Is news television all about TRPs? Or is it an agenda of some kind? Or is there a third dimension? As I sat down to write this piece, my brief was how the Indian media—especially television news—was covering Narendra Modi.
There were no clear-cut answers. And here is why.
“Modi does not need either the party or PR agencies; television news media is doing the job for us,” confides a senior BJP leader. Asked if this is acceptable in a democracy, he replies: “Hasn’t the media done the same with Rahul Gandhi?”
SPINNING MODI’S IMAGE
That very evening, as I sat watching Aaj Tak, the popular Hindi news channel, I could see what the BJP leader meant. The 10 o’clock show—news bulletins are passé—had this lead story on how Bihar CM Nitish Kumar of the JD-U was trying to stymie Modi’s Patna rally by deliberately hosting the President of India (who later changed his Patna programme) on the same day. What struck me was the brazen spin-doctoring by the scruffy-faced, long-winded anchor. His argument ran as follows: Nitish Kumar’s main objective was not to thwart Modi’s rally per se, but prevent its staging at Patna’s historic Gandhi Maidan, right in the heart of the city. Every successful rally here in the past has signalled the end of political regimes not just in Patna but in Delhi as well. This had happened in the 1970s during the JP Movement and later in 1989 when VP Singh led an anti-corruption campaign.
As we now know, nothing even vaguely of the sort happened. But such spin doctoring in subtle and unsubtle ways—endless airtime to Modi speeches, ‘colour’ stories on ‘NaMo tea’, kurtas and masks (one newspaper even claimed it is a Rs 500 crore industry!), you name it—is pretty much the norm across news networks these days. And this stems from the peculiar beast that television has become, with ‘bites’ driving the news cycle. Of course, there is a pattern to it. First, a montage of bites reflecting neat bipolarities—the Congress versus BJP, for example—which then merges seamlessly into a news studio where the anchor has rounded up partisans reflecting identical divisions. It is here, in the studio, that the nightly drama plays out with the anchor doubling as a sort of a ringmaster who provokes, hectors and lights the fireworks towards a scripted denouement.
With reporting dead, and bite collection mainly outsourced, there is no need for a field report to check political claims against reality. For instance, I don’t remember seeing any field report on malnutrition in Gujarat despite the issue becoming the subject of a bitter studio war between the two parties. Or the recent toilet versus temple controversy that was decried as ‘manufactured’. Is this news or primetime entertainment? Or simply the gross trivialisation of serious issues confronting our democracy?
Since the TV media ecosystem feeds on bites, it allows for imprecision, fudging, backtracking, denials and endless controversies that all serve to make spin doctoring child’s play. This is not easy in the print media, which lives up to at least a modicum of precision.