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Falling credibility
By M. Zeyaul Haque

Few people believe the media’s account of happenings, and still fewer have any trust in its impartiality

M. Zeyaul HaqueOn August 15, I had an opportunity to hear two veteran socialists—Mahatma Gandhi’s disciple Nirmal Deshpande, and Surendra Mohan. Among many other important things they said was the complaint that if somebody was doing good, media would invariably ignore it. However, the media would never lose an opportunity to overplay an evil, they pointed out. Media persons squirmed in discomfort to hear all this, but they had nothing to refute it with.

This is a general complaint. Most people, especially those who are not very rich and powerful, feel that mainstream media is not impartial, that it is too much preoccupied with trivia, that it is primarily interested in ad revenues to the detriment of vital issues concerning common people’s well-being. Matters are not helped when some newspaper tycoons declare brazenly that what they are selling is merely a commercial "product," and they do not necessarily have to be restrained by any "values", other than commercial, in the pursuit of huge profits.
That, in short, means an ever-increasing content of trivia, of extensive use of visuals of scantily clad women on one pretext or the other, and titillation, sensation, slander. Anything that boosts sales and ad revenues. No holds barred. But the question is: if media is only an ordinary business, why does it have the constitutional protection and social sanctity of the Fourth Estate? Why does it have the moral authority that is comparable to the authority of the legislature, judiciary and the executive?

The most interesting part of all this is that the same media tycoons would refuse to be treated like just any other businessman and demand the respect reserved for the Fourth Estate. In short, they want to keep their privileges without any regard for the special responsibilities. They want the best of both the worlds, which has created a general distrust among common people for the media, media persons and media moguls.
It has to be kept in mind that what we are talking about here refers to the mainstream publications, TV channels and radio, not the organs of political parties or publications of special interest groups. Readers’, viewers’ and listeners’ expectations from the mainstream media are quite different from those of special interest publications. In case of say, Organiser or Radiance (or Nation, Milli Gazette and Muslim India), the reader knows that these publications are meant only for special segments of society, and don’t insist on the publication of the entire spectrum of public opinion in them. However, they naturally expect the big dailies, weeklies, important TV channels and radio to be more inclusive. Sadly, most of the time, expectations are belied as these media outfits too carry only a limited range of officially sanctioned views.

Most newspapers and magazines don’t allow a fair debate, and the TV channels brazenly announce a commercial break whenever a guest ventures with views beyond the narrow range of officially sanctioned opinion. Noam Chomsky says that the views claimed by American media as common American views are not subscribed to by even five percent of the people in that country. The media’s views are the views of the political, military and business establishments, exclusively. The situation in India is not very different.

In India nobody has seriously tried to examine what level of credibility the media enjoys with people in general and how are the different publications, TV channels and radio stations rated in terms of their credibility. It is an indicator of the Sarkari Akashwani’s low credibility that far more people believe the foreign BBC radio than this desi radio. Similarly, more people believe Star TV than the Sarkari Doordarshan. Zee and Aaj Tak have done nothing to earn viewers’ trust.

William A Hachten in his highly interesting book Troubles of Journalism: A Ciritical Look at What is Right and Wrong With the Press (Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey, 1998) says that people are skeptical of their political leaders’ credibility, and journalists too are in the same class in terms of their low credibility. Journalists are seen as being arrogant, corrupt and dishonest.

As for the complaint of the two Gandhians with which we began this piece, it is interesting to note that such complaints are not limited to India alone. Hachten quotes from KL Walsh’s Feeding the Beast (Random House, New York, 1996):

"Of course, the press has to report such stories but they have taken their toll. The media are no longer seen as society’s truth-sayers. By embellishing the bad and filtering out the good, a negative picture emerges. It is understandable that Americans have come to associate the press with everything that has gone wrong."

The time is not far when Indians too would start doing that—associating the press with everything that has gone wrong.
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