Late Irving Wallace’s book The Almighty tells the story of a media mogul who needs to out-sell a rival newspaper or lose the throne as per his late father’s will. In his desperation to achieve the seemingly impossible goal, the mogul begins to invent news – by engineering crimes, himself. The climactic bid? Presidential assassination.
Like most of Wallace’s novels, The Almighty belongs to the potboiler, over-the-top category. However, it turned out to be far ahead of its time in portraying the extent to which the media can go to retain their hold over a changing world. So in present day India, in order to truly understand the motives behind the largely mainstream media-driven campaign, the “India is lynchistan” narrative, one must keep political ideologies aside for a moment, and study how the social media revolution has affected media’s business model.
Even the staunchest defenders of the mainstream media will have to admit that, since 2014 or so, the media’s ability to influence narrative is at an all-time low. There is a joke doing the rounds on Twitter, that now when a famous journalist had backed the Opposition presidential candidate Meira Kumar, her opponent, Ram Nath Kovind was assured of a victory.
Social media has revolutionised the discourse not only in terms of giving a platform to many people like me, who otherwise would remain voiceless , it has also distributed the existing readership in such a way that the days of a limited number of people having vast audiences are gone, perhaps, forever.
Of course, the media would fight against it. As a supporter of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, I would like to think political ideology has something to do with this, but this is not about politics but about the survival of a behemoth, long past its prime, but still wielding enormous clout and money from its glorious past. Like Denny Crane, from the American television series, Boston Legal, would say – things are about to get ugly!
As consumers of media news and as citizens of this country, you and I are, however, responsible for carefully vetting this narrative before lending our voice for or against it. The kind of rhetoric written by eminent journalists – you are with us or against us, is of little use in the critical examination that is the need of the hour.
To start with, one must understand that the position that even one lynching/hate crime is one too many is not mutually exclusive with the position that the same crime is not sufficient to pass an indictment against one community (Hindus in this case), or indeed that the term ‘lynchistan’ is unwarranted. The first argument merely demands an unrelenting improvement in law and order. The second argument asks that you take a look at the situation through the lens of law and order and not through the tinted shades of partisan politics.
What is also undeniable is that the outrage against lynching or mob violence is highly selective, to put it kindly. The same liberals standing with #NotInMyName placards have been silent on the murders of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers in Kerala. For them the brutal lynching of a cop in Kashmir outside a mosque is somehow call for the government to understand the pain of the Kashmiris.
Why is selective outrage a problem?
Two reasons – one, in some countries tort laws have a provision that if you see a person lying on the side of the street, you have no obligation to pull over and help. But if you do pull over, you incur a duty to complete that rescue, the theory being that other potential rescuers pass by thinking help has reached the man. Using the same analogy here, the media has no obligation to play moral guardian, but once they do, they have an obligation of not being selective. When the media does not raise an alarm over slain RSS workers in Kerala, they are effectively denying the very existence of such crimes.
The second reason is, of course, born from the media’s own doing. Their current rhetoric of ‘if you are not outraged, you are an apologist’ cuts both ways. Anyone not outraged at the killing of RSS workers in Kerala, or police personnel in Kashmir is effectively apologising to the mobs in these two cases.
As Stephen R Covey said in his famous 7 habits of highly effective people, “when you pick one end of the stick, you pick the other”. Therefore, anyone demanding the strictest actions against mobs murdering people, must vocally change their position on issues such as use of pellet guns in Kashmir and the imposition of The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts. The political ideology of the rampaging mobs can’t be an excuse for differential treatment. The state complicity in such crimes is a stick with two ends too. You can’t blame the Khattar government in Haryana for Junaid’s murder and remain conspicuously silent over Pinrayi Vijayan’s lawless Kerala. For the same reason, it is perfectly legitimate to question the media’s silence on the appalling situation under the previous, Congress-led government at the centre.
Lastly, it is important to remember that the constant hysteria about ‘genocide’ and ‘lynchistan’ is bound to have consequences for the society at large. And we are talking about life and death consequences here.
In his Oscar winning documentary, Bowling for Columbine, documentary maker Michael Moore discusses why in spite of equally high gun ownership, Canada has far fewer gun-related deaths as compared to the USA. One of the reason he states is the constant atmosphere of fear that news media promotes in the USA (the infamous “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality) as compared to the Canadian media. Recently, the filmmaker added— “What separates us from everyone else is the way we force the members of our society to live in a constant state of fear: fear of going broke, fear of losing your job, fear of getting sick, fear of getting old and being without.” Sounds familiar?
It is not that the media doesn’t understand this effect their reporting can have. Conduct a Twitter feed check of pretty much any mainstream journalist with respect to the Republic and their primary objection to journalist Arnab Goswami and his team is their constant whipping up of ‘hyper-nationalist’ sentiment while covering the Kashmir militancy issue. This scenario shows journalists actually asking for subdued coverage of potentially inciting issues. I am not sure how this expectation of subdued coverage of one class of violence squares off with the hysteric, over-the-top rhetoric of #NotInMyName.
While there is no doubt that the Opposition has made use of this anxiety in the media to build a campaign skirting around the edges of incitement, it is essentially an elite versus commoner struggle, where the elite would like to take the power back.
I think I have said this before, but like the Joker tells Batman in The Dark Knight, “there is no going back, you have changed things, forever!” Short of imposing a dictatorial rule and abolishing democracy, the genie of social media cannot go back into the bottle. Media will have to rethink and adapt.
One way to do that would be, of course, to focus on reporting more and interpreting less. Media needs fewer self-righteous blowhards with a dog in the fight, and more beat reporters; less number of analysts and more foot soldiers.
In a way, by pushing itself back to its core role of reporting, media will complete the circle which began with the social media revolution. By increasing the number of media personnel and reducing the number of influential fat cats, the media will be doing a wealth redistribution exercise of its own.
It’s about time, they do that.