“Surely, you must be joking, Mr President?”

The outgoing Indian head of state, Avul Pakir Jainulbdeen Abdul Kalam, has been a darling of the media. His hair, his “repeat-after-me” routine, his air and submarine rides, his telegenic effervescence, and not least the relatively easier access journalists have had to his little hut on top of Raisina Hill have endeared the cameras, in particular, to the People’s President.

It’s now the turn of Kalam to return the favour. In an interaction with editors and journalists of the newsagency Press Trust of India, the missile technologist has sought to convey that journalism is no rocket science by suggesting that the rapidly vanishing pocket cartoon be put back on the front pages of our newspapers.

“On the first page, when you see a cartoon, it puts a smile on your face. The rest of the news is about things like rape, theft and killing. The man or the child or the woman is happy to see the cartoon. You must bring back the cartoon on the first page,” Kalam said.

“A man or a woman should smile in the morning. Don’t make him or her unhappy.”

No one will grudge the Commander-in-Chief batting for the “Man from Matunga” epitomised by R.K. Laxman‘s pocket cartoon. At least we don’t. But notice that Kalam’s accent is not on the hard-hitting barbs of political cartoonists like Unny (The Indian Express) or Keshav (The Hindu) that takes the pants out of those making a monkey of us, but on the juvenile jokes that so many illustrators have been reduced to churning out at the behest of weak-kneed editors and publishers.

No one will find fault, either, with some of the other eminently logical and reasonable points he makes. That the media should not think that the world begins and ends at the geographical borders of Delhi, that more stories should be reported from the rural areas, that politics is not the be-all and end-all of journalism, that there should be greater accuracy. Etcetera.

But it is Kalam’s key point—made at other gatherings too in the past to the usual starry-eyed applause—that somehow the media is intentionally, deliberately, obsessively, subversively negative, and that it has to play the role of a rocket booster in making the reader feel good every morning that makes you wonder if what he is advocating isn’t a wee bit naive if not downright dangerous.

Something that could propel the rest of the media in the same, unfortunate direction of some newspapers that have made the gung-ho, India Shining, India Rising story their editorial policy, turned their publications into advertising tipsheets, and squandered the mandate and power to make a difference that their reach brings.

The PTI story of the interaction with the President quotes Kalam as saying success stories and positive news should be highlighted and that the media should act as a a motivator for people, particularly those hailing from rural areas.

“When atrocities, problems or misgovernance are reported, efforts also may be made in larger public interest to provide positive direction for improvement,” he said.

Sure, the President isn’t saying we should ignore death, disease, despair, corruption, crime, ineffiency and incompetence. But he is also saying that we should consciously make an effort at making the reader feel nice and good and happy.

Surely, that’s entertainment, not journalism?

And surely, that’s the job of advertising, not journalism?

No editor wants to turn his paper into a boring, “bad news” paper. No journalist ignores happy, unusual things—if and when they happen. And, truth to tell, the evidence of newspapers and journalists deliberately ignoring “good news” is thin, if not non-existent.

Indeed, on current evidence, can anybody argue that our papers are getting hopelessly frivolous?

Given such a situation, should we all be consciously, purposefully splattering sweetness, and an all-is-well-with-the-world view on our front pages every night just so that the reader wakes up nice and early and manages a smile, howsoever artificial, ephemeral and manufactured it may be?

Surely, the President of India knows better?

As it is the embrace of market-friendly, feel-good news has turned some of India’s biggest newspapers into an effete bubble in which venal politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, businessmen and other crooks and criminals eating into the vitals of our country safely, happily and incestuously cohabit.

Should the rest take Kalam’s advice seriously and turn their publications newspapers into entertainment? And at what cost to our democracy?

If anything, Kalam should be directly his barb at the party of the second part—namely, the politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, businessmen and other crooks and criminals eating into the vitals of our country. He should be exhorting them to do their job properly.

Then, maybe then, the media will have no incentive to highlight their graft and sleaze, their inefficiency and incompetence. And then, maybe then, there is a case for spreading some cheer. Till such time, Mr President—repeat after us—the Indian media is doing fine, thank you.

If anything, we must be doing more of what we are doing, not less.

Also read: ‘Why is Indian media so negative?’

Cross-posted on sans serif

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6 Responses to ““Surely, you must be joking, Mr President?””

  1. Raviraj Valalmbe Gowda Says:

    good news is no news, gothilva?

  2. kaangeyaa Says:

    Rather than turning themselves into pale replicas of the Slimes…, the media reps present at the itnerview shd have asked the President what he meant by it? Can’t we engage in a discusion, must we simply take everything as it is said?

  3. Narahari Says:

    I see Kalam’s speech as a homily — the kind of lovey-dovey talk that presidents are supposed to deliver. Am quite amazed to see that interpreted as an attack on media. Why are medimen so thin-skinned? Some deep insecurity perhaps — fear that if (mild!) criticism is not nipped in the bud, floodgates may open?

    Media can do no wrong eh? Holy cow, what?

    People that comprise of the institution called “media” come from the same society as that breeds “venal politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, businessmen and other crooks and criminals”. Moreover, politicians and journalists feed off each other. Forget about what happens behind the scenes, away from the media conusmer’s gaze in the parlors of politicians’ homes. I am talking about what is glaringly visible: for example, every city has a “journalists colony”, govt land allotted at subsidized prices for accredited (ie, unionized) journos. One wonders why media people deserve this largesse. Print and elctronic media also enjoy various tax cuts, reductions on import duties, and subsidies on newsprint etc. All of this is blatant, “legal” birbery, and like I said, I am not even talking about the bribery that happens away from public gaze.

    I’m entertained by the lofty claim that there are crooks among policemen, businessmen, engineers, doctors etc, etc, but these lily-white jholawalla journos, you know, they just can’t help striking a blow for public weal all the time. :-)

  4. Alok Says:

    Bad news sells. Crime sells. Sleaze definitely sells.

    The Indian media has become its own biggest story. Witness the gratuitous praise heaped upon itself whenever an ‘impact’ is made.

    If the Indian media is obsessed with its anti-corruption, anti-nepotism, anti-bad things in the world ideology, why do we see more rather than less of it these days? Does that not mean that the media has been an utter failure in this front? What sort of accountability and transparency has it helped create because of its ‘breaking coverage’?

    Kalam’s right. Even coverage of seemingly ‘good news’ is couched as negatively and as pessimistically possible, highlighting that particular instance as a rare, unrepeatable exception.

    The most blatant example of this is the excessive coverage ANYTHING the Shiv Sena, the Bajrang Dal or any random violent group in the country gets. The media pretends that each instance it is just ‘reporting’, conveniently ignoring that it is in fact giving a much wider than deserved audience to the malcontents. At the same time, more dangerously, it has given such groups acceptability and legitimacy, at the same time consciously silencing moderate voices. How many ‘ordinary citizens’ views are elicited every time a ‘moral scandal’ breaks out? Now compare that how many effigy burnings are covered.

    Most dangerously, the media, with its willingness to focus ONLY on the negative, has bred a dangerous lack of faith in the Government in the middle classes. The image one gets of politics is that it is a closed field with no real choices to make, and therefore, there is no point in voting. Has this in anyway contributed to our democracy? Has the media really contributed in raising the image of ‘clean politicians’?

    Maybe if the halo wasn’t too tight around every two-bit Barkha-Dutt-wannabe, we might get answers to these uncomfortable questions…

  5. Swami Says:

    “The Indian media is doing fine, thank you.”

    Oh, really?

    I am surprised KP wrote this, because I think he knows better.

    Whenever I go to India and pick up the newspapers, I am disappointed by the lack of in-depth reporting. An 800-word story is the longest any Indian English paper seems to carry — from TOI to the Hindu to DH.

    There’s actually better, more satisfying journalism in the local-language newspapers such as Loksatta, Vijaya Karnataka, and Dainik Jagran.

    Oh what wouldn’t I give for a paper like the NYT in India! — 3500-word stories, long fearless editorials, regular follow-up stories, rural coverage. I want to read about the “real” India, the politics, the science, the philosophy in the news. Not the 600-word junk about rape, killing and which page-3 loser has dumped which other page-3 loser.

    About TV, the less said the better. Indian TV news is typically a bunch of infinite-repeated, silly 15-second bits of superficial information often corrupted by the anchor’s opinions. Oh, what I’d give for a C-Span in India! Or for a even a CNN with its one-hour features.

    Mainstream Indian media are not only notoriously shallow in covering key political issues they often fail to frame issues in relevant contexts — of social justice, environment, rural empowerment, etc. I will not give examples here, but there are hundreds such examples in the last two months alone.

    I read President Kalam’s complete speech on the Rashtrapati Bhavan site. He makes perfect, wholesome, sense. I wonder if KP got to read Kalam’s entire speech?

  6. Rags Says:

    Positive news should not be mistaken with entertainment. Kalam’s intention is right when he said print positive news in the front pages. In a country like India there are always amazing success stories which can motivate a whole lot of people. Journalism should ensure to cover these positive achievements. I am still wondering what was the benefit the society derived from reading about Ash-Abhi marriage on the front pages for 1 full week.
    Negative things need to be covered but they can reside in the inner pages. This logic also flows from the newspaper reading habit of Indians. Typically Indians would like to read the newspaper with their morning drink. And generally the front page content is read first in detail. The inner pages are read later in the day.
    Journalism today is only interested in sensational news because it sells. The stuff in these kind of reportings is limited and is repeated a whole lot of times to fill up the pages
    I fully agree with Kalam’s views

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