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Reinventing Journalism

It is not partisanship which has killed journalism but the internet

Writing on the nature of partisanship and journalism, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues,

Such partisanship can, like political partisanship, be greatly motivating and productive. But it can also be corrosive. For one thing, it is coming in a context where the media as an institution has a serious credibility crisis. But more importantly, it tends to collapse the intellectual and the political. It is the essence of partisanship, particularly one centred on the conviction of virtue, to assume that virtue cannot be divided across parties. It has become anathema to suppose that even though we may be convinced about who is best for India, virtue and vice may not come in such neat packages.

The traditional idea of journalism rested on a great ‘lie’: It argued that journalists could be truly non-partisan arbiters of truth. The argument was not that journalists did not harbor political beliefs or had no preferable electoral outcomes. Rather, it argued that journalists—because of their training, temperament, and the editorial process—could arrive at the right conclusions even in instances where it clashed with their political beliefs. Their allegiance was to truth and truth alone and neutrality was the highest virtue.

The critics, who emerged mainly but not exclusively from the Right, disagreed violently with the traditional notions of journalism. They asked, persuasively in some instances, that how is it possible that despite these allegedly vigorous interrogations of facts, journalists almost inevitably reached conclusions which seem to advance their political beliefs? In their opinion, ‘neutrality’ was a trope invented by liberal journalists so they could arrive at their preferred conclusions without the charges of partisan-ship being hurled at them. It elevated them to a more advantageous station and it is hardly surprising that the strongest criticism in the Right is reserved for those who claim ‘neutrality.’ Everyone has biases, the argument goes, and you should reveal yours. And then it will be all fair and square. Now, one may dismiss these critics as conspiracy minded or argue that truth indeed has a liberal bias but the idea of biased journalism is simply an article of faith among the Right.

It is important to underline that this is not necessarily a new phenomenon which has only emerged in the last few years. Imagine the fate of a person who disagreed with an opinion column published in The Hindu twenty years back. First, he would have to grapple with the fact that perhaps he was the only one so offended. And even if he was agitated enough to ignore those moments of self-doubt, the most he could do was to pen a letter to the editor and march to the post-office. And then wait. The editor could simply ignore the communication or in a display of liberal piety, which would no doubt be noticed in a subsequent column, publish a truncated version. That’s it. The letter-writer would have no means of ascertaining whether his missive was even read by the general public. Or how many of them agreed with his criticism?

The internet has shattered these barriers. In the era of the blogs, the entry barriers were substantially lowered but not completely eliminated. It could take years to build an audience and it still required an ability to cogently argue your case in a somewhat persuasive manner. And if you were offended by a particular journalist, there was no guarantee that she would even read your criticism let alone react to it.

Twitter asks for even less. All that is required is a tweet in 140 characters and ensure that it is marked to the right people. Voila! Even if the only response is to be added to the ‘blocked’ list, you can at least be satisfied that your criticism was received. Perhaps, even more importantly, one no longer has to harbor the doubt that one’s opinion may be considered so extreme that self-censorship is a preferred option. Social media provides an almost seamless ability to connect with like-minded people—however outlandish your beliefs may be. Indeed, social media in that sense presents a paradox. The almost infinite ability to connect with virtually anyone in the world also means that your exposure to contrarian thoughts may be severely limited because you can always rely on an audience of the like-minded. Indeed, it takes extra effort and an ability to ignore often vicious criticism to engage with people who may not share your world view.

It is easy to think that the discourse itself has become more partisan in the last few years. However, here is an alternative hypothesis. The rise of the internet and the social media has not as much as polarized opinion but offered an arena for the display of sharp cleavages which have existed in the Indian society. Differences which were once papered over in the age of the monolithic media which curated opinion and expressed an approved version are now in full display. There are no appeals to authority in this arena; no pointing to privileged CVs. The social media is the grandest display of what Kurosawa has so brilliantly captured in Rashomon: That truth exists in multiple hues.

Of course, this is not a full explanation. The angularities have certainly increased in the last few years with the rise of Narendra Modi who is either viewed with absolute moral abhorrence or is an object of all-encompassing deference. The tendency of some journalists to behave as players and not just observers has also exacerbated the lack of trust. Nevertheless, this shift in how journalism is perceived was inevitable even without the rise of Modi or open display of political affectations.  It may have taken a few more years but the democratizing influence of internet would have inevitably revolted and ensured that the old model of journalism was no longer viable. In summary, it is not partisanship which is killing traditional journalism but the rise of the internet which has facilitated its free and fullest expression. We may not be more divided; it is just easier to tell how really divided we are.

Now, where does mainstream journalism go from here. Three possible paths. First, it retains substantial advantages when it comes to news-reporting which does require resources as some degree of training and expertise. However, even in this area, journalism is being challenged by the internet. For instance, the expansively named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which is basically a one man operation has emerged as the most credible source on the ongoing conflict in Syria. Second, some media houses may invest in more niche journalism with long-form stories—The Caravan magazine is a good example. However, their audiences are likely to be limited and their influence on the political or social debate may be restricted to a certain elite. Third, and this is the most likely in the case of TV media, it may simply become a replica of twitter with opinion and vapid talk-shows replacing hard news. The rise of Arnab Goswami who has successfully maneuvered to establish himself as the voice of the angry India starkly illustrates this trend. This is all too common in US where a traditional channels like CNN have been left far behind by the partisan warriors of the MSNBC and Fox news.

In any case, the old idea of journalism as the interpreter of facts has ended for all practical purposes. Even columnists who wear their political beliefs on their sleeves and are therefore immune from the charges of ‘neutrality’ are read not for their ability to distill complex arguments into something more easily understandable but simply because they buttress pre-existing beliefs in a more eloquent manner.

Indubitably, this sharp shift may offend traditional public intellectuals like Dr. Mehta who are clearly wary of being boxed into neat ideological cleavages. However, in this age of partisan non-partisanship, they are clearly an endangered species. One can only hope that they don’t entirely disappear because the loss of a sagacious voice like Dr. Mehta would be a substantial loss indeed.

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