(.. in the relationship between news media and the media consumer.)
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Friend ssudhirkumar over at Twitter loves to bait the TV bigshots active on Twitter. The media blokes love him too, and so often return the compliments. The series titled “Trysts with MSM” featured on his blog is a must read.
He raised an interesting question in the wake of Barkhagate. The question is: is the media engaging in willful deception by naming TV shows with grandiose titles like “India Decides”, “We The People” and “Face The Nation”? The size of the population that watches these programs is minuscule compared to the size of India’s population. Also, there is no evidence that all or a majority of these watchers are in agreement with the opinions expressed in the program. Therefore, can these shows claim to represent either India or its people?
It is a good question. It is worth noting that the anchors that run these shows are on record several times contesting their guests’ — or of some guests’, at any rate — claims to represent this group or that. For example, the right of members of organizations like VHP to speak for Hindus was several times questioned on NDTV/CNNIBN interviews. So they cannot be unaware of the paradox of their questioning a practice that they themselves indulge in.
There is a charitable explanation for this grandstanding: that it’s just a matter of style. We all love to show off. We assume high-sounding Twitter ID’s. We publish profound, deeply symbolic profile pictures. We assign weighty taglines to our blogs. (I used to call mine “Intermitwitterently Yours”, to convey the meaning that I’d blog when I’m not tweeting.) So, surely, you can’t grudge media folks their bit of rhetorical flourish?
I don’t think the matter is as simple as that. As Barkhagate clearly shows, if you are a bigshot journalist then you are pals with power-wielding politicians, and you have corporate lobbyists chasing you to get you to relay messages to the former. The politician is pals with you because he can make use of your presumed ability to influence public opinion. The old-fashioned way to acquire that ability is to win your readers’/viewers’ trust with honest and truthful reporting. But 24×7 TV offers you alluring short-cuts, such as advertising yourself as the people’s voice. You project a brand: yourself. Folks in the advertising industry will tell you how important symbols, logos, catch phrases and taglines are to brand management. “We The Poeple” can also be called “Perspectives” (a stylish enough name, in my view), but it does not convey the impression that the attractive anchorwoman energetically bobbing her head this way and that as she rattles off an impressive barrage of words into the microphone is the Leader of the People.
Fact: Chat show titles like “We The People” project an aura of power. They help celebrity journalists build their personal brands.
In my view, audiences react to this projection of power in three ways . One small category of people like you and me are put off by it. A second category of people, also a minority, are awe-struck. The rest are subtly influenced, like they would be to advertisements of any consumer product. Initially indifferent or curious at best, they eventually come to accept the brand as “authentic” because of its high and persistent visibility. They gradually and subconsciously buy into the product’s “value proposition”.
It is to this “authenticity” and “value proposition” that Barkhagate has delivered a nasty blow. Attractive packaging and weighty titles like “Face The Nation” lose their impact if the consumer begins to suspect that the product is of low quality. Whereas this scandal confirms the afore-mentioned first category of people in their cynical beliefs about the media, and whereas the awe-struck people are merely confused by it, it is the last category of media consumers who are going to spell trouble for the celebrity journalist. Seeds of doubt have been sown in their minds. They have become alert, and are no longer susceptible to subtle persuasion. They are going to listen attentively, even sympathetically, when the critics question the stars. All of this, hopefully, will bring upon mainstream media what it resists and dreads most: public scrutiny.