we, the media

Dear TR Vivek,

You have the right to your opinion and Chintamani has the right to his. Just that I am a bit jealous of your blog URL being splashed as the headline in the article where you belittle SEA-EAT and similar blogs, as also the idea of citizen journalism at large. How many hits are you getting! And to be listed as a blogger beside such star bloggers as Amit Varma and Jai Arjun Singh - what wouldn't I do for that! So: congratulations!

Let's come down to business. In that short piece you write how blogs like Mumbai Help can't save lives in a disaster, and so can't be equated with heroes: "Thankfully, some of the saner bloggers agree that it is impossible to prove that blogs save lives or make a difference."

Now Outlook is a mainstream publication. Tell me, how many lives did Outlook save in any of the various disasters of 2005?

Now you would say Outlook's job is to report disasters and not become a disaster relief NGO.

Bang on! So why expect a blogger to be Hercules?

You write: "For Mumbaikars who were stranded without water and electricity for a almost a week it wouldn't have mattered much which paper said what. Helpline numbers of electricity and healthcare providers were reproduced on the Collablog from other newspapers. Astronomical web-page hits and searches apart, what citizen reportage are we talking about?"

Now you would know that web-page hits and Technorati searches are an indicator of popularity. They indicate that people are reading this, which obviously means they are finding it useful. Am I right?

You would probably also agree with me that the internet is a global medium. Indian bloggers' first sight of a statcounter is shocking in that more than half the visitors are from outside India. People from all over the world visited these blogs. One of the things the Tsunami blog did was to direct people to charities where they could donate: making a difference, did you say?

If a Mumbai Flood relief blog is not of help to someone stranded in the floods, the same goes for a newspaper or magazine, because you would remember their circulation too was hit for some time by the Mumbai floods.

Another point about citizen journalism is that a blogger does not see himself as a citizen journalist! That is a label that media academics have coined, and does have some basis - why else would blogging be so big in the US? But then you wouldn't know about US scene, because you think Dan Rather was a blogger! But anyway, the label of citizen journalist is also one that the mainstream media has popularised and now MSM wants the blogosphere to live up to the label.

Now you would agree that that's grossly unfair. Bloggers blog to blog, to communicate. A blog is a mode of online communication and could be used in any which way. As a blogger, Chintamani is not bound by rules of writing or editing or any imperative to be a citizen reporter.

Your last sentence is very interesting: "For the urban twentysomethings with intellectual pretentions and the hope of being spotted by the commissioning editor of a publishing house, it's the new P3, or rather the virtual world's own India International Centre."

About a commissioning editor seeing my blog and publishing my book, you have said this earlier as well, and let me tell you that no blogger blogs just for that hope. One blogger actually turned down such a request from a well known publishing house.

About India International Centre, what do you have against the place? I have attended so many illuminating talks and what not at IIC that it is a compliment for you bloggers to be compared to the denizens of IIC! As for intellectual pretensions, hmmmm, okay, another day.

I hope you will respond.

Best wishes,

CC: Vinod Mehta


Citizen journalism + a view from a skeptic

Jane Perrone, in the Guardian newsblog, on The coming of age of citizen media (in which this blogger gets mentioned):
Perhaps most importantly of all, the TsunamiHelp blog has left a lasting legacy. The model of communication it forged has set the standard for web coverage of subsequent disasters, including Hurricane Katrina and the Pakistan earthquake, and many of the TsunamiHelp bloggers have used their expertise to launch similar projects on other disasters. And NGOs and academics are interested in using the TsunamiHelp model as a template for communication during future disasters.

And in the Outlook year-end special, two pieces by Jai and Amit on blogs and citizen journalism.

From Jai's piece
The reason for the impact of blogs like SEA-EAT (and later, Cloudburst Mumbai and Quake Help) was that they were run by teams of dedicated people who knew how to leverage the advantages of the internet—reaching a wide audience, pooling valuable resources from concerned people regardless of their location.
And from Amit:
It is true that in the hands of mediocre writers, the freedom that blogging affords can lead to self-indulgence. But I've found over the past year that the blogosphere is meritocratic, and readers are quick to sort out the wheat from the chaff. This is a new medium, and there's space for plenty more wheat.
And, this, from the in-house skeptic
The blog, a hero? You must be kidding. Maybe elsewhere in the world blogs and bloggers have made a difference during such natural disasters. But in India, over the past one year, where we have had a spate of natural calamities and bomb blasts, there is little evidence suggesting that this new medium, and its proponents have had any impact. Although a handful of bloggers have tried manfully.
I was tempted to just leave that without a comment, but I have to say this (and I'm quoted in Jai's piece and mentioned in Amit's, so you might say I have vested interest), but innit strange that two of India's most respected and widely-read bloggers write balanced pieces with no evangelistic statements, and it's the self-styled skeptic from mainstream media doing the ranting?

Cross-posted from my blog.

re-re-repeat funnies in Express, Delhi

Will SOMEBODY please explain why the Delhi edition of the very-loudly-empowered Indian Express has had the same cartoop strip printed day, after day, after repetitive day?

There's the one about Calvin telling Hobbes that he's wondering if human being and tigers go to the same heaven, because if they did, then they couldn't eat people, who are all supposed to be happy in heaven. Then Hobbes says that if they couldn't then the tigers wouldn't be happy.

This particular strip has been there for a week, at least.

Also, there's one cartoon strip called Cathy, where Cathy is taking her husband shopping and the last panel has the word 'nanosecond', mouthed by the salesgirl.

All the other strips have also been re-re-repeated. I can understand one day of repetition. Oversight by the sub-editor who was making the page... but day, after day, after day?

Somebody please go and tell the sub concerned.

The DNA of sting ops

A sting operation (or two!) is one of those things that gives media consumers rare insights into the fissures within the media. Over five years after India saw its first "candid camera" expose, we the media are still debating the ethics of sting operations: or we think we are, because I have not as yet seen a cogent argument which shows exactly how and why they are unethical.

Most arguments say that sting ops are money-making TRP gimmicks. This implies that they are, therefore, not in public interest. Chintamani does not understand why they can't be both, why we haven't discarded socialism here: Profit? I don't run my channel to make profit! That's a dirty word. I worship media ethics sir, not Mammon!

Now why can't good journalism be good business as well? Better than the Medianet way of making money, I suppose.

Another argument is that they "create" news rather than report it. This is a coservative stance which does not seem to appreciate that we live very much in a world of reality TV and market-driven journalism. In any case, news is always created at news desks, it does not appear on its own like the trees in the woods. Oops, even the trees are 'planted'.

K of Presstalk writes, "While I believe that such abuses of democracy need to be brought out into public, this was clear case of entrapment, which is illegal in certain countries." He does not make clear his stance on the issue of 'entrapment'.

You decide which is worse: entrapment or the acceptance of black money by a public functionary who is supposed to be working for the people rather than lobby groups. K also links to a DNA editorial which says, amongst other things: "It is troubling that the reporters of the website approached these MPs under false pretenses, by posing as representatives of an industry association. Why this subterfuge?" Do the edit writers at DNA know what a sting operation is?

The ethics about sting journalism are clearly debatable, and one can enter that debate only if it is shorn of the pseudo-socialist arguments about TRPs and profits. However, there are some basic media ethics which no one can dispute: like presenting both sides of a story. However, the Bombay newspaper DNA has been running a campaign against sting operations without presenting another side of the story (except one interview and one opinion piece by Prashant Bhushan). Even the tone of general reportage on Operations Duryodhana and Chakravyuh, like in this story, is negative.

Today it had Pioneer editor Chandan Mitra say, (you guessed it): "The TV shows that revealed our politicians in the raw, however, were not necessarily motivated the high ideal of cleansing the system contrary to the producers’ claims. They were primarily driven by the urge to make a quick buck or climb a few notches on TRP ratings. So, two wrongs don’t make a right."

So making money through advertisements on a TV sting operation is wrong.

He compares the breach of privacy in a sting operation showing corruption in the highest echelons of power with the ban of camera phones in a dandiya session in Gujarat! He does not mention the argument that it is impossible to "prove" an actual incident of a lobby group paying an MP to ask questions in the Parliament. What the cash-for-questions sting op showed, in my opinion, is the next best thing: MPs taking money for asking questions on behalf of a fictitious organisation. It proves what every journalist now says he knew for years.

It's not just this opinion piece by Mitra, but many other anti-sting operations articles by DNA that take a very similar stance. Here's a DNA Sunday special against stings. Here's one by Pankaj Pachauri of NDTV. Wait till you see a sting-op on NDTV, considering uncle Roy is one of the founders of a media school that will take just three months to train you to do hidden-camera stories. DNA also reports about the sting media school, without mentioning that Alka Saxena of Zee News is also on board. Every channel worth its salt will now have a 'sting cell', and you will see a sting op every weekend. Zee will not miss the bus, I bet. In which case it will be interesting to see DNA's coverage of Zee's stings, because Zee is part-owner of DNA! You think Chintamani is bullshitting? I have evidence:

Sting suggests you can buy clearances for medical college


This disturbing revelation was made by a Zee News team of Vatsal Shrivastava, Pramod Sharma, and Nikhil Dube, which worked its way through a chain of brokers and agents to negotiate a deal in which it would have to pay Rs20 lakh for two medical colleges.

The sting operation, which was telecast on Friday night, exposed some MCI officials, including Deputy Secretary Dr KK Arora. Though the Zee team did not take the process to its logical conclusion and actually obtain a certificate of permission, its investigation raises doubts about the functioning of the country's highest medical regulatory body.

So a sting operation by Zee does not raise questions of ethics extending to several editorial columns. One by Aaj Tak does. This example of a DNA report about a sting op on Zee belies ZEE's statement in DNA that it "has not been involved in any such operation, unlike other channels, which use it as a medium to create sensation." Note how, in that link, there are statements from Star and NDTV but not by Aaj Tak.

As I write this and dig more into DNA archives, I find they have a column by Rajat Sharma (of India TV, of 'casting couch' fame) defending sting-ops. And I haven't even got around to unearthing their coverage of Sting II on the MPLAD scheme by Star News and 'DIG'.

Finally, don't miss this funny legal angle they have. Lawyers are another tribe. More about the media's favourite lawyers in another post, another Christmas.


Heart of Darkness

On the Sarai Reader-List, Ananya Vajpeyi has made a long, angry posting about how she is disillusioned with her job as the editor of the Op-Ed page in a paper edited by a baldy, a paper which has been in relentless self-congratulation mode for months now. Her post reads like a rant with little substance, but it is worth reading for its Arundhati Royesque emotion - it tells you a lot about how the media is so full of talented people whose creativity is stifled because of 'organisational needs'. I'm pasting the full text here, the link is here anyway.

Heart of Darkness

By Ananya Vajpeyi

If it's not in the news, my editor says every single morning, then don't write about it. Or, if I'm writing something anyway, he wants to know what the "news-peg" is, on which I will hang my piece. But this article is not about elections. It's not about the economy. It's not about cricket. It's not about the Left parties. It's not about international affairs. I guess you could conclude, then, that it's not about what's in the news. It is about the news. Note, editor of mine: this article is about the news.

There are three fields about which I know a little bit, from my admittedly limited life-experiences: academia, the arts, journalism. I can tell you something about the way these spheres of activity function in this and a couple of other countries. I can tell you, after struggling for the past few years to find a way to contribute to these arenas of public life while making ends meet, in big cities and small towns all over India, that at the bottom of my heart I am beginning to lose the faith. Just like I was told I would, when I was younger. It's only a matter of time, young people are told, before the dying of the light. One doesn't believe it. Until one day the darkness is upon one.

And the news, again? What does the news have to do with this sense one gets, of fighting a losing battle, of being aboard a sinking ship, of – choose your own metaphor – not being able to discern a ray of light by which to find one's way? This is my hypothesis: the news enacts, performs, dramatizes, and exemplifies everything about our society that reeks of cynicism. News takes the darkness that lurks on the edges of our sight, like an impending loss of consciousness, and writes it bright across our television screens, or black on the white of newsprint. If news is an index of our collective life as a nation, a symptom of what ails us, then our sickness is clear, we suffer from that terminal disease of the soul: cynicism. I think I'm in the early stages of infection myself, truth be told. Nothing else explains the dead weight in my heart every morning. It became considerably heavier when I started working for a newspaper.

Here's the landscape: A war zone gets hit by an earthquake. A clutch of cats, the last of their kind, is shot, skinned, sold. A young man doing his job is murdered in the back of his own car. People go shopping before Diwali, and come home without fathers, children, wives, limbs. Liars seize power. Villages are crushed under the slow-turning wheels of the perpetual revolution. A man from Kerala is kidnapped and killed in the badlands of Afghanistan. Sportsmen perform miserably, unable to master either game or ego. Girls are raped, gays treated like lepers, and no one has time for the poor and their never-ending poverty. Tribals face extinction. Cities rot, inundated with water from the sky, flooded with water from the rivers. Forests are a fading memory. Yet another Muslim woman takes the consequences of double minority. A deadly mafia don proves photogenic, his moll even more so. Workers are beaten within an inch of their lives.

Alright, so there's no appeal against natural disasters, and terrorism is practically a force of nature nowadays. Armies will do what they're supposed to do: make war. Human beings are destined to suffer, and in such calamitous times, when there is little protection for human life, who will save trees and animals? Surely it's not the fault of news that all news these days seems to be bad news?

But no, what ails us is not that there is, as the Buddha stated in his very first axiom, suffering in the world. Dukha is old news. What makes it all so unpalatable is the shameless voyeurism, the mindless reiteration, the immorality, the unscrupulousness, the insensitivity and the downright dishonesty which characterise the workings of the media, of politics, and of their unholy nexus, news. If it scares you to watch this dance of death from afar, then it would turn your stomach, trust me, no, worse – it would wipe out your faith, gentle reader – to inhabit belly of the beast.

For hundreds of years in our part of the world, people wrote of things real and fantastic in the genre of the Purana. Many of these texts contained descriptions of the chaos and corruption that would mark the world in the Kali Yuga, the last of the four great ages of humankind. Teachers will lead their students away from knowledge, rulers will drive their subjects to perdition, truth will vanish, beauty perish, and righteousness meet an inglorious end. The bull that is Dharma, they claimed, will be left standing on its last leg. The ancients got it right, apparently. Somewhere in their incoherent prescience of apocalypse, in their alarm about the fast-attenuating moral center of their society, they threw us a map with which to navigate our own nightmarish times.

Kali Yuga: the society of the spectacle. Life on TV. For a civilization that has produced some of the truest, most beautiful texts, artefacts, theories, ways of life and modes of being, we have arrived at a sorry pass indeed, the nadir of ignorance, inanity and unethical consumption, an infernal mish-mash of breaking news-page three-advertising-globalisation in our faces day and night, killing us, killing us, killing us. We rob the poor, we rape the weak, we cheat the helpless, we steal from the blind. And then we broadcast it, live, 24X7.

As though this can go on much longer. It is not possible to have a political life without ethics. It is not possible to do work when its only object is destruction rather than creation. It is not possible to use language without respect for the truth, to editorialize without commitment, to preach when your real objective is to obfuscate, to lead when you are headed straight to hell.

At the heart of darkness, incessantly generating its meaningless commotion, a television set.


Bad Mid-Day?

Now, we don't think we're a prude - we're usually accused of being way too liberal - but we were more than a little scandalised to see in today's Sunday Mid Day a double spread feature on the Bad Sex Award. Not just a short mention (which would be okay, IOAO, considering there was an Indian angle with Aniruddha Bahal taking it two years ago, and Salman Rushdie and Tarun Tejpal on this year's shortlist), but, erm, extracts. Not just this year's winner, but the winners all the way from '94. Plus, in a mild attack of originality, an add-on feature on Bad and Good Sex in the Indian film industry.

And yes, we know the Lit blog world has covered this, and that's in the public eye too, but there seems to be a line being crossed here.

A newspaper lands up in our homes, has puzzles for the brats, etcetera. Are you comfortable with the kiddos finishing the Jumble and then turning to a page of rather descriptive text, even if a few perfectly normal body-part type words are *******ed out?

Cross-posted from my blog.

Recent Posts
The Bahrain ferry disaster
"Inflaming communal passions"
More speculation about blogging and MSM
Dear TR Vivek,
Citizen journalism + a view from a skeptic
re-re-repeat funnies in Express, Delhi
The DNA of sting ops
Heart of Darkness
Bad Mid-Day?
The Hindu gets 'inspired'

Media Watchers
The Hoot
The War for News
Spindian Express

And also
Reporters Without Borders
Bloggers Without Borders

October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006

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