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The Financial Express

The media in a changing world


The media in a changing world

Of late, the media reports appear to be increasingly getting sensational. The recent slant of some lead news reports in the mainstream media is apt to give one such impression. The point at issue is the mainstream media, not tabloid journalism that basically thrives on sensationalism. Notably, tabloid reports mostly cater to the public's hunger for entertainment, particularly, scandal-mongering. However, there are many who may not agree with the view that there is any such bias in the mainstream newspapers and electronic media. If the happenings of consequence at any point of time in society are sensational by nature one should not be surprised if even the serious newspapers and electronic news channels display such news reports prominently, they might argue.

So, what is the harm, if such reports grab headlines? True, it is often the amount of public interest a news report can draw determines its place in a newspaper, or in the electronic news broadcasts. If an incident taking place in the world of entertainment becomes serious enough to claim wider public attention, the mainstream media will treat it as such.  Sometimes the law-enforcement agencies may consider any such event important and let the public know it. In that case, they may disclose it to the public through media briefings. Mention may be made here of the recent arrests of some individuals from the entertainment media including producer and a well-known film actress.

But since in the eye of the law-enforcers the events that led to their arrest had to do with law and order and public security, they disclosed the events leading to their arrests in graphic detail. No wonder that some leading newspapers and electronic news channels have treated those media briefings given by the law-enforcement people with importance. As is often the case, following such developments, the print and electronic media in question also carried feature stories on the people at the centre of those scandalous incidents. However, some discerning readers may not like to see such treatment of reports portraying happenings from the showbiz industry. But at the same time, one has also to take into consideration the fact that the media houses are basically business organisations. As such they have to earn money to run their business.

It is claimed that the media have some commitment to society, that their role is not to entertain but inform the public by way of telling them the truth. These are the ideals that the media houses are supposed to pursue. But there is the dog-eat-dog real world outside where survival is the basic instinct before anything else. One has often to compromise to ensure one's survival. If any media house out of its commitment to idealism is not willing to compromise and as such is not ready to publish what they consider cheap stuff, others will do. Any altruistic attitude in the world of competition for survival may prove to be suicidal.

But there is yet another limitation for the media houses. Unlike the business houses who sell their products in the market to earn revenue, the media houses have to depend on the ads they get from the government, the business organisations, especially, the corporate ones, as the major source of their revenue. In that case, they have also an obligation to the organisations that provide them the ads. So, pure idealism will not serve in such circumstances. With every passing day, the dependence of the news media on the corporate world is increasing rather than decreasing. In the 1988 book, "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media" Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky dealt at length on the issue. They held the view that the US media had become 'effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out system-supportive propaganda function'. In other words, the mass communication media, according to them, are not informing the public of what is truth. So far as their role in building public opinion is concerned, they are just functioning as propaganda organs of the big corporate houses. The truth in such circumstances becomes the corporate ideology. That is exactly what people nowadays get from the ads published in the newspapers and dished out by the electronic media. The concern about self-censorship that academics and civil society leaders often express through their statements and writings is also a corollary of the assumptions that Herman and Chomsky made in their just-mentioned book.

Those still alive to tell today's youths what a constructive role the media of those good old days used to play in serving public interest, are now dismayed at, what they think, the opportunism, often crass commercialism, of the modern-day media world.

However, even in those days, when the print media basically dominated the scene in this part of the world, when the television as the sole electronic news outlet was yet to spread its wings, one could distinguish between what they termed the 'progressive' and the 'not-so-progressive' or outright 'reactionary' section of the media. By whatever name one might like to call them, they were in truth serving certain political ideologies. The claim of being progressive had mostly to do with the ideology of political parties that promised to change society through revolution and thereby ensure people's economic emancipation. With hind sight, the critical observers of the ever-transforming world of ideology now know better than to be beholden to any particular ideology preaching exclusivism or claiming to be the ultimate source of truth. The world is in flux and so are ideologies.  But that does not in any way imply that truth is relative or that the media have no role to play in keeping the public informed, helping them to distinguish between fact and fiction. They certainly have. But that should not be done by looking at the world through an exclusivist lens of ideology.

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