Media matters: #1

In a wide-ranging interview to Scroll, politician/entrepreneur Rajeev Chandrasekhar touched on his various media investments and their respective slants:

“I’m an investor and editors of our channel run the channel,” Chandrasekhar said. “I’ve been told my Kerala channel, Asianet News, has a leftist point of view. That’s the journalists of that product. The Kannada channel has a different point of view, an anti-establishment point of view, whoever the establishment is. Republic has a different point of view, and people have accused it of being pro-BJP, mouthpiece of the BJP. That is for the editor to explain. It’s not for the shareholder to explain.”

He then goes way out on a fragile limb when he argues that the only measure of media credibility is the size of the audience:

“For us, it’s about looking at building brands that are credible,” he said. “Credible is important from the size of the audience, and that the audience believes in it. That is the only measure of it. What is the other measure? I don’t want to slip into this easy trap of having three people decide what is credible…Large audience will only come if they believe in that brand. There is no way you can be a compromised brand, and a brand lacking credibility, and at the same time have a large number of people following you.”

You could, as I do, disagree with almost every word of that argument. #1. To watch something and to believe in it are not the same. #2. The role of the editor is not to “decide what is credible”, it never was — that bit is Chandrasekhar setting up a convenient strawman to smack down. Her role is to decide what, among the thousands of items of news that pour in from sources, over the wires, from correspondents in the field, from governmental and private agencies, merits the time of the viewer/reader.

And then there is the third, and for me the most risible, part of the argument: That you cannot lack credibility and yet have a large number of people follow you. Two words: Donald Trump. The man with the largest megaphone among contemporary politicians, counting 35.6 million followers on Twitter and a further 22-plus million on Facebook; a man who never yet met a fact he didn’t call out as ‘fake’, and never yet met a falsehood he didn’t actively, repeatedly promote.

Apply Chandrasekhar’s yardstick, and Trump is the most credible politician in contemporary history, shading among others Narendra Modi by a sizeable three million-plus. Check the polls, though, and you find that over 60% of those polled think he is dishonest — which doesn’t stop people from ‘following’ him in unprecedented numbers.

To the argument that giving the audience what it wants is the way to build credibility Pornhub, with 20 million unique visitors daily and a global rank of 71 in Alexa’s list of most-trafficked sites, has more than double the credibility of the Washington Post, which is ranked 180 globally.

To bring up a porn website to counter Chandrasekhar’s justification of the editorial policy of The Republic and his other media investments might sound precious — but that is only if you ignore the third definition of the word pornography:

:  the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction

There is more that needs saying about news-as-porn, but I’ll save it for another day. Chandrasekhar makes one other point about the changing face of the media that is worth examining:

“There has to be a realisation among a lot of so-called prima donna editors that they are not the custodians of what people want or don’t want or they think they want or don’t want,” Chandrasekhar said. “With digitisation and the complete disintermediation of the audience and the news, people are now directly demanding a, b and c because of what they want. Some editors don’t like that…but that is the future. The future is not one wise man or two wise men sitting and sort of saying, thou shall be given this knowledge because that’s what you need.”

Where to begin? I have a permanent itch around this “so called” business. So called by who? Can you think of one editor who calls/called himself a prima donna? No? So who is doing the so-calling? Chandrasekhar, and more broadly, people on the outside seeking to set up a convenient strawman to fight against.

That, however, is the least of the problems — the real issue lies in what Chandrasekhar thinks is an editor’s definition of his role: “They are not the custodians of what people want or they think they want or don’t want,” he says. I’ve been a journalist for almost 28 years now, and an editor for at least 20 of those 28 years, and I was never led to believe that my job is that of “one wise man or two wise men sitting and sort of saying, thou shall be given this knowledge because that is what you need.”

An editor’s primary job is to prioritize — as I pointed out earlier in this piece. In a newspaper, space is finite; on television, the time available to put things before you is finite; on the internet, the time available for you to consume information is finite. An editor’s primary responsibility is to help optimize that space, that time; to put before you, culling from the endless stream of information pouring in from all corners of the world, that which is most relevant and/or interesting to you.

For instance, a couple of days earlier an estimated three lakh-plus people took out a rally in Mumbai demanding that their particular interest group be given certain benefits. On the same day, at a roadside restaurant on MG Road in Bangalore, where I live, a group of employees numbering about a dozen struck work, stood on the street outside, and shouted slogans demanding amelioration in their working conditions and an increase in pay.

I don’t have to be “one of two wise men” to decide that the Mumbai morcha is something you need to know about and the striking restaurant employees is not — a decision made not because the rights of a dozen employees is not important, but because it does not fulfill the criteria you, as a reader, have laid down since the first newspaper hit the stand: that in return for you giving me your time, I do due diligence and surface for your attention those items of information that will best repay your investment. You are a cricket fan? I’d make an educated guess and say that you would want a report of what happened on day one of the third Test between India and Sri Lanka. But a report of the Division One county match where Hampshire drew with Lancashire? Not so much.

The question I wish Scroll had asked, as follow up, is this: If you believe that an editor is no longer in the best position to judge, then who decides what should be printed in the papers or shown on television or reported on the internet? Do you foresee, say, The Republic, moving to a model where every hour on the hour, you will publish a long menu of headlines (sort of like the War and Peace-sized menus you find in ‘multicuisine’ restaurants) and leave it to the reader/viewer to poll what they want to be informed about? I mean, as a publisher/investor, if you are knocking down one model, surely you must have another in mind?

Which is?

Which brings up the question of why, after months of silence on this blog, I chose a Rajeev Chandrasekhar interview to write about. The interview is a peg, a starting point. I have for a considerable period of time been collecting examples, trends in journalism, thoughts on what is going wrong and what if any solutions exist. And I have been meaning to transfer them from my private journal into this public space. Which I will do, starting next week, on a regular basis. (While on which, if you have thoughts and/or questions relating to the media, send them in; once every two days or so, I’ll get around to answering them).


10 thoughts on “Media matters: #1

  1. Pingback: Media Matters #4: The rise of the pseudo-event | Smoke Signals

    • No, not good enough to write books. I suspect though that this series might be book length by the time I am done 🙂

  2. Is there a value to the daily news lifecycle? Increasingly I find it just sapping energy with the negativity. Also I am seeing a trend where statements or decisions are being made to rile up the other party. Is it better to ignore such things instead of obsessively focusing on them?

    • Bingo! The 24-hour news cycle and the need to constantly feed the beast is how we got to this sorry state. I’d elaborate here, but that IS in fact the point I intended to touch upon in my next post of the series, so will save my thoughts for that. More by Tuesday. Cheers

  3. Dear Sir,

    Very well written.

    We hear the almost identical arguments about product and business everywhere;remember,Times of India Editorial Director said something on similar lines last year about different editorial positions?

    • Yeah, I remember that. Unfortunately, this thinking is now getting to be the norm — and as you say, not just in media, but in product/business development as well. “What do product people know of what sells?” Is something I have heard even in Yahoo. So the masterminds with their excel sheets decided — and look where they are now.

      • Unfortunately true Sir.

        I am in the field of education,and the number of ROTI/ ROMI types peddling products is mind boggling.

        The question we all have…

        Whom do we trust?

        Earlier, we had the belief that we can believe in the core values espoused…

        Today, do we have one?
        If it is there, even lip service is…
        Well non existent…

        Students copy our most obnoxious anchors during the School assembly and debates…

        And claim that saying sorry is not on…

        • At some point, IMO, we have to stop looking for someone external to trust, and put that trust in ourselves — our intelligence, our ability to differentiate right from wrong, our ability to stop getting sucked into the echo chamber (on both sides). The problem often, with the students, is that they have no counter-example to look up to and to emulate. Which puts the ball in our court, no?

          • Squarely yes…

            We have to as digital immigrants,work our way to get the digital natives take the staircase of truth rather than the elevator of motivated rumours.

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