By Amit Khanna
With several platforms, from traditional newspaper, radio, mobile phone to social media, almost the entire adult population of the world has access to news instantly. India is no different in the always on networked world. What has changed is, unlike say a few decades ago, almost the entire media is partisan today.
It's not that all news was always objective but most purveyors of mass communication of information did balance their socio-political bias with simple reportage of people and events.
In fact almost a century ago the high priest of modern journalism Walter Lippman put this dilemma well: "The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumour, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy.
"For the newspaper is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of what a people determines its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read. It is the only book they read every day. Once you know the party and social affiliation of a newspaper, you can predict with considerable certainty the perspective in which the news will be displayed."
Marshal McLuhan, another media theorist, is even more brutal: "All news is fake. It's pseudo-event created by the medium that is employed. There is no honest reporting of any medium, it is all fake necessarily, created by the medium in question."
Both these gentleman could be writing about news media in today's India.
The genesis of partisan media goes far beyond personal bias. The first to use media as a tool of molding public opinion were the followers of Karl Marx. Much before Hitler and other fascists thought of controlling media on ideological lines the communists (and socialists) harnessed it to their advantage.
In Britain and America this polarization had begun even earlier thus creating two party polity in both countries. In a world beset with poverty, colonialism, industrialization and of course wars, the Left movement created a constituency of writers, thinkers, artistes and intellectuals since early 20th century in spite of the tyranny of many left-wing dictators like Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
The Right on the other hand was condemned to carry the baggage of despots like Hitler and the colonialists. With their intellectual heft the Left dominated academia, while the rise of free markets economies like US, Western Europe and Japan led to faster growth and development. Media and creativity largely hitched its wagon to the Left and the Right unfairly reduced to being synonymous with big bad businesses has unfairly redefined words like liberal and secular to their convenience.
Non-alignment was a Fabian fantasy of fence setters (Nehru's was one of its proponents) which was nothing more than a motley collection of the newly independent nations. The North-South divide is one of the myths of this clash of ideologies.
Indian artistes, writers and journalist too leaned towards the Left in Post Independent India. This was the beginning of partisan media in India.
Even in the 50s most political parties had their own newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately by appropriating words like 'liberal' and secular (incidentally both never part of the Communist manifesto.
When Mrs. Gandhi made a fundamental change in the constitution inserting "socialist, secular" something the founding fathers had never done -- the first seeds of divergence were sown. Fault lines in our social fabric started emerging by the 1990s.
With rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the decline of CPI-M (CPI never mattered) there was a shift in the axis of Indian polity and, society and culture. However, the Left liberal (another oxymoron) cling onto intellectual power well into the new century helped by political patronage of Left of Centre Congress and allies. By 2004 elections arrived, media had clearly got divided on ideological lines, though still dominated by Left leaning journalists. Interestingly the liberals claim that a binary has been created by Right wingers. It may be so but then the others too, have created their own binary. Either you are with them or you are a sellout. Independence be damned either way.
TV news and online news sites have only accentuated polarization. The way every channel in India manipulates news through selective reportage, biased questions and using data which suits their slant. So, if the channel is anti-government, it will pick up known anti-BJP commentators, panelists and anchor intervention and if its pro-government, the process reverses.
Almost every publication, TV channel and online news service is partisan. There is literally nowhere to seek news and information which is unbiased. Social media only redistributes messages but has become the whipping boy for self-serving media who conveniently calls what doesn't not suit them as "fake new".
I am not defending or condoning any particular ideology here. My only objection is feeling free to express your opinion but don't call yourself independent or liberal just because you dislike a particular ideology or party. By all means criticize and condemn it but do not assume a holier than thou attitude.
However, under pressures of the "breaking news" syndrome and reportage based on leaks from political parties, corporates and other interest groups most of today's media specially in democracies is slanted and loaded with bias. Partisan media is here to stay.
A study on media bias, by Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, talking about the US media, says "an unbiased media outlet would cite material equally from sources favoured by legislators in each party and from each ideological perspective". They found that most media outlets disproportionately cited sources favoured by Democratic and more liberal members. Their measure of media bias allowed them to compare media outlets with members of Congress on the same ideological dimension and the result was startling-lack of independence in media.
But another study by them using another methodology did not produce stable results. All outlets they studied appeared to be more moderate or conservative in later years.
Media scholar Brendan Nyhan on the other hand observed: "Technocratic centrist to liberal organizations like Brookings and the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities tend to have more credentialed experts with peer-reviewed publications than their conservative counterparts".
Matt Grossman summing up both reports said: "Conservatives tend to doubt the ability of academic experts to maintain neutrality for the same reason that they are skeptical of the media; academics are also disproportionately Democrats and liberals. So the media bias debate reflects a broader conflict over whether technocratic expertise can be seen as neutral."
I have pointed out earlier that social media chatter on politics is limited to less than 1% of the population. Most of the mud slinging is confined to a couple of thousand inveterate Facebookers and tweeters.
In no other countries planted messages of different ideologies keep going around WhatsApp that it is almost farcical. If someone does offer an independent analysis, he/she is trolled by either sides. No one politician, media person or activist is willing to accept that one can be agnostic to ideology. Its either you are with us or your anti-people/anti-democracy/anti-secular/anti-justice/anti-national.
Unfortunately, just because institutions have people supporting a particular ideology (when was it not so) they are supposed to be destroyed. If a court judgement is not to your liking then the judge(es) are corrupt or influenced. If 60 or 600 bureaucrats/artistes/writer oppose a party they represent civil society but if 600 or 6,000 support another then they a bunch of puppets. This is what I oppose.
By all means support or criticize or support what you believe in but don't write off others. The axis of political and economic thought has moved right of centre after decades. Obviously, the apple cart has been upset. But that's life.
A small minority of people can never discount what a larger section of people wants. Our Constitution has mandated a first past the post system of election. You can't claim the percentage of votes polled by the winner in not the majority. This is how 18 elections have been held so far.
Media, thinkers and intellectuals should not make it a partisan debate because life is impartial.
(Amit Khanna is a film and television creative guru. He can be reached at email@example.com)
(This story was auto-published from a syndicated feed. No part of the story has been edited by The Quint.)