Monday, March 01, 2010

The age of extremes

First Published: 00:13 IST(1/3/2010)
Last Updated: 00:14 IST(1/3/2010)


A few months ago, when Sarah Palin, the poster-girl of rightwing Republicans was contracted by Fox News to be a guest anchor, she remarked, “I am thrilled to be joining the great journalistic talent at Fox News. It’s wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news.”

Ah! ‘Fair’ and ‘balanced’, those wonderful words that Fox News has made its tagline, words that every aspiring journalist is reminded are critical to professional credibility. Unfortunately, since I didn’t go to journalism school (or perhaps because I didn’t), I am still not sure what those words mean. After all, if the channel that has often been accused of being “the propaganda arm of the Republican party” can proudly claim to be ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’, then I guess we need to redefine the meaning of the words. When Robert Ailes, the Fox News chairman was asked on the criticism of the political slant of the channel, his response was: “We’re not programming to conservatives, we’re just not eliminating their point of view!”
We still don’t have a Fox News equivalent in India — although a few channels have slipped dangerously in that direction. But the dilemma of what constitutes ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ TV is universal. On Indian news TV, the escape route has been to ensure that any discussion programme represents strikingly contrary viewpoints. So, if you have a rightwing voice who believes that Hindutva is the core of Indian nationalism, you must have a left-liberal view that is convinced that Hindutva is a communal platform. If you have someone who condemns human rights violations in Kashmir, you must have someone who believes that human rights activists are apologists for militants. If you have someone who supports gay rights, you must have an opposing view that sees homosexuality to be a criminal act.

If there is one thing that contemporary news TV has done, it has accentuated the polarities in public debate. The limited discussion time on TV does place a premium on short, snappy sound bites. On TV, the moderate viewpoint that might qualify its responses with a considered ‘on the other hand’ is quickly discarded. By contrast, the more direct, extreme view is celebrated because it leads to, let’s be honest, a ‘big fight’. As someone who has ‘moderated’ many such ‘fights’, let me say that the experience has been mostly enjoyable. To have two articulate speakers slug it out — let’s say an Arun Jaitley from the BJP and a Kapil Sibal from the Congress — does make for terrific television: it can be edgy, dramatic and exciting. But also, at times, dare I say, a little predictable.

The recent debate over Naxalism typifies the problems associated with converting a highly complex subject into a binary black and white conflict. Much like a boxing match, the participating pugilists are placed in their respective corners. On one side, you have the votaries of the strong state: for them, the Naxals are terrorists who must be eliminated. On the other, you have the so-called Naxal ‘sympathisers’ (or the ‘overground face of the underground’ as a politician once labelled them) who believe that the Indian state is brutal and repressive. Bring them into a TV studio, and the debate follows a familiar pattern: loud, accusatory and, in many instances, highly personalised.

Lost in the cacophony, there seems little space or time to discuss how a just and acceptable solution can be found to what is both a socio-economic and a security challenge. Why should every reference to alleged ‘atrocities’ committed by a local militia like the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh be seen as an exhibition of ‘anti-national’ behaviour? On the other hand, why should unbridled criticism of Naxal violence be seen as state propaganda? What if, one were to suggest, that both sides are in danger of being victims of their own propaganda machines, that maybe the Salwa Judum and the Naxals are two sides of the same violent coin?

Maybe, the polarities on TV mirror the divisions in society itself. A few weeks ago, I interviewed Uddhav Thackeray for a news programme on the My Name is Khan controversy, and questioned him on his claims to represent ‘all of Mumbai’. An ‘Internet Hindu’ group sent me an angry tweet on how I was a “liberal scumbag” who should be exiled to Siberia. Two days later, I interviewed Congress leader Digvijay Singh on his visit to Azamgarh and questioned him on reports that he had given a clean chit to all those accused in the Batla House encounter.

The same group sent me an effusive tweet on how delighted they were to see that I had “changed for the better”.
Perhaps, we have pigeonholed the world around us into neat little boxes. It comforts us to view life from a simplistic ‘them’ versus ‘us’, liberal versus conservative standpoint. The space for exploring the grey areas of an issue, to be more accepting of a counter-argument to our entrenched belief system is shrinking. Or at least we don’t seem to wish to enter the hidden crevices of a vexed question that might force us to re-examine our convictions.

And yet, the question I ask is this: why can one not be equally critical of Uddhav Thackeray and Digvijay Singh’s brand of politics without having to constantly ‘prove’ one’s credentials to be a ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ journalist? Or is that the price one must pay for being a journalist in the age of extremes?

Post-script: If Fox News has chosen Sarah Palin as its brand ambassador for ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ reporting, maybe we should also look for similar home-grown figures? Maybe, our tough-talking home minister is an option? Better still, why can’t we have both Mr Chidambaram and author-activist Arundhati Roy on the same programme on Naxalism? It would certainly make for fascinating television.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief , IBN Network
The views expressed by the author are personal

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