Media Matters #2: The Butter Slide

We live in a world where it is increasingly impossible to differentiate between news and noise, to distinguish signal from surround sound, to differentiate real events from manufactured ones. And we did not get here overnight.

In November 1989, India went to the polls to elect the 9th Lok Sabha.

At the time, I was working for the Indian Post, then owned by Vijaypat Singhania. It was my third month as a full-fledged journalist. I was a college dropout with no qualifications, zero training, a mere six months of experience as ‘editorial trainee’ at the Free Press Journal and, in hindsight, little or no quantifiable ability beyond the fact that I could, at a pinch, produce a grammatically correct sentence.

Indian Post at the time was dangerously short-staffed. Four months prior, the then editor Vinod Mehta had quit the Post and moved to the Times group to start the daily broadsheet The Independent. He had taken with him most of the staff of the Post and, in his own words, left behind only “three men and a dog”. A lot of us tyros were swept into the ensuing vacuum, and of necessity had to shoulder responsibilities few if any of us were equipped for. We had 24 broadsheet pages to fill, and the Post had little or no advertising to occupy that acreage of newsprint.

In just my third week at the Post – some 20 days into my career as a full-time journalist — I was asked to, among the several other things I worked on that day, write the lead editorial for the next day’s edition. That is to say, a three-week old journalist ended up articulating the paper’s editorial position on the most important event of the past 24 hours. And you guys read it next morning and thought it was some wizened veteran, whose long years of immersion in current affairs had imbued him with the wisdom, the gravitas to reflect on contemporaneous events and to take an informed position on them.

Anyway. So, November 1989. The polling was over; stories about how patiently voters stood in line, and how peacefully the world’s largest democracy went about their democratic duty – what in the trade we call “color” — led the next day’s paper. Then came counting day. Back then, just sorting out and opening up the ballot boxes took well over half a day; you were lucky if, by late night, a couple of seats had been declared from each state. The final results often came three days or more later — days and nights of living on biscuits and tea and constantly running to the telex room to see if any more results had come through on the wires.

But we had a paper to fill and an audience to cater to that would wake up next morning demanding to know the result. So each of us in the newsroom was assigned two or three states, and we were told to do ‘in-depth reports’ on the outcome. My assignments were Bihar and Tamil Nadu, and I have several times since recalled, with an internal wince, that I wrote 1500 words on the Bihar elections, telling the reader not only who was winning but also analyzing the on-ground factors, the political and other compulsions, that had led to the result.

I managed all this without ever mentioning that those 1500 words were hung on the incredibly fragile peg of one declared seat (out of 41) and about a dozen early ‘trends’. (A senior colleague, whose assignment was the incredibly complex state of Uttar Pradesh, whiled away the tedious hours of waiting with sips from a bottle of something potent he had hidden in his desk drawer; he was dead drunk by the time we had to put the paper to bed, and how the rest of us managed to ‘analyze’ UP and fill the gaping hole he had created is a story for a rainy day.)

When on September 25, 1690 Benjamin Harris brought out the first edition of the first newspaper to be published in America, he defined the role of the Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick very simply. He would, Harris wrote, “give an account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our notice” over the past one month; he might publish oftener, he added, IF “any glut of occurrences happens.” (As it happened, the monthly newspaper shut down after just one edition, but that is neither here nor there.)

By 1989-’90, when I was a baby journalist, “giving an account of such considerable things as have arrived unto our notice” was no longer enough. Newspapers were daily, and broadsheet; the journalist had to fill those 24 or so pages and if “considerable things” hadn’t happened, well, tough – the reader wanted news to go with his morning coffee, and it was up to us to feed the beast that fed us.

Fast forward to 1991. I had by then moved to the Mid-Day group, which at the time was in the midst of a concerted push to decimate its only rival, the Behram Contractor-helmed Afternoon Despatch and Courier, and to dominate the Bombay tabloid market.

In order to accomplish that objective, we among other things introduced the concept of multiple daily editions – each edition was one more bite at the readership cherry. The first edition went to press at 7 AM so that morning commuters could buy it on their way to work. The next edition was timed to catch the mid-morning rush; then another just after noon to catch the second-shift worker, and a final one timed for the office-goer looking for something to while away his evening commute back home.

This meant in effect that we had to produce a front page full of “news” that would be fresh to you even though you had just read the morning broadsheet over your eggs and coffee – and we had to do this by 7 AM. In the next two and a half hours, and twice more at similar intervals, we had to totally refresh the news pages and the front page – after all, you weren’t going to shell out good money for stale news.

So what to do? Take a typical news day – which is to say, the kind of day on which nothing of note had happened except maybe that the sun rose in the east (‘Speaking exclusively to this correspondent, the head of the India Meteorological Department confirmed that the sun rose this morning, in an easterly direction, at 6.02 AM…)

So on such a day, this is how the editions would play out. The early morning edition led with ‘Bombay Braces For Onset of Monsoon’ – a story spanning three-quarters of the front page, spun around the slender thread that the met department expected it to rain anytime in the next 24 hours. For the 10.30 AM edition, we could do ‘Imminent Monsoon Sparks Widespread Fears of Flooding’ – this, based on the fact that when it rains in Bombay, you invariably have floods because all the gutters and drainage systems are choked with garbage the municipality had not bothered to clear out. Which gave us our 1 PM edition: “Commuters Brace For Disruption in Road, Rail Traffic”, which was actually the previous story, only we might have in the meantime spoken to a few random commuters. And finally, for the late evening edition: “BMC To Tackle Flood Threat on War Footing”. Meanwhile, we prepared the lead for the Sunday Magazine section: Under the headline ‘When It Pours, They Reign’, a four-page full-color photo spread of the various types of umbrellas on sale that year.

None of this is intended to run down newsrooms I have happy memories of or to denigrate the work of colleagues I am proud to call friends. My editor of then remained my boss for the best part of 20 years; my colleagues of that time remained colleagues through successive gigs at the Sunday Observer, and then Rediff. I know them well, I am good friends with most, and I know from living that life that none of them were/are venal, none ever thought of what we were doing as creating news rather than reporting it. We were doing a near-impossible job the best we knew how, and the point of this narrative is only to underline the gradually escalating pressures that almost imperceptibly pushed us out onto that slippery slope that led to the noise-as-news world we live in today. (It is a world, by the way, the reader has done as much to fashion as the media house, but more on that later.)

Where was I before I interrupted myself? Right — the seeds of Cable TV had already been planted in India thanks to the 1990 Gulf War, the world’s first made-for-TV conflict. That is no exaggeration. I was one of those immured in an Oberoi hotel room, watching CNN’s coverage and making notes for a report for Mid-Day. (What the hell, no less than Christiane Amanpour has covered a part of the war in Afghanistan from the rooftop of the Sheraton hotel in Lahore, so..). If I remember correctly, the war began at 11 AM IST, though the breathless countdown/commentary had started several hours earlier.

With about 20 seconds to go for that mandated deadline for Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops or else, the coverage cut to an ad. The screen filled with an image of a Kuwait Airlines airplane, and over it scrolled a list of all the destinations around the world the airline operated flights to. The image of the plane faded out, the scroll stopped, and the entire screen filled with the bold-face message: “And, any minute now, BAGHDAD!” Fade to black, and then dramatically, the TV screen lit up bright orange as CNN brought us the visuals of the first shells hitting the Iraqi capital.

Think about it for a moment. In the days leading up to the war, we were inundated with breathless stories of how the global community was making frantic, last-ditch efforts to prevent war. Our front pages were filled with stories of diplomatic overtures, of desperate negotiations – a composite picture of a world pushed into a war no one wanted. And meanwhile, in the background, an advertising agency was deep in brainstorming sessions aimed at producing the most telling ad, to be aired for the first time a second before the first shell burst and the first life was lost.

But anyway. The war had the unintended consequence of waking us all up to the magic of cable. Fairly soon thereafter, Star and Zee launched their networks in India, cable penetration picked up in pace, and a new and hungrier beast took shape: the 24-hour news cycle. Here we were thinking that it was tough to come up with fresh news four times a day – that pressure was nothing compared to the need for constantly fresh visuals and accompanying commentary throughout the day and well into the night.

In a near-parallel development, the internet opened up for commercial development in August 1995 and by December of that year, a bunch of us had launched and plunged all unknowing into the incessant demands of the 24-hour cycle.

I’ve never worked in TV, but I did have an up-close and amusing insight into how cable newsrooms fed this voracious monster when, in 2007, I landed in Lucknow to cover the results of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. You guys sitting at home saw wild celebrations, a jashn ka mahaul, outside the Bahujan Samaj Party office as early trends indicated a Mayawati sweep. This is what I saw from within that compound.

Later in the day one of those correspondents told me, over a cup of tea, that he was at his wit’s end. “Kya karein yaar,” he said ruefully, “every few minutes I get a call from my office, asking for fresh news, fresh tape. Kehte hain, kuch tho karo – lekin main kya karoon, kuch ho hi nahi raha tho?”

Unwittingly, that correspondent was alerting me to a tectonic shift in the business and practice of journalism, if only I had the clear-sightedness to appreciate its significance. We had, without realizing it, arrived at a point where it was no longer enough to report on events – we now had to produce the events we could then report on.

That brings me to the strange case of Vande Mataram – which I’ll get to in part three, later this week.