Free Press Journal

Why journalism is ill-served by its celebrities


In 2008, the Washington Post reported that its executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. had stepped down after a 17-year tenure, a time during which, the Post said in its news columns, the paper “became a major online force and won a slew of prizes for high-profile investigations, including one that (was) published over President Bush’s objections.”

On the pages of the newspaper he so ably worked 44 years, one of his senior colleagues Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser called him “the straightest shooter I ever had to deal with”.  And he wrote: “One of my anxieties about my friend is that his qualities won’t be appreciated because they’re so invisible. . . . It’s never occurred to him to seek the spotlight or be flashy or sexy or any of the things that seem to be so valued now. He’s a really large figure who’s accomplished so much, but without any hint of charisma in the wider world.”

That footnote to an almost ideal editor was written not too long ago and in a country that, one might argue, has taken the lead in the decline of journalistic standards worldwide.  The Indian press has had even more glorious examples from a glorious past. But today, the story is one worse, particularly in an age when noisy journalists strive to occupy the centre-stage with nuisance stuff, working as if they are the stars, ever ready to fill in as rent-a-quote speakers, the precise kind of overzealous publicity seekers that students of journalism are taught to shun. The only difference is that these varieties quote themselves, on their platforms, promoted by them and their organisations, and mirror these on social media where “likes” and “follows” are bought for a fee.

This is the kind being presented as leaders of journalism with millions of followers arguing an editorial point of view when the reality is that narrow self-interest, personal rivalry and perfidy are the hall marks of this crop of journalists.

The recent exchange that has occupied some media space, where a particularly and appropriately despised television journalist recalled the time he was personally attacked in Gujarat, and a counter from his former colleague associated with a rival television channel that this was a visit that never happened, fits the kind of exchange that is all noise and no light, serving to make stars out of those who serve the profession poorly on both sides of the spectrum.

Even though it is gratifying to see an obnoxious media person being caught out and go down, there is the larger and more difficult case that must be argued in the midst of this din. The obnoxious would anyway perish, sooner rather than later.  What looks unlikely to perish is a culture of self-glorification that is not good for the profession, and the profession is unable to call it out for what it is.

It is here that the term “Lutyens media” calls for a re-definition. The phrase, which has been used to target one section of the media for representing an “insider” culture, actually describes a much wider section. Every side of journalist that works to be in the spotlight himself or herself is “Lutyens media”, the obnoxious and the not-so-obnoxious, the loud and not-so-loud, the liar and not-such-a-liar.

And this kind of media animal has common characteristics: from New Delhi, anyone important enough is referred to as a friend, anecdotes sprinkle out of the hat and self-promotion is high on the agenda. This isn’t one breed or ideology of journalist fighting any other variety. All sides, flavours and colours are one, and they together take the profession down by placing themselves at the centre of the story while letting go real stories of ordinary citizens – the stuff that good journalism is made of.

The scenario is tailor-made for a government that is increasingly intolerant of free media voices; this kind of journalism lets the establishment go scot- free on the key issues of the day while a lot of the space is occupied by a debate that never was.  This is the bigger loss that is less seen and less understood, a loss that is way beyond the low reached when television debates are forcibly turned into rowdy shows night after night.

Both the Manmohan Singh government and the current Modi administration quickly discovered that it is easy to control this media through the handful of voices who are all available at arm’s length, so to speak, and generate decibel levels far beyond their true import. This means influencing a television debate, not making good policy. When the focus is on the former, there isn’t the depth to analyse the latter.

Coupled with pressures from corporate India and the increasingly strained balance sheets of many media businesses, this is a particularly difficult time for the news media. A news report over the weekend said Public Policy Research, which is headed by the BJP vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, has advocated a “common standardised style book of reporting by both the print and TV media”, indicative of new moves to keep the media in check. The government will play favourites, as governments have historically done.  But image management through the media has its limits, and the returns will soon turn negative if the establishment refuses to hear voices it doesn’t like and worse if it begins to believe its own hype.

In that, the Achilles Heel of the media is in the celebrities and the strength lies in the diversity of the profession. Strength is in several nameless, faceless editors and reporters and writers who work to bring out editions quietly – without any fuss, silently working their shifts at far spread out establishments big and small, and bringing along stories of everyday people and their everyday problems.

Of course, they too bring their prejudices, pressures and biases along but they are at least not the self-same biases of a celebrated few. These spread out editors are “without any hint of charisma” and that is their strength.

The author is a senior journalist and works as Editor SPJIMR.