News & Noise: Was Sushant Story ‘Milked’ To ‘Save’ TV News?

Why would anyone reach out for a remote to see a TV screen for facts unless there is a charged spectacle on screen?

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
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Among 20th Century's popular trends were the tabloid press and pulp fiction. The twain meet with a thump in best-selling author Irving Wallace's 'sleaze-filled tale of a media tycoon, Edward Armstead (loosely resembling some barons we know) called 'The Almighty'. Its blurb reads: “First he will want to shape the news – then manipulate and control it – and finally he will want to create it.”

Such a bizarre, surreal game could well be happening now in India, as Bollywood superstar Sushant Singh Rajput’s death haunts television news.

Seldom has a business on the brink of survival been thrown a lifeline shaped as the noose around a young actor's neck. Perhaps it is time to overturn that old saying about ‘no news being good news’ into an alliterative tongue-twister: ‘new noose is great news for noise news’.

For The News Business, The Cake Is Small, The Mouths Are Many

The death of a hugely popular, highly-educated movie star with a beautiful live-in girlfriend from the show business does make for news – but there is more to Sushant Singh Rajput’s passing than that.

The disproportionate, incessant high-decibel spinning of events, non-events, and sheer imagination into adrenaline-pumping headlines and summary conclusions, supported by the ballast of a new monster called social media, is questionable both in concept and context.

The TRP race, as we now know it, is passé. We have been seeing the ratings war since the turn of the century, when Aaj Tak arrived as a fully blown news channel in Hindi, first as a straight provider of news, and then, tasting blood in the sensational variety. In the 20 years that have passed, it has become cheaper to launch news channels in multiple regional languages, even as entertainment channels take the bulk of advertising money. For the news business, the cake is small, the mouths are many. The desperation is palpable.

Add to this the fact that in the post-Internet universe you no longer find news. The news finds you. Breaking news is perishable. It gets quickly greeted, tweeted, and substantially completed in WhatsApp virals, app-based notifications, and funny, caustic memes that embed the facts. TV news channels need something new to cling on to.

Snapshot
  • The disproportionate, incessant high-decibel spinning of events, non-events, and sheer imagination into adrenaline-pumping headlines and summary conclusions, supported by the ballast of a new monster called social media, is questionable both in concept and context.
  • Honestly, why would anyone reach out for a remote to see a TV screen for facts unless there is a charged spectacle to be experienced?
  • We have seen events like the Kargil War, successive elections, cricket betting scandals, and corruption cases steadily building up television momentum.
  • In the Sushant Singh incident, we now have a heady cocktail of real news, faux investigation, scandalous hearsay, and political divides that turn news into a 24/7 reality TV show with sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.

While News Anchors Are Turning Fact Into Fiction...

Last year, news channels accounted for less than 9 percent of TV viewership in India, while entertainment, music, and sports channels made up nearly 80 percent..

Honestly, why would anyone reach out for a remote to see a TV screen for facts unless there is a charged spectacle to be experienced?

Such a spectacle anyway needs resources: outdoor broadcast vans, camera crews, and production staff. So what do the desperate do? They manufacture stuff as they go, at as low a cost as possible, throwing old priorities, habits, ethics, privacy, and simple human decency to the winds. Irving Wallace's Armstead now has many #MeToos in an age when TV news is not found but crafted.

We have seen events like the Kargil War, successive elections, cricket betting scandals, and corruption cases steadily building up television momentum. Comic asides, astrology, show business, and terrorism provide extremes for news manufacture that relies on basic instincts to nurture fears and subconscious desires.

In the meanwhile, entertainment TV has graduated – if that is the word – from saas-bahu tales to gladiator-like song and dance sports to the ultimate called Reality TV. While news anchors are turning fact into fiction, entertainment is trying to bring fiction as close to fact as possible.

A Heady Cocktail Of Real News, Faux Investigation, Scandalous Hearsay

In such a context, what if a real news item helps TV's ugly duckling look like Prince Charming? In the Sushant Singh incident, we now have a heady cocktail of real news, faux investigation, scandalous hearsay, and political divides that turn news into a 24/7 reality TV show with sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Literally, it would seem. We have heard or seen things about Sushant's folk frolicking and rolling joints. Conjectures about murder and money are only to be logically expected. Aah yes, the eyeballs have now shifted from soap serials known to be fiction, to a CBI inquiry that may not necessarily be fiction.

Suspicions are now facts and turned into instant verdicts pronounced in shrill social media posts that in turn get pumped and provoked by IT cells of political parties.

Actor Kangana Ranaut, because she played the Rani of Jhansi, is now a female knight in shining armour. Sushant's girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty appeals to the inner Hindu fed on Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama stories as the new-age ‘naagin’, a ‘poisonous seductress’ out to dig gold from a vulnerable genius of a man, discriminated against by the wolves of nepotist Bollywood.

Who Are Sushant & Kangana Icons For?

There is, one must admit, an element of social truth in this, though the fears and prejudices informing the gossip are downright unreal or surreal. The Guardian columnist Ian Jack wrote two years ago that ‘India has 600 million young people who combine Asian cultural values with the life goals of an American teenager’.

We should add that, a substantial number of them are now educated in fancy schools but they feel a sense of deprivation, injustice, frustration or unemployment. Sushant Singh Rajput, a small-town boy wonder, is an icon for such folk.

His untimely death confirms their worst fears. Concerns about favouritism and cultural biases in Bollywood have now become grist for rumour mills and conjecture, and are quickly consumed as news. At a socio-psychological level, a small-town girl, Kangana, becomes a mother figure delivering justice, even as prime-time interviews might suggest that her target, Rhea, was herself feeling like a damsel-in-distress needing ‘emotional rescuing’, as her boyfriend drew her into a whirlpool of depression – his and hers.

The news audience is now ignited to outrage or amused to death. By turns, as it were.

TV News Has Overturned Priorities – And No One Is Complaining

The Central Bureau of Investigation now arrives as Batman and Big Boss rolled into one. TV crews stalk the DRDO Guest House where Sushant case personae are interrogated as if it was Big Boss House. Cars chase masked faces. Dog-walkers of Rhea's apartments are grilled. Friends and acquaintances in various states of fact and fiction emerge, or are pursued for that oregano-sprinkled serving of the latest headlines.

Debates have shifted to trials, trials to judgments, and verdicts to cathartic outpourings of histrionic hysteria. News anchor screams are turned into viral music.

Stop here.

Pause to look at the real events.

The worst pandemic to have hit the planet is stalking India, now believed to be the key hub with some 3.7 million cases and counting. Floods have ravaged Assam. The economy is headed for its worst contraction in decades with a 23.9 percent GDP shrinkage in the latest quarter.

If TV news was about news that truly matters, these should get higher priority. Perhaps it is the ratings war, perhaps it is the survival instinct of TV channels, perhaps it is the ironic fact that those confined to homes in pandemic-induced anxiety need a diversion. Perhaps it is a mix of all these. The fact is, TV news has overturned priorities. No one seems to be complaining.

Right-Wing Perception Of News

Now, look at the politics of it all. In the unwritten cultural divide linked to political/ideological divides, South Mumbai's established producers are the show business equivalents of the so-called Lutyensian elite of New Delhi, challenged by the BJP and its new long-tail list of cheerleaders and warriors. Social media posts show a distinct right-wing slant in those backing Ms Ranaut. Corresponding right-wing news channels make her a saviour of victims. Liberal-tilting channels, now drawn into media trials they were claiming to shun, are at least airing Rhea Chakraborty's views, and in the process, doing in a softer manner, some things to undo the damage caused by the excess of innuendo and insinuations caused by their arch-rivals.

Sushant Singh’s origins in Bihar, and his death in Maharashtra, where an ex-ally of BJP rules, make for political raw material ahead of Bihar assembly elections.

Astute tacticians weave a web of intrigue over the actor's death so that wronged Biharis would know which button to press on their voting machines.

There is a case to look into right-wing perceptions of news. Brain research has shown that rightists as a Mediapost columnist says, are "relatively uncomfortable intellectually with ambiguity…The other is that leftists, well, think harder, (and) have a greater capacity for what the political scientist Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania calls ‘integrative complexity.'”

‘The First Casualty of War is Truth’

Globally, the right-wing has surged on the back of ordinary people's ideas of truth that lacks such complexity. In simple terms, right-wing viewers prefer affirmations of the kind Fox News or Republic TV offer – never mind the scope or need for doubt or verification.

Worldwide, there has been a rise in conservative or right-wing groups and movements, and India is no exception. Like a shampoo in a sachet, a new kind of ordinary people wants news in simpler formats. One research showed that ‘less intelligent’ people prefer views that make them feel safe. In other words, denial is delicious to insecure minds.

To understand right-wing populism, you have to understand widespread insecurity.

To be true, there is a kind of social angst underlying right-wing insinuations of a generation that perceives a sense of injustice because the American Dream has been sold to post-Independence Indians. What matters in this social war is the old saying: ‘The first casualty of War is Truth’.

(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered economics and politics for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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