Mahesh Vijapurkar

Over a decade ago, I had run into people who stopped subscribing to newspapers. Not because they were getting to read them on the Internet, the Apps were yet to arrive. They found sensation in broadsheets which was the domain of the tabloid. And facts were getting scarce.

These people and many more like them have now abandoned the news television for what they contend is a worse crime. Which is, they found that ‘news’ TV has forgotten what news was. It is, at least on the national channels. And frightening.

Where, these wise people now ask, do we go to find news?

Initially, the television which brought the action into the drawing rooms, forced the newspapers to get better designed, get attractive, more colour, but that led to a paradigm shift in the print genre of news purveyors: they became tabloid-like.

If newspaper’s one positive step was coming out with mirco-local supplements, the readers of the mainline, national newspapers retained their airs and ignored the local stuff entirely. I as a reader of one would like to have a new bus service introduced, but have to depend on a local, second buy.

But this column is about news television. Carl Bernstein, the legendary journalist of the Watergate fame – his colleague was Bob Woodward – often these days a point of substance. News media have to pursue "The best obtainable version of the truth." But journalism is not “journalism is not committed” to” anymore.

No doubt TV journalism is a different ballgame, chasing news quite expensive. And Rajdeep Sardesai has often confessed that the North East does not get covered because their channel had only one outdoor broadcast (OB Van) for the entire North East. But the channels depend mostly on the coverage from an agency, ANI, like newspapers used to on PTI and UNI.

These days, another veteran, Ravish Kumar, (NDTV India) who has the courage to abandon the nightly primetime ‘debate’ to take his crew into a slum or a college to explore the deficiencies has actually publicly warned that such debates “where the monkeys are brought to perform” will kill information as content of news.

He is right. Why should a partyman, who is ill-briefed or not at all, but has the skill of a college debater who can argue on any side, and deny the rival in the studio his time, or shout down everyone else, engage the people? Why is that not a single government spokesman is brought? If not to debate, at least to provide a point of view?

Earlier, they had a proper identifying marker – ‘chat shows’ which was elevated to ‘debates’ and later debased to an extent that the anchors in many cases either themselves shout, or allow the participants to speak, nor control other participants who conduct themselves in a manner to derail it all. But it is such a significant part of the day’s menu that they are conducted at prime time.

Prime time to me is the best time to present all the news, like the BBC and the Al Jazeera, and when an additional input to put a context to a development, bring in a non-partisan expert, do. Our channels somehow seem to have the false notion that Indians are couch potatoes-cum- news junkies who follow the developments the whole day.

When they switch on the TV, they are suddenly blasted – literally that – with sound and fury without often having any idea of what was being said and even why. Is it a wonder that the Indian minds have been gripped and overwhelmed by this nightly drama of no substance? It is cheaper to get people to studios than to send crews chasing news.

My suspicion is that the national channels – that by the simple criterion of language, English and Hindi which enables them to reach across linguistic borders in India – limit themselves to a ‘one-story- a-day’ approach so it could be built as the subject for the debate in the night. It is as if a country of 1.3 billion has nothing else happening. VS Naipaul had found a million mutinies to write about in a book.

The tragic part is to finding a politician to comment on each and every subject and then accuse that community of politicising an event. The other is asking leading questions, on the lines of ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?” which traps a person. Eliciting information for telecast is not the endeavour; promoting a binary certainly is.

Haven’t we transited from an era of ‘news’ to ‘infotainment’ to just the opiate of ‘entertainment’.