Thursday, December 11, 2008

TV killed the TV star

You didn’t have to be in Mumbai on November 26 to be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome today. Life offers very many good, solid reasons to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, but in case you were running out, here’s another one: the excruciating television news coverage of the initial attacks and the three day siege that followed. Everything you knew or suspected about Indian media, compressed into four hysterical days complete with promo montage and jingle.

Our news reporters and anchors provided screechy real-time accounts of exactly who and what was where, and when—terrorists, hostages, armed forces personnel, grenade launchers and helicopters—possibly because the force of repeated explosions and gunfire had knocked their brains clean out of their skulls, leaving them incapable of making the connection between giving the game away and more dead people, though I should mention that this is the charitable interpretation.

They stuck their mikes and cameras into the faces of traumatised survivors and the traumatised friends and family of survivors and non-survivors to screech, “How did you feel when you were locked in your room without food or water with the sound of gunfire and smoke billowing under the door for sixty hours/when you found out your loved one is missing/when you discovered your loved one was dead?” To be fair, that’s standard operating procedure; they always do this in any situation involving human pain, looking for that one maverick who might say, “I feel wonderful, just wonderful.”

They trampled all over the crime scene, providing screechy and wildly astute commentary on how there appeared to be broken glass on the ground. The camera zoomed in on it, presumably for the benefit of millions of viewers who wouldn’t have believed this unless they saw it with their own eyes.

They became outraged and weepy, because for the first time terrorism was targeting privilege, to which most reporters and anchors belong. It’s hard to forget the moment when one reporter came to poignantly startled self-awareness as she hesitatingly recapped an interviewee’s question about why the media were obsessing over the Taj and ignoring all the dead people at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus: You mean, she said, that we in the media tend to identify with our own class?

For that same reason there was a lot of candle lighting and pontificating in the studios about how it’s all the fault of the politicians, when the same media spends the rest of its time engineering discussions not about whether the constitution should be changed to break the politician-bureaucrat nexus that is crippling the country, but about whether A displayed a shocking lack of patriotism by calling B a dog.

They seemed to figure that right then, in the middle of the siege, was a good time to pester the NSG and the police for interviews—though if that was stupid, it was stupider still for those organisations to oblige, instead of having one spokesperson who could coordinate information from various agencies and have a single press conference instead of wasting the precious time of each agency.

We saw incessant coverage of the funerals of the men who lost their lives fighting this crime, but have heard nothing of the innocent victims who lie unclaimed in hospitals. And now we’re hearing the media increasingly cry for war, because why would we learn from the experience of the US after 9/11?

Hitting out is easier than doing the very hard work of self-examination and self-correction that is missing at every level of Indian society. from the law-maker in Parliament to the beat policeman, from the company CEO to the householder. It requires us to put intelligent systems in place, and then take individual responsibility for following them. It doesn’t make for great TRPs, but we might end up with a decent country.


Mohan said...

I completely agree with you. There is no second thought on imposing some kind of law that can put restriction on media coverage during such hard times.

Atleast now we have realized what the problem is. Hope the appropriate people take a note from this learning.

Tara said...

Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous said...

I am a news channel employee and would rather post this comment as an anon. Mitali - you will know who has written in, the rest of your readers needn't!

Would like to know what news channels were you watching, Mitali? Cos my channel was live through the 60 hours, it was non-hysterical, non-intrusive, as calm as our set of 20-something reporters can be when there's firing behind their backsides. There was not a single visual of commandos on Thurs when we got the I&B notification. On Friday we aired visuals of the commandos but at least half hour delayed.

So were you watching us? You probably don't even know that a channel like mine exists. Bet you would've switched right back to the more juicier, screechier channels if you happened to have switched to my channel by mistake!

Can you even fathom what the situation on ground must've been for the reporters, cameramen, OB van drivers and engineers who camped on the road for 3 consecutive days? Have you ever slept on the street?!

Why did the I&B ministry NOT black out all news channels if we were doing such a shoddy job?

There was misinformation galore on ground. It's a miracle how most of it never went on air.

I am an eternal optimist... I believe the electronic media has done tonnes of self examination in the last few weeks. And I truly believe everyone needs a jolt to mature... and this will mark the coming of age of the English television news medium.

But for you - practice what you preach and stop hitting out! Stop shooting the messenger. Do the very hard work of self examination! And while you are at it - tell me if you think the print media is not instigating and provoking on a daily basis.

Would be happy to get any further brickbats from the writer or readers of this blog. And if anyone has any questions - would be happy to comment here again.

Ash said...

This one is for Anonymous. If you are so proud of the work your channel did; why didn’t you mention the name here?

I am surprised that you wrote a long; a little sensible, almost defensive comment and did not mention even once the channel you are so proud of.

It is good to know that the media is undergoing self-examination. If an incident of this intensity doesn’t propel them to, nothing else can. I had to drop in a line, because Mitali would probably never respond to such a mud-slinging remark in public. At least I have never seen her responding to one. That’s probably a smart thing to do :-). I am just curious what channel you work for?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Old adage " truth is bitter".Mitali has written just what the whole world is saying so stop overreacting, learn from your mistakes and grow up.That is the call of the hour.It will truly help you change your status from anonymous to???? Also please check out the meaning of eternal optimist.You need serious education on the subject.Sorry for bringing to the fore these hard facts but you asked for the brickbats so......

The Baron said...

Mitali. Your cool.

Seema said...


I have been a reader of this blog for a little while. Let me first compliment the writer. I have never felt like I wasted my time reading the blog.

Usually like the rest of us gazillion Indians I would have let this one pass as well like any other issue. But this time I really have a question.

I live in US and had been following the news streams live on the internet from here throughout the three day seige in Mumbai.

I would urge our Anonymous here to please disclose what the news channel is, that he or she works for. I also like to refer to myself as an eternal optimist and would like to see what his version of "different" is.

It would lend a lot more respect to your writings and not only for that reason but simply because I would like to know, who is doing a better job at relaying the information?


anonymous 2 or well wisher said...

Hi anonymous, this is a request from anonymous 2 to you:Please can you disclose the name of your TV channel. Thanks very much.At least one can make a conscious effort to watch it .
Also do take things in the positive spirit.My suggestion about the well established fact that "Truth is Bitter" is just my point of view: you of course have the freedom of choice. up to you to decide.

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