I often wonder if our media is schizophrenic. On the one hand, if you stand back and observe how we respond to situations you'll notice that, more often than not, we jump to extremes. Whether its adulation or criticism, we opt for the hyperbolic. Measured, balanced, judicious, well-considered comment eludes us. A string of adjectives trips off our tongues — or our pens — and then, like children, we start to compete and outdo each other.
Yet the amazing thing is somewhere at the back of our minds — or deep inside our hearts — we know we’re overdoing it. Whether its speech or action, we know when we’ve spoken or done too much. At times, we’re even capable of stepping outside our skins and commenting on ourselves. Like two different people, we can judge each other yet not stop the errant behaviour.
An email from Vishal Pant, hours after Abhinav Bindra’s Olympic gold, captures this Janus-headedness. Writing about the explosion of attention on TV— and anticipating the next day's papers — he says: “ A country of a billion is celebrating as if we have won the maximum golds at the Olympics! I hate to sound like a cynic but I get amazed when I see this kind of reaction. For God’s sake even countries like Ethiopia and Surinam have won golds. Hats off to Bindra — a huge achievement — but why are we going berserk?” For my part, I doubt if the American media greeted Phelps record-breaking tally of golds with similar glee!
The paradox is that Vishal is a senior producer at Times Now, a channel as guilty of going beserk as any other. But Vishal's response would not have been out of place at any of the competitor channels. Each of them have a handful of producers who lament their lack of balance — yet are unable to do anything about it. In fact, not just unable, even unwilling. They know their channels often lack perspective and balance but they accept that, even defend it, whilst admitting its wrong. Now, isn’t that schizophrenic?
What surprised me last Monday is that television anchors were so swept off their feet they failed to recognize Abhinav's modesty. When he responded to that ceaselessly asked, unimaginative old-chestnut ‘how do you feel?’ with a gentle reticent “there's not much to say … for me life will go on,” one concluded he was “blasé” while another commented “he seems to be taking it in his stride”. Tell me, is that such a bizarre thing to do?
Yet the sad part is this extreme response to Abhinav's achievement is a belittling of journalism. If a single gold medal — even if it's the first — can push into the background the crisis in Kashmir, the rising rate of inflation and the cash-for-votes corruption scandal then, surely, we are either a media that has its priorities upside-down or is desperately running away from bigger issues? Either way, that's what you expect of a comic state in a Verdi opera, not the world's largest democracy.
But why single out this week’s coverage of Abhinav? Was the treatment of the Arushi murder, the Scarlet Keeling rape, or the Delhi gay killings any different? In fact, you can find several examples each year stretching all the way back to Ganesh statues drinking milk! Exaggeration is our forté.
I suspect television news channels started this slide into madness. Their competition for eyeballs is in danger of converting journalism from all that you ought to know into all that you want to know and, even, all that you will readily and happily watch. Today, ten years later, our papers have caught up. They've dropped their commitment to high standards. Instead, they're racing down the same low road to cheap popularity and tabloid success.
So, here's my reply to Vishal — and all the others like him, hidden and unheard inside television and newspaper offices: “India is not going beserk but perhaps you guys in TV and the papers are. It’s time for you to do more than SMS. It’s time to act. If you don’t, you could drive the rest of us insane!”