Monday, September 12, 2011

Media as Echo Chamber: Cluttering the Public Discourse on Corruption

Facts have a certain pliability about them. They can always be moulded in a shape that suits prior conceptions. At a discussion in Delhi on the Media and the Politics of Corruption on August 31 – just a few days after a hunger fast by Kisan Baburao Hazare, alias Anna, in the cause of a high-powered anti-corruption body had been called off -- two television news anchors, aware that their conduct through the thirteen-day long event was under scrutiny, chose aggression as the best strategy of self-defence. The coverage of Anna’s indefinite hunger fast at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, they said, was perfectly in tune with the magnitude of the event and its importance to all Indian citizens. The crowds that gathered at the venue of Anna’s fast were deeply stirred by the personal example set by the 74-year old social campaigner in the struggle against corruption. To call their fervour a contrivance of the media was an illusion of an out-of-touch intellectual elite, and an insult to basic human integrity and intelligence. The media’s only sin was that it had refused to be “embedded” with the government and uncritically parrot the official line.

Unsurprisingly, TV news anchors have consistently been in the forefront of the public debate about the media’s role – to further adapt Noam Chomsky’s adaptation of the famous Walter Lippmann term – in the “manufacture of dissent”. Another well-known TV personality sought to tackle this matter frontally in a newspaper column and arrived at the self-extenuating conclusion that the fault, if any, lay at the government’s doorstep, since it had consistently failed in putting across its point of view cogently and comprehensibly, allowing the forces of dissent to carry the day by default.(1)

Available for public scrutiny by this time, were the results of an exhaustive media monitoring exercise – involving two news channels each in English and Hindi – by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), a research organisation with long years of experience in the field. Between August 16 and 28, the exercise found that the two Hindi channels, Aaj Tak and Star News, devoted 97 percent of total news time during prime viewing hours (7 to 11 p.m.) to the Anna fast. For the two English channels monitored -- CNN-IBN and NDTV 24x7 – the corresponding figure was 87 per cent. Left out of this exercise was TimesNOW, which was widely seen to be the most brash, bumptious – indeed, noisy and intolerant -- news channel in respect of the Anna Hazare fast.

Taking the pattern of total time utilisation on the English channels, the figures were roughly about 65 percent of broadcast time for the Ramlila event, 23 percent for advertisements and the rest for other news. The Hindi channels were not very different in terms of the total time dedicated to the Anna fast, but with advertisements occupying about 30 percent, they had virtually no time for other news.(2) It is also estimated that through Anna’s thirteen day fast, the viewership of English news channels increased by over 70 percent and of Hindi, by over 85 percent.

From another source, we find that in the earlier phase of Anna’s protest fast in April, news channels raked in Rs 175.86 crore in advertisement revenue over a nine-day period. Coverage totalled 5,576 news clips, of which prime time news coverage numbered 1,224 clips across 152 hours, with an ad value of Rs 52.47 crore. Classifying the news clips by their tone, 5,592 were positive towards Anna and his cause, while 92 were characterised as negative.(3)

Viewership and audience demographics are the principal criteria in determining ad placement decisions. But the pattern of coverage of the Anna fast was so distinctive across all news channels, that it suggests a strong linkage between quantum and tone of coverage and revenue implications. The matter needs to be carefully dissected and thought through. Media companies, for the most part, are private limited companies, not legally obliged to publish annual statements of accounts. Even less are they under compulsion to disgorge the finer details of commercial strategies to maximise ad revenue. But an indication that Anna’s fast was a lucrative source of revenue for the media is available from the conduct of Bennett Coleman and Company Ltd (BCCL), publishers of the Times of India (ToI) and owners of the TimesNOW channel, which has shown itself over the years to have the best sense of the “editorial context” that advertisers most appreciate.

Derived from print media practice, the “news-hole” is a concept that media analysts frequently work with. It is a term that originates in the practice of making up a page, where space is already committed for advertisements and news content can only fill in the “holes” in between. That concept of the “news-hole” has now been adapted to the visual electronic media, though its measure is not in units of space, but time. Its essential connotation is that news has only the second claim to media space and time, after ads. It does not yet reveal the subtext that news content is itself influenced by the ads that surround it – or that news content can be manipulated to provide the best “editorial context” for ads placements. As with much else in the Indian media over the last two decades, the new paradigm was forged by BCCL, which proudly invented a mutually supportive relationship between the news-hole and surrounding ads. Since the money came from the ads, the burden of adjustment had to be on news content.

Within all the limitations of the print medium, BCCL’s flagship newspaper, the ToI, was a stellar performer in mobilising crowds for the Anna fast. A perceptive analyst has provided all the basic data here. The ToI’s Delhi edition covered the thirteen day event over 123 broadsheet pages branded “August Kranti”, hijacking a talismanic moment from India’s struggle against colonialism. Overall coverage included 401 news stories, 34 opinion pieces, 556 photographs and 29 cartoons and strips”. On seven of these days, the front page of the ToI had eight-column banner headlines. Negative stories, if any, were run with attributions to public figures – such as the Islamic cleric who heads Delhi’s Jama Masjid and the leader of a nationwide confederation of government employees from the scheduled castes – who are known to evoke a reaction of some scepticism, if not disdain, among the main readership demographic of the ToI. And the newspaper launched a toll-free number for readers to give a “missed call” if they endorsed the demand for a “strong Lok Pal Bill”.(4)

By way of a sampling of the banner headlines in the ToI, on August 25, the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was deemed to have hardened its stand after an all-party political meeting the previous day endorsed the sovereign right of Parliament to determine the appropriate law to deal with corruption. The popular expectation that Anna’s agony would end was belied and despite the official spokepersons’ deliberate effort to put a different construction on events, the ToI headline read “From Breakthrough to Breakdown”. Subsequently, a collective appeal by the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and indeed, both houses of Parliament, failed to deflect Anna from his resolve to go for his maximal agenda. On August 26, ToI determined that the moral advantage from these exchanges had accrued to Anna with the loud banner that read: “PM walks the extra mile, Anna unmoved”. Two days later, the ToI reported the culmination of Anna’s fast, which came about in ambiguous circumstances that fell conspicuously short of his maximal demands, under the headline: “Anna wins it for the people”.

Missing through this entire thirteen-day long frenzy was any informed public discussion of what was at stake. Daily experiences with corruption were narrated with a pronounced bias towards the common irritants that the middle and upper strata face. Typically, delays in obtaining passports and business clearances were talked about, not the difficulties with getting names registered on daily muster rolls for the rural employment guarantee programme. Team Anna’s insistence that its conception of a vertically structured, rigidly hierarchical body was the only way to deal with corruption, generally escaped without serious scrutiny. The few who sought to raise questions about the appropriateness of a body conceived with conspicuous disdain for participatory democracy, were typically characterised as divisive elements, disrupting a moment of rare unity within civil society, effectively giving the government a free pass.(5)

There was in short, much discussion of the need for a “strong Lok Pal Bill”, but no clarity about how this end could be achieved. Characteristically, during an hour-long programme of studio-based debate and discussion titled “The Big Fight” on August 20 on the news channel NDTV 24x7, the entire audience declared itself to be in favour of Team Anna’s Lok Pal Bill. Yet, no hands went up when the next question was asked: about how many among the audience had actually read Team Anna’s draft bill.

Yet there are obvious difficulties, both logical and ethical, in putting down the widening public ferment to media manipulation. People today are stirred up like never before over the quality of governance and willing to express themselves forcefully. And the 24 hour news channels that have multiplied over the last half-decade, provide them with a platform.

It is a plausible conjecture that the restive spirit about is a consequence of the threats seen today to India’s growth story. Though indifferent for the first decade-and-a-half of India’s liberalisation process, economic growth began picking up momentum from about 2004 and showed enough dynamism for a sufficient number of years to earn worldwide recognition as a force that would influence global balances into the near and distant future. This period also saw the coming of age of the great Indian middle class which had ostensibly earned its belated freedom after spending decades under an oppressive state-controlled economy. Media growth is a sub-plot within this broader story, propelled by advertising expenditure which, as is invariably the case, outgrew increases in corporate profitability, but tended to mirror the underlying patterns of consumption of the middle and upper strata.

The global economic downturn since late-2008 is only beginning to show up in India’s official economic statistics, but it is a part of peoples’ lives. Inflation has become a more perceptible threat than ever before in two decades. The vaulting ambitions of India’s bulging “youth demographic strata” are under stress, making nonsense of the beguiling prospects held out by the media just over two years ago. And as the global economy itself lurches into a possible double-dip recession, the prospects of India’s emergence on the world stage as a superpower seem rapidly to be diminishing.

These factors have engendered anxieties across all strata, expressed in diverse ways. On February 23 this year, India’s principal trade union confederations jointly organised a mass rally in the national capital. Despite acute concerns among the working class over the direction that policy was taking in a context of growing livelihood stresses, official thinking showed little inclination to go beyond the standard story line that the labour market needed to be “reformed” – that enterprises in other words, needed the power to hire and fire at will.

The trade union rally was a way of showing the world that there was another way of looking at things. It was an alternative discourse that the many news channels based in Delhi and elsewhere proved fairly indifferent to. The following day, newspaper coverage mostly focused on the massive traffic snarls the rally had caused. The ToI’s Delhi edition, ran a full page of coverage under the banner headline: “Red wave sweeps city, halts traffic in central Delhi”. In three chosen samples of public reaction, representing presumably the whole range of opinions heard that day, one of the sufferers of the days’ traffic chaos was quoted saying: “If I find out which party is behind the rally, I will never vote for it”. Others complained of vital appointments missed and tasks left unfinished.

August 16 was the first day of mass gathering on Delhi’s streets in support of Anna in his most recent phase of agitation. Within moments of the preventive arrest effected to stop Anna from beginning his protest, Delhi’s news channels had fanned out across the city to provide saturation coverage for the ensuing demonstrations. Traffic was thrown out of gear in several parts of the city when the crowds came out, but the media cared little. As the ToI’s Delhi edition put it in its main local news page on August 17: “City Centre Comes Alive With Marching Throngs”. And elsewhere,under the headline “Massive jams in city but few were complaining”, the newspaper made a special effort to record that city commuters with nerves frazzled by the chaos, were “pacified” by others who explained the issue at stake.

Yet doubts persist about how clearly the media has framed the issues. “Corruption” is in the discourse of most who have joined the Hazare campaign, a convenient target onto which a whole complex of anxieties can be shifted. And the seeming urgency of creating an authority superior to all others, meshes neatly with elite convictions that representative democracy has been a colossal failure. But since the Jan Lok Pal, a body conceived as the magic bullet to end all corruption, has failure – and endless conflict with all other institutions -- virtually encoded in the circumstances of its genesis, it should be asked what the consequences of manifest failure would be. Would the target then shift from “corruption” to “politics” itself? Would representative democracy itself fall victim to awakening Indian middle-class rage?

When completely stymied by phenomena that seem unique and mystifying, it often helps to borrow analogies from the physical sciences. An amplifier is an appropriate analogy here: taking in a signal as input and processing it through its circuitry to generate an output. The quality of the output can never quite match what is received by way of a primary signal, though technology has been seeking to achieve the most faithful reproduction. Among the first significant discoveries in this respect was that of feedback: channelling a part of the energy output back into the input stream influences the performance of the device in various ways. Negative feedback, i.e., a loop that feeds back a part of the energy output in a manner that is not congruent with the input signal, enhances performance and provides for faithful signal amplification and stable system performance. Positive feedback, which channels an identical signal back into the input stream, leads to a distorting spiral of noise, system instability, a cacophonous listening experience for the audience, and finally, a potential breakdown. Clearly, this seems the pathway that the media is embarked upon, by its resolve to function as an echo-chamber for elite perceptions, amplifying and reinforcing them in every manner possible.

September 2, 2011

References

(1) Barkha Dutt, “Digging Its Own Grave”, The Hindustan Times (Delhi), August 19, editorial page, available at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/Digging-its-own-grave/H1-Article1-735205.aspx.

(2) The basic data on time devoted to news is available at: “Anna obsession boosts TV news channels”, http://www.indiantelevision.com/headlines/y2k11/aug/aug212.php. The time that went into ads is not available from this source and was obtained directly from CMS.

(3) Full details of this study are not availabe, undoubtedly because this manner of information normally comes with a price tag. The bare details presented here are taken from the media watch website, The Hoot. The obvious gaps make it essential that the information be used with discretion. For instance, the number of news channels surveyed remains unknown. See here for all the information currently available: http://www.thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=5448&mod=1&pg=1§ionId=4&valid=true.

(4) Pritam Sengupta, “How the Times of India pumped up Team Anna”, available as on September 1 at: http://churumuri.wordpress.com/2011/08/31/how-the-times-of-india-pumped-up-team-anna/.

(5) Embodying this attitude with extreme aggression and inattention to minor inconvenience of fact, was the TimesNOW channel’s main news anchor, on which see: Mihir S. Sharma, “Revolutions eat their own”, Indian Express (Delhi), editorial page, August 27, available at: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/revolutions-eat-their-own/837710/0.

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