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.
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.