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Last week, prime time TV news channels witnessed a flurry of cacophonous and pointless debates. The subject, invariably was ‘Communalism vs. Secularism’, where representatives from Congress, BJP, SP, BSP, etc made allegations and counter allegations about the ‘communal’ activities of the other party. What sparked off this aggr?essive and loud debate? In an interview to Reuters, CM of Gujarat, Narendra Modi was asked a question about his feelings with respect to the riot victims. His answer included an analogy to the accidental death of a puppy under a car (which he may not even be driving), where he meant ‘puppy’ as the tiniest of living beings and that even if such a creature is harmed, he would be pained by it. Even a critic of Modi like me could understand what he meant by the analogy. How is it then that the Indian news media made such a big deal out of it? One explanation is that they are low on intelligence to confuse an analogy with a comparison (“Modi compares riot victims to puppies”, some anchors shouted). The ‘secular’ brigade got their opportunity to cash in on the controversy and the Modi brigade got a chance to expose the Congress’ lack of ideas for tackling the Opposition.

All news channels played Modi’s statement over and over again and made ‘Breaking News’ out of every politician’s reaction to this so-called ‘controversy’ that was ‘raging all over the country.’ In the days that followed, Modi made a direct reference to the Congress’ misuse of the word ‘secularism.’ “Every time Congress is cornered by the Opposition with real issues it raises the bogey of ‘communalism’ and hides behind its ‘burqa of secularism’,” Modi said. Frankly, I believe the Aam Aadmi of this country has stopped caring about the ‘Communalism’ debate long ago. When neither of these parties can provide basic necessities to every citizen of this country, of what use is their ideological posturing? Modi made a lot of other points in his speech which were debatable, points which actually concern the problems we face today. The media still chose to focus on the one line that could allow them to create an atmosphere of polarisation, at least in their studios, if not in the real world. This exposes a very alarming trend in the media.

Who benefits the most by the rejuvenation of a religion based polarization in India? I think both Congress and BJP have a lot to gain. These are times when Congress has nothing to take to the people after two terms in Government, and parties like SP are stealing its minority vote. The Congress only stands to benefit when Modi accuses Congress of minority appeasement as the minorities are given the impression that the Congress has done something for them, when it actually hasn’t. The BJP also gains as it leads people to believe that the Congress has been ‘appeasing’ Muslims, while the reality is that the Congress has, in recent times, been too busy scamming the country, to appease anyone else. Both parties hope to consolidate their traditional voters, who have lately been deserting them for regional parties. This explains why a motivated media is picking up a small line in Modi’s speech and is holding national debates over it for days together.

This situation is very alarming as it raises serious doubts about the integrity  of Indian democracy’s fourth pillar, that is the media. I do not believe the media is entirely corrupt. I think Indian media is facing a shortage of talent at the moment, where mediocre reporters, who can speak fluent English get a platform that they may not necessarily deserve to give their wise opinions on a wide range of issues. The definition of ‘national news’ has been distorted to such an extent that more than the event itself, a politician’s reaction to it makes ‘Breaking News’. And once they decide to track a story, they make it appear as if the entire country, apart from that one place, has come to a standstill!

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Arnab Goswami, anchor of the Newshour, on Times Now.

Ever since Arnab Goswami created his own style of anchoring the prime time debate, all channels except NDTV 24×7, have tried to emulate him. Headlines Today’s Rahul Kanwal, who used to be bearable once upon a time has turned into a poorly executed copy of Arnab. Despite being heavily pro-Government, I believe NDTV is doing a good job of reporting news. NDTV India’s (Hindi news channel) prime time debate, anchored by Ravish Kumar is also a cut above the rest.

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Ravish Kumar, from NDTV India.

What I have also noticed is that news reports are limited to urban and semi-urban areas. Even during Maharashtra’s terrible drought this year, reporting from the ground was extremely poor. How will India’s urban population find out what goes on in rural India if the mainstream media decides to black out huge parts of the country? I think the media is partly responsible for a growing disconnect between India’s urban and rural populations. Blinded by the din of ‘national news’, news editors have forgotten that a majority of the country’s populace lives in villages.

I think it is important for responsible journalists from the old school and the new school to put a stop to the plummeting standards of Indian television news media. The industry is relatively new and is still to mature, but the time has come for veterans to change the way television news is functioning.

 

 

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