Out of the Box Part 8: Journalism Without a Prism or Blinkers

If journalists in our time were trusted, why are they slammed and trolled now? What happened in the interim?

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The Newstrack team.
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Preface: At a time when there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan- in a quest to bring real pictures to people, the Living Media created Newstrack which eventually became Aaj Tak TV channel that we see today. Writer Nutan Manmohan was part of Newstrack’s first batch of tv journalists who experimented with ways to do independent television reporting at a time when no precedents existed. This series celebrates that journey.

Read the first seven blogs in her series here:

Out of the Box Part 1: Of Reporting and Romance
Out of the Box Journalism Part 2: Be Alsatians, Not Pomeranians!
Out of the Box Part 3: Entering the ‘Neverland’ of Journalism!
Out of the Box 4: How Crime Coverage Becomes Lottery for the Press
Out of the Box Part 5: Looking for a ‘Barsati, Boyfriend & Beetle’
Out of the Box Part 6: In Journalism, the Devil is in the Details!
Out of the Box Journalism Part 7: The Man Who Would Be King

Like a toddler who suddenly starts trotting without ever crawling, Newstrack created a distinct identity and strong recall for itself. Reason? Content, content, content. For the first time, there was a media outfit that had the gumption to bring out political sketches that were unsanitised. It had the stomach to present issues without blinking at the consequences. Even neglected social problems like quack doctors and fake medicines were investigated to the last detail, with engrossing case studies.

Many of these ‘full disclosures’ were steered by senior correspondent Manoj Raghuvanshi who came on board just as the country was gearing up for general elections.

Manoj and I bonded instantly. Soon, he’d nicknamed me ‘Newton’, exerting a whole lot of pressure on my work . I called him ‘Paape’, a fun Punjabi phrase for big brother. But the senior-sounding title did little to dampen his spirit for bizarre pranks.

Once, on a shoot in the lobby of Taj Mansingh Hotel, I suddenly saw him mouthing the Pink Panther ‘Tarang tarang’ track. Then, much like the opening caricature of the Peter Sellers film, he walked across the lobby in a mock detective manner – and swiped off all the toffees from the glossy check-in counter! The lobby manager stared hard at us. I ducked and disappeared under the high back of a winged sofa.

The crew would go into splits when Manoj would replay this pet comic act, walking along the entire flight aisle doing exactly this and pocketing all the candies that the air hostess meant to serve to the passengers.

Fully immersed in his characters – male and female –- he would impersonate them and regale us with pet dialogues till these became in-house punch lines. Once, while doing a pioneering piece on the secret life of eunuchs, Rekha, an enigmatic eunuch told him on camera that she was a woman trapped in a man’s body. Flirting with the camera as also with the reporter, Rekha pouted her lips, with kohl-lined eyes; she looked meaningfully at Manoj and asked in a husky voice, “Aapko kaise pata main puri aurat nahi hoon?” (how would you know if I am a complete woman or not ?”)

For the next few weeks, every time anyone asked him a question, Manoj (with his six foot frame and XXXL size) would transform into Rekha and repeat this line. On the exact cue, everyone in the vicinity would immediately fall back as if a bullet had hit their left lung. Peals of laughter would follow this group performance.

By the end of it, the virus would have spread to the whole office. Even the accounts and tech repair teams would be using the pet punchline of the month. And then, just when these punchlines began to fade, there would be the next story and its characters – and the show would begin again. Over time, newer variations would get added to this in-house kink…. to an outsider, it would seem like a “cuckoo’s nest.”

The Story of a Hypnotised Fidayeen

Pranks aside, if I was an aspiring ‘alsatian’ reporter, Manoj was a full blown ‘rotweiler’. Once he had locked his jaws on a story, it was difficult to disengage him. A classic obsessive compulsive for stories that he cared for, he would wear the same auspicious cardigan until the story was fully in the can, wash his hands repeatedly with soap before sitting for an edit, become a pure vegetarian and get his hair chopped to the length of half-inch strands so that they were standing upright like multiple antennae receiving divine signals. Mekhle Deva would shake her head and say “Really”! (to mean “grow up, old foggie”!)

He would exert pressure on the researchers to transcribe each interview, print out all the stuff. Then, using a wooden foot ruler he would create strips of separate bytes. On the penultimate day, laying the bytes and chunks of his narration on a large table to create a story structure – he and his researchers would move around the pieces like in a PC Sorcar magic show that would soon pop out a rabbit. A crowd of interns and cub reporters would gravitate around Manoj’s cabin. Resting their elbows and chins on the wooden partitions, everyone would shoot suggestions. And voila! When the final structure was ready, there was a ‘baraati’ dance – the type one sees on the street when the groom has reached the bride’s house.

Chief Madhu Trehan and supervising producer Sona Jha would float in and around as if all this was a silent rave party and they had really not heard any of the uproar. As long as the human circus was churning out good stories – within deadlines – no one seemed to give two hoots for office decorum.

Actually, the merriment and mirth were much needed antidotes because – beneath all this – there was pulsating anxiety. Every reporter was dealing with the crushing pressure of breaking new boundaries and bringing something ‘hatke’ to the table.

Manoj’s series on ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits and the faces of terrorism, including the profile of serial killer Bitta Karate, ought to be part of any young TV journalists ‘must watch’ list. With smooth and skilful manoeuvring, Manoj had Bitta Karate reveal the gory details of how he murdered each of his Kashmiri Pandit targets. It was a peep into the mind of a hypnotised fidayeen who thought he was serving his holy duty by murdering the ‘non believers’. At the end of the interview, Bitta Karate smiled remorselessly and said that he deserved nothing but death for his brutal murders – a chilling allusion to the desire for the waiting ‘apsaras’ in paradise.

To scores of anchors who conduct daily ‘cockfights’ in the studio to put a spotlight on Kashmir, I wish they would see this interview just to understand the art of drawing out a confession and a personality without raising the decibels.

A Time When Journalists Were Trusted...

Despite dire warnings and death threats, the Newstrack teams went again and again to cover the systematic annihilation of Kashmiri Pandits in the Kashmir Valley in 1989 and 1990.

Fathers with daughters would break down on camera as they remembered the sexually explicit announcements on loudspeakers warning them about the consequences of staying back. Children with terrified eyes recounted how their own neighbours called them out to the courtyard and compelled them to raise Pro-Pakistan slogans. Later stories on Kashmiri Pandits’ forced exodus showed Jammu camps that were infested with mosquitoes, where young girls would crouch against the torn sheets that fluttered in hot 45 degree celsius winds. Huddling in hundreds around a single community tap, mothers would agree to give an interview, but sometimes no words would come out as the women trembled in fear at what they had left behind in the valley.

These raw unfiltered documentations from Jammu and Kashmir are witness to a time when newspersons were trusted because they reported the situations without a prism or blinkers.

These stories were reviewed in newspapers, discussed in coffee rooms and pondered over in people’s drawing rooms. The narrations were taken as first-person accounts of dependable eyewitnesses who were bringing news from a war-like zone. If journalists at that time were trusted, why are they slammed and trolled now? What happened in the interim?

Learnings: The swing of the reporters’ pendulum away from the centre into a world of denial had a fallout. It led to a post truth world where the spell of the story teller lies shattered – and a huge majority of the audience remains silent even if a journalist is mauled…

(Nutan Manmohan has held assignments as Vice President Star TV, India Bureau Chief Focus Asia, Honk Kong & Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA . She is now a freelance filmmaker. Her 26 part Children’s Jasoosi series V3 will release on Facebook this year.)

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