As a journalist you train yourself to treat both accolades and abuse with the same level of levity; you tell yourself over and over again to not take yourself seriously and you even learn, eventually, to laugh at yourself. You understand that being in the public gaze inevitably comes with being viewed through a coloured prism — whether rose-tinted or jaundiced. And you develop the ability to lightly shrug off the distortions of a persona foisted on you by others.
But if there’s one accusation that can still get a rise out of you — triggering annoyance, exasperation or weariness at different times — it is the charge of Bias. So whether it’s from the online armies of ideologues and their weapons of mass fabrication; or more sincere feedback from people who may demand to know why your views on a certain issue have altered — in India, the debate around Media Bias remains volatile, but essentially shallow and infuriating. This is not because any of us can lay claim to a laboratory manufactured, detached objectivity — it doesn’t exist — but because in this discourse, Bias is measured by whether your work can reaffirm the prevalent prejudices of your audience. In other words, you’re expected to be an echo chamber for amplifying a specific set of beliefs; if you don’t, you’re immediately shoved into the box labelled ‘Biased’.
Sometimes, the sobriquets come from both sides of the ideological trenches, making for a piquant and ironic situation. It’s pretty common, for instance, for the same news reportage to provoke allegations of bias from political adversaries and their followers. Conflict reporting and covering insurgencies can prove to be even more sensitive. That one should report both the sacrifices of Indian security personnel as well as any glaring human rights violations seems commonsensical. And yet, if you aren’t seen to be leaning obviously to the Left or the Right of the debate, chances are that you can be called a jingoist and an anti-national simultaneously, depending on who is doing the name-calling.
Yet, so far, despite television’s propensity to compress complexity into air-tight oversimplifications of ‘for’ and ‘against’, for the most part, journalists in India go to great lengths to assert their ideological independence. But, as Indian politics gets more vicious and polarised, is that set to change?
The controversy around Bias in the media struck home because I’ve got the rare opportunity to watch television not as an industry insider, but as a regular viewer, with one finger on the remote. On sabbatical, in the United States, in an exciting election year, I have been befuddled by how aggressively biased some television networks are able to be. What’s more, the open avowal of a political preference — whether that of Fox News on the Right or MSNBC on the Left — hasn’t hurt any journalistic reputations; on the contrary, taking sides has significantly swelled the numbers for both these networks. It is ironically, CNN — which is still clinging to that old-fashioned idea called Bipartisanship — that is seriously straggling in the ratings. The explosion of social media and its dictum of instant judgement and # (hashtag) as analysis can make ‘Balanced’ seem perilously close to ‘Boring’. Any number of blogs or Twitter feeds routinely mock what they see as the ‘He-said, she said’ form of fence-sitting that was the old-style tag of papers of record. Take the introduction to commentator Charles Pierce’s daily political blog for Esquire. In an acerbic take-down of textbook journalism it says, “If this blog sees a man walking down the street with a duck on his head, it will report that it saw a man walking down the street with a duck on his head. It will not need two sources for that. It will not seek out someone to tell it that what it really saw was a duck walking down the street with a guy on its ass.”
American media hasn’t yet figured out how far it can travel with overt affiliations. News organisations remain divided on whether journalists should be permitted to make donations to individual politicians, campaigns or action committees.
But as a television journalist-turned-temporary-viewer, my surprise at the success of news networks moulded by political inclinations, is mostly to do with wondering why it should be interesting to the consumer. Surely, irrespective of our ideological proclivities, our minds would be more drawn to a conversation that tells us something we don’t know? Or at the very least exposes us to a contrarian view that fiddles around with our doctrinaire comfort zones? After all, wasn’t the job of the journalist to dig up the nuances left buried by an avalanche of polarised politics? If you’re shaped by the Socratic ideal of the unexamined Life not being worth living, the absence of self-doubt and the assertion of smug certitude, can make for extremely dull television viewing — even when it’s your own ideological compatriot doing the hectoring. As a student of mass communication, one of the first films I watched was Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon in which the same crime is recounted in completely divergent ways, casting a doubt on the singularity of Truth. Wasn’t journalism meant to explore these many shades of truth?
Yet, wearing your political bias on your lapel microphone seems to be the new mantra of successful television in the US. I wouldn’t be surprised if the vitiated political environment in India and the constant pressure for a more provocative and opinionated media, sees a similar trend for us. Whether that’s a good thing or bad- ah well, that would probably depend on your ‘Bias’.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University’s India Initiative
The views expressed by the author are personal