Television news anchors, despite rather large egos, are clearly not rock stars. Which is why the passing away of the legendary American news anchor Walter Cronkite a few days ago did not attract the fuss that accompanied the death of Michael Jackson. If Jackson redefined pop music in the 1980s, Cronkite was the original television news icon, who anchored the evening news bulletin on CBS for 19 years between 1962 and 1981. Jackson’s incredible musical genius co-existed with notoriety to make him a larger-than-life global personality.
Cronkite’s professional excellence was based on a rather more prosaic, but far more invaluable quality: honesty. He was seen as, ‘the face America trusted’ through presidential elections, moon missions, wars and race riots, a voice of certainty in an increasingly uncertain world.
It’s that ‘trust’ factor which is now under strain in journalism across the world. A recent poll in the US ranked journalists at close to the bottom when it came to professionals people had faith in. It is possible that a similar poll in India would throw up a similar result. Why, for example, hasn’t news TV been able to evolve as a more idealistic, less vacuous form of entertainment, where the anchor strains for building credibility, not for courting controversy?
Perhaps, the role of the news anchor, and indeed, the journalist, within the news process is shifting. Cronkite’s reputation was built on a certain gravitas, the rich baritone giving a sense of comfort to viewers. In times when sources of credible information were rare, Cronkite was the archetypal low-profile informant. He told the story, did not try to become the news. The only exceptions were perhaps in the Vietnam War, when he dramatically insisted that the US forces pull out and the Kennedy assassination which left him teary-eyed. But for most of his career, Cronkite was a neutral umpire, irreverent at times, but never partisan.
But today, when the same story is now being told in a hundred different ways and in different forums, the persona of the journalist as an unbiased storyteller is now increasingly at a premium. Now the journalist is not just a disseminator of news, but also of views. Just as the lines between news and views are being blurred in many newspapers, in TV too, an opinionated ‘take’ on a news story can give the viewer that little bit extra which an SMS alert can never provide. The most-watched TV news programmes now are those where studio chat (preferably suffused with dramatic content) have replaced the vanilla bulletins.
In a noisy, argumentative society like India, a news anchor gets sucked into contentious debate, not always out of choice, but simply to hold up a mirror to polarising issues. The socio-political polarisations in India are often so stark that it is sometimes impossible to remain an aloof, detached figure with no real sense of ‘involvement’ in the news. As an anchorperson who has often been accused of stirring it up, my defence is simple: if you are passionate about the news, it must reflect in your willingness to play the tough ombudsman. The intention isn’t to create a mock fight (although some programme formats demand this), but to actually get to the nub of an issue.
Perhaps, there is also a generational change that is reflected in the presentation of news. Till about a decade ago, journalism was practised and presented in a more leisurely environment of one half-hour evening bulletin. Now, in an era of blogging and ‘twittering’, the news cycle is becoming even more frenetic. With speed of the essence, the anchor’s capacity to make sense of the news whirl around him is greatly reduced.
But even in this age of speed obsession, there is one Cronkite legacy that must stand the test of time if journalism is to survive: the credibility quotient. That’s where perhaps Indian journalists — channel editors, and dare I say, newspaper editors — are in danger of losing the plot. Every time we compromise on journalistic ethics, when speculation replaces facts, when jingoism shades reason, when trivia substitutes for news, we do great disservice to our profession and slowly lose the respect of our readers and viewers. There is little doubt that competitive pressures do influence choices, but it cannot be at the cost of core values.
One of those core values is the fierce independence of the journalist which is now in danger of being assaulted by the intoxicating scent of power on the one hand, and blinkered ideology on the other. The politician wants the newsman to be a supplicant, the ideologue wants him to be a propagandist. In an 1990 article, Cronkite referred to being offered a Senator’s post by the late Robert Kennedy. His response: “I have stood on a long-held principle in refusing to entertain the idea of running for office. Should one who has achieved national fame as a presumably impartial news person ever run for office, the public is going to have every reason to question whether that person had been tailoring the news to build a political platform. The burden of credibility is already heavy enough without that extra load.”
For our many high-profile journalists aspiring to be netas, there may be a lesson there.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network.