Published On:23 March 2012
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Mr TV Anchor, will you stop manufacturing outrage?

By R Jagannathan

There are red faces all over in the way we have made fools of ourselves in the custody battle involving two Indian children in Norway. It now turns out that the parents were having problems of their own, and the children did indeed need some protection from all the turmoil.

It is not my purpose to go into the case all over again. The family, the parents, and close relatives have surely gone through too much of an emotional roller-coaster for us to make an even greater spectacle of it now. But the most important point is to learn from it.

The big villain in this case was clearly the media – and TV media, in particular. I would not exempt Firstpost from this scrutiny, for a great part of our views are derived from what happens in the rest of the media, including what is said on TV. Firstpost would be happy to carry any cogently-argued critique of our coverage of the issue. (Read here and here to see what we wrote in the past and now).

The big problem is clearly the way TV covers the issue. Channels, with a few exceptions, tend to go hysterical whenever they think they have got hold of an emotive issue.

Photo Courtesy: Arnab Goswami Facebook Page
The inquisition tactic has been perfected by Times Now’s Arnab Goswami, and his success on TRPs is forcing some others to emulate it.

But it is not just the hysteria that is the problem. In the race for TRPs and the inability of channel owners to bankroll a cash-guzzling content business, TV anchors have evolved a structure that is intended to create reality TV in the newsroom. The truth, if it emerges at all from the fog, is incidental.

The structure of news TV is problematic for many reasons. Among them:

First, in many channels, the anchor has become the news. Like in Bollywood films, the anchor is the real hero – and all other guests and interviewees are just support actors. In Bollywood, good and bad is defined by the hero. If the hero is eve-teasing, the heroine has to put up with this boorish behaviour because he is the hero. If the hero starts out as a criminal, it’s because he was forced into it (poor chap). But the villain is always evil, never human.

With a few exceptions, TV channels have adopted the Bollywood format where the hero gets to say all the best lines, and also gets to convert a news story into a reality TV script. It’s time the focus shifts to the interviewee – and away from the anchor.

Second, the techniques of TV questioning are seriously questionable. It seems TV anchors have forgotten (or deliberately forsake) the art of asking open-ended questions to elicit genuine answers. If someone has been accused of a scam, it is worth asking him about the allegations, and waiting for his full answer. But this almost never happens. Most questions are of this type: “Mr X, have you stopped stealing from your company?” There is no correct answer to this question.

The format is inquisitorial – where whatever you say will be held against you. If you choose to keep quiet, it will still be held against you. It allows the anchor to pretend he is the cat’s whiskers and working for a noble cause – while the rest of the guests and interviewees are cannon fodder. I remember Subramanian Swamy’s great riposte to an anchor who told him he was trying to play Devil’s Advocate, to which the irrepressible Swamy replied, “Sure, you can play Devil’s Advocate, but you don’t have to be the Devil?” Or words to that effect.

The inquisition tactic has been perfected by Times Now’s Arnab Goswami, and his success on TRPs is forcing some others to emulate it. Coming specifically to the Norway fiasco, it was probably Goswami’s decision to make it a cause célèbre that probably drove policy-makers and activists to turn jingoistic and avoid doing their own homework on the real truth behind the separation of the kids from their parents.

Put another way, TV completely hijacked the debate and sent people looking in the wrong places for answers. Everybody now looks like a fool.

Third, the formats in TV allow the anchor to divide and rule. By playing one guest off against the other, by getting everyone into a dog-fight, by constantly interrupting and not allowing most people to finish their sentences, the format is custom-built to generate – as the cliche goes – more heat rather than light. In the five or six windows format – where there are five or six guests or antagonists squaring off against each other — a 15-minute programme cannot give anyone more than one or two minutes.

It is almost impossible for a genuine expert to get a word in edgewise — as Wodehouse would say — when the anchor is unleashing a barrage of allegations and questions. Clearly, it is the questions and not the answers that are intended to scintillate or titillate. At the end of what promises to be a good debate, every viewer is left with nothing but mangled emotions and a feeling that nothing was achieved. It must also leave the guests fuming in the end, wondering why they were called when they were not allowed to say anything worthwhile.

But such is the power of TV, that they still end up coming back for a further walloping.
Clearly, the media needs to introspect and get an external reality check on their output. Among other things, they need to ask themselves hard questions.

Would it not be better for TV anchors to stick to one or two guests and try and get somewhere with the interviews? Given the paucity of time – most issues are dealt with in 15-30 minute segments – isn’t it possible to tell guests that no answer should exceed a certain time limit (say, two minutes), and give them an early indication of the line of questioning so that they can figure out what they want to say, and say it simply.

It seems TV channels – and this includes some of Network 18’s own channels — are more keen to show that they can bring five of six big names to the show. Getting to the truth is becoming secondary to this ego-driving purpose.

Do TV anchors believe that more is always better? Quantity seems to score over quality. The counter-intuitive truth is: less is more.

Do anchors ever ask themselves how they would feel if they were at the receiving end of their own over-aggressive questioning? In one case, when the situation was reversed in the Radia tapes case, a media anchor got all hot under the collar when subjected to probing questions about her leaked conversations with the lobbyist.

TV is clearly not contributing much to healthy debate, as the recent manufactured outrage over the poverty line shows.

An editorial in Business Standard titled “Facts, not outrage” notes this same tendency among politicians and the media. “The Lok Sabha was adjourned for a short duration on Wednesday following an uproar over the government’s latest figures for poverty. This follows widespread public outrage at those figures. A dispassionate observer of this discussion may be led to conclude that either poverty has risen dramatically or the government has somehow fudged the figures inexcusably and obviously. That neither of those statements is even close to being the truth reveals much about the economic illiteracy that cripples public debate in India. What can be said about the quality of the public sphere in a nation where the largest and fastest fall of poverty in its history is met with such widespread anger? A strange coalition of the political Opposition and professional poverty boosters has served to obscure the details of this achievement.”

The editorial didn’t blame TV anchors or the rest of the media, but the accusation would still hold true, whether it is the poverty line or the Norwegian incident, where outrage trumped facts.
Maybe we should ask our TV anchors: When will you stop manufacturing outrage?

(PS: There is no right answer to this question. Saying yes means they are manufacturing outrage. Saying no means they will not stop doing so. It’s their technique used against them)
(Disclosure: Firstpost is published by Network18, which runs many TV channels that compete with Times Now)

(Courtesy: FirstPost.com)

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on March 23, 2012. Filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on March 23, 2012. Filed under , , , . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

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