof and always get it right. It was later discovered that the horse couldn’t do math at all. He was simply tapping until he felt the tension in the audience break. When he’d tapped the right number, everyone relaxed and he felt that change in the room, and just stopped tapping.
Despite his trick getting debunked, Clever Hans continued to attract large and enthusiastic crowds because everyone wants to believe in a horse that can do math. Arnab Goswami is the Clever Hans of the 21st century.