This is an article that appeared in the column Media Matters by Sevanti Ninan – “A Problem of Plenty”

IF our TV news channels were not in self-congratulatory mode most of the time, they would stop to worry about how often they miss the big picture because of a bull terrier-like devotion to the sensation of the day. Until a couple of years ago television did not break stories. Now it thinks it has to break them all the time.

First there is the divide between the English and Hindi news channels. Natwar Singh last fortnight dominated the former but was scarcely to be seen on the latter. The Hindi news channels pursue a doggedly non-political news agenda and cast about each day for a crime or disaster to ride on. (That’s how you got 48 hours of Prince on television.)

A casualty-less fire last Monday in a mall in Meerut, which figured at the bottom of page five in the next day’s newpapers, consumed an extraordinary amount of prime time on Aaj Tak, Star News, Sahara Samay, Zee News, and S1. Earlier the same day, a Hindi channel pursued a completely bizarre story on a woman with a small child, writing to the President for permission to take her own life because she was afflicted with AIDS. They spun it out for all they were worth. And Star News decided to do an endless report, apropos of nothing, on people afflicted by the possession syndrome (“Bade Log, Bade Bhoot”).

The easy way out
What logic leads all Hindi news channels to behave in this fashion? The seamlessness of breaking news means that you are hard put to find a regular bulletin on air. One answer comes from the latest Zee News mailer, claiming to be the nation’s number one channel in terms of full day channel share. If you can offer an endless parade of sensation through the day you can ensure that your share of viewership never lets up. Then you become the advertiser’s preferred choice. That does not leave any room for sensible news reporting.

As for the English news channels and their round-the-clock coverage of Pathak, Natwar Singh, et al this past week, dogged pursuit by cameras, reporters and anchors overtakes serious analysis. (Swapan Dasgupta complained last week that the cameras had followed Jaswant Singh to the men’s loo.) Currently TV news is a study in the poverty that comes with plenty. More channels means more frenzied competition, and the less sense the viewer gets of the reality behind the political spokesman’s bluster, or the anchor’s chummy wrapping up of some non-discussion.

The fact is that the Congress party is effectively experiencing a paralysis thanks to its allies inside and outside government, and sees itself as a holding operation for the rest of its elected term, unless something lets up. Privately its leaders will tell you that. But when the only political presence on television is Kapil Sibal on three different news shows in one evening, you don’t get much of an insight. Secondly, allowing the BJP spokesperson to sound aggressive on TV masks the leaderless disarray the party finds itself in. Here is a party that is gravitating towards Narendra Modi as their great white hope in the next big election. Do we see that being brought on the table often enough by TV anchors?

You need a sufficiently low key format to present a thoughtful analysis. Not one which puts people on the mat all the time. Drawing out an interviewee is not a gift TV anchors here have in abundance. Shekhar Gupta’s Walk the Talk on NDTV occasionally achieves that purpose. Karan Thapar, Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt don’t because they are too busy badgering the people on their shows. And Sagarika Ghose sets out each evening to test some pet thesis on her panellists, which often ends up being a pointless exercise. All you can recall later are her luminous jackets. None of this is helped by the background circus of daily polls, which do not give numbers.

Visual insights
Consequently, the real insights gifted by television are in the visual glimpses. India TV ran this amazing sequence earlier this week of the Speaker and the Finance Minister passing amendment after amendment even as the opposition stood shouting in the well of the House. P. Chidambaram would read them out and Somnath Chatterjee would go through the ritual of asking the House for its opinion without pausing the tiniest second for any actual “ayes” or “nos” before repeating “the ayes have it, the ayes have it.” This went on for a good 10 minutes and showed that within the precincts of Parliament today, only the ritual is possible when members make debate impossible.

The other comment on the state of the BJP comes from the humourless hardness of Arun Jaitley’s demeanour on TV these days. It expresses the frustration of the hopefuls within a party that is unable to craft a constructive strategy for itself.

 When I Tune into a News Channel, its hard to really not get frustrated when you see an added edge in the voice of the journalist, a tone thats we can so easily make out to be exaggerated. Its amazing the resources that news channels have today. And as Sevanti Ninan said. It is they who break the stories. But, are they missing the big picture, when looking for the big story.

I do enjoy the debates, the shows, but with all the multiplication of channels, so have panel members,studio audiences, the same topics with no new insight. I hope things move away from being the first to break the story and talk shows to niche shows. Different analyses.


One Response to “News?”

  1. Victor Affleck Says:

    Google is the best search engine

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