The News

Of News and Newsrooms

It’s been a difficult week for those in Tamil Nadu, and more so, in Chennai – the state’s Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa (fondly referred to as Amma), who assumed office after winning a historic re-election only this May, passed away after being hospitalized in the city for two months. She had succumbed to complications following a cardiac arrest.
News of the cardiac arrest came on Sunday evening, sparking endless rumours on Whatsapp and other social media channels. Despite the rumour-mongers’ (and my) best efforts, it was announced that Monday was to be a normal working day.

It was around 3 PM when more news reports started pouring in of her critical state, and we were asked to leave office. We were to hope for recovery, but we were also to be safe. The entire time on the tense ride back home, I followed the tickers of the Tamil news channels. After all, the regional news channels of today are far more savvy than their counterparts of a decade ago. Even if they continue to have their political biases (but then again, which channel doesn’t?) they are equipped with the latest technologies, articulate newsreaders and smart reporters, all of which make for reliable programming.

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Or so I believed.

A few hours later, when I was back in the safety of my house and family, a lone Tamil news channel came out with the stunning news that the CM had passed. It didn’t take long for a few other channels to follow, channels which I had always pegged to be trustworthy, unbiased and dependable. Naturally, I, like the other thousands of people who agitated in front of the hospital and put out eulogies on social media, believed it to be true.

Only, half hour later, we were told by the hospital that she was very much alive. The news channels immediately pretended like nothing even happened, the crowds calmed, social media outraged, and an entire city hung on to hope for an unlikely miracle. She passed away six hours later, but the question still remained – How do you declare the end of a life, a very important life, with the confidence, but without the official word the way these channels did?

Aaron Sorkin, the famed writer behind The West Wing, is also the creator of The Newsroom, a short-lived, but immensely watchable show about the happenings in well, a newsroom. There is a particular episode where the events that play out on screen are uncannily similar to the happenings of last Monday. A congresswoman is shot in the head, and one news channel declares her dead. It isn’t long before the others follow suit based on this one channel’s declaration, and without any real official confirmation. The protagonist, Will McAvoy, (who is essentially a Caucasian Arnab Goswami played by Jeff Daniels) and his team come under intense pressure from their management to follow suit, ‘stay current’, and report that she’s dead. They refuse to. “It’s a person” says one of the producers, Don (Thomas Sadoski). “A hospital declares her dead, not the news”. As it turns out, the Congresswoman survives surgery and lives to tell the tale.

Over the years, I’ve believed less and less in every news channel’s claim that they aim to report only the truth. It’s usually part-truth, part-perspective, and part-masala, which, as I’ve conditioned myself to believe, is alright if it’s inconsequential. On Monday, it was not. Those news channels’ words carried the weight of what could’ve potentially been statewide violence. Their handling of the incident raises a hundred questions, but more importantly, provides the confirmation that it isn’t, and has never been, the truth that news channels of today pursue. It’s TRPs.

Playing The Numbers Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

As I write this, the previous government has been voted back in to power in Tamil Nadu with a result that was last seen in 1984, during the time of M.G.Ramachandran, who, to date, is held as the greatest Chief Minister the state has ever seen. Once the victory and lead was sealed, the national news channels, who had spent the morning poring over multiple analyses, voter mindsets and trends as numbers danced on the screen, switched to telecasting scenes of victory and the jubilance which had pervaded the air around the winning candidate’s office. Reporters bravely stood in the midst of party workers who were working up a frenzy dancing, and shoving sweets in each others mouths. The scenes being played in the regional television channels though, are a little different.

For the last fifteen odd years, the morning of the day the state election results are declared in Tamil Nadu sees a flurry of activity across all its regional television channels. It didn’t matter that their regular programming was general entertainment or films, for on the day of the results, each channel considered itself to be the foremost authority on the numbers that would determine the future of Tamil Nadu’s government. They have experts, hosts, scrolling numbers and expensive productions. They are also the products of political parties, which is why when counting begins, the hosts and political experts on the show talk with great gusto. However, by the time counting stabilises and a winner emerges, in what feels like a twisted reality show, hardly two channels continue their telecast of the election results.

In the year 2006, when the DMK and its allies won in Tamil Nadu, Sun TV (DMK sided) pressed on about the ‘fair verdict’ and the ‘victory of the masses’ while Jaya TV (affiliated to the AIADMK) if my memory serves me right, had shifted to black and white MGR films. Similarly, in the year 2011, the AIADMK was voted into power with a sweeping majority, winning 203 out of 234 seats. As the results were brought into light, Jaya TV declared victory a good one hour before official results were announced, and instead of discussing vote numbers, began a fresh conversation about the greatness of the new Chief Minister, and the good that she was going to do to the state. Sun TV and Kalaignar TV on the other hand, switched from election result analysis to award show reruns. This convenient switch in programming during results day is now a common joke, to the point where people now predict it the moment a slightest trend or lead shows up.

This year though, apart from the fact that the people didn’t bring in the ‘other’ Dravidian party the way they had been all these years, the channels belonging to the losing parties didn’t back down and change programming. Some channels showed delayed numbers which were favourable to the party it was aligned with, some others took the numbers out but persevered with their opinions. Some even started putting out the correct numbers and admitted failure (albeit after crying foul play), which was radical considering the denial we were used to. That television channels continued with election broadcast, I suppose is a good sign, a sign of fledgling maturity that is beginning to show in people, perhaps. I must admit though, it also felt a little odd – after all, what is results day on Tamil television without a disconnected programme showing you how to make the perfect paruppu vadai? I was thinking about this out loud when the internet pointed me to a channel which is the namesake of a certain actor turned politician, whose party had a terrible run this year. This channel, after insisting that no party had won any seats, shifted to a show which detailed the most authentic way to cook brinjals. All was well with the world again.

Television and Tragedy

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The past few weeks have been hard on Chennai, with floods ravaging the city, and stripping its citizens of possessions, homes, and livelihoods. While a part of the blame with respect to the massive amount of damage that the flood has caused, no doubt, belongs to poor urban planning, these were no ordinary rains. It was bizarre, freak weather, the kind that appears once in a hundred years, and it took mainstream news channels a good couple of days to realise that these floods were a far greater disaster than Aamir Khan’s comments on intolerance.

Rajdeep Sardesai, the (very) popular news anchor and consulting editor with the India Today group was the first to speak up about the national media’s indifference towards not only the floods in Chennai, but also the fact that events in and around the national capital get far more coverage than what happens in South India. “I just feel, at the moment, that the focus of news channels must be on Chennai, to try and help people”, he concluded.

Around the same time that Sardesai had released the video, the national media channels came in droves. I had been among those who were irked that the city was being ignored, but I suppose one must be careful for what they wish for. When I started watching the coverage (I was among the lucky few who had power for a good part of the rains), my exasperation only increased. It appeared as if every news channel was competing against each other for the most tasteless coverage of the calamity. Microphones were shoved into the faces of families which were only now trying to come to terms with the colossal damage that the rains had done to their lives. “What have you lost?” asked reporters briskly, and pressed for specifics as the camera panned to the family’s apparent anguish.

Every channel had its own tragedy: If it wasn’t a household which had lost everything in the face of their daughter’s wedding, it was an orphanage that was stranded with no access to food or water. Some channels took the trouble of creating video montage sequences of the flooding, punctuated with shots of people in grief, set to sad, funereal music, which they played every five minutes. Chennai, they declared, was devastated, and there is nothing but trauma here.

Although there is no doubt with regard to the vast desolation and suffering that the rains have caused to the city, I found it surprising that no channel, in its initial coverage of the rains, was particularly interested in covering the resilience and uprising of the people of Chennai, and the way social media was used to mobilise help and resources across various areas. People opened up their homes to complete strangers who were stranded in the area, and a staggering number of people stepped out of their houses, braving the storm to help in rescue and volunteering operations.

News Channels have a special place in Indian television – after all, it’s never just news. Every news channel has come to believe that it is the emancipator of the people, with hosts who are convinced that they’re human courthouses which have the authority to question, and pass judgement on the nation’s Executive. While Arnab Goswami striking terror in the hearts of politicians isn’t a bad thing for our country, the way both natural catastrophes and man made attacks are reported on screen, has to change. It is imperative that reporters learn to be sensitive when interviewing and talking to victims, and understand that empathy is far more important than TRPs.

On Air With AIB

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

In the year 2013, Cyrus Broacha, one time MTV video jockey and presently, host of the satire news show, The Week That Wasn’t, took on the topic of our current Chief Minister. The episode revolved around her barring Sri Lankan cricketers from playing in the IPL matches in Chennai, and given that it was a news satire show, many jokes were made and it was an entertaining episode overall. Unfortunately for the show’s writers, and for Cyrus, the CM wasn’t amused, and soon enough, they found themselves facing a lawsuit for Criminal Defamation Charges from the Tamil Nadu State Government.
The show’s writers and Cyrus apologised profusely, of course and the case disappeared, but this isn’t the first time that legal action is being taken against remarks that have been made on television. We are a nation that thrives on outrage, to the point where I can actually picture outraging being introduced as an elective in colleges, or as a professional course. While we enjoy laughing at other’s, we seem incapable of laughing at ourselves.
In the other end of the world, John Oliver hosts a show called The Last Week Tonight on HBO, which is now popular all around the world for the carefully researched, (mostly) political insights that he delivers with razor sharp humour. Oliver leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of the perfect political joke – anything and everything that can be made fun of, is, and no politician or any important figure for that matter, is too big to mess with. Every time I watch that show I wonder, when will India get the John Oliver that it deserves? After all, the politics in our country has enough and more material for satire (if not actually resembling satire), but every time I do, I remember television hosts and writers being sued for their opinions, and consequently I get my answer.
If you’ve also been having the same question as I’ve been the last couple of years, then I am here to tell you that all hope is not lost! All India Bakchod, the stand up comedy outfit which was started by four of India’s leading comedians – Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba, Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya (who was incidentally, one of the writers on that The Week That Wasn’t episode), have come out with On Air With AIB, a comedy meets news show which airs in two languages, Hindi and English, and over two mediums – online, and on air. The first episode titled “Why Be Good” released this Thursday.
Running for about twenty five minutes, “Why Be Good”, doused in the clever humour that AIB famous for, discusses the difficulties of being a whistleblower in India, and reveals the shocking safety measures and complete lack of witness protection in our country. A second watch (yes, I watched it twice) reveals the careful research that has gone in to presenting the programme. As corny as this sounds, the episode made me think almost as hard as it made me laugh. There were also a few extra segments, like “International News”, which talked about Benjamin Netanyahu’s comment on how it was a Palestine leader, Al-Husseini who was responsible for the sparking the idea of the Holocaust to Hitler, after which the German Chancellor Angela Merkel released a statement saying that Germany accepted this crime against humanity as their very own. “Germany, just reminded a Jew to be sensitive about the holocaust!” quips Rohan Joshi as the audience bursts into laughter.
I thoroughly enjoyed the show, and I cannot wait for the next nine episodes of this season to come out. Is On Air With AIB, India’s answer to The Last Week Tonight? I can’t say, but it sure as hell is a good start.

{On Air With AIB is presently telecast on Star World. Alternatively, you can watch it online on HotStar}