|Degrees of deception 2|
Antara Dev SenThe Daily Me
In his thought-provoking study about democracy and new media, Cass Sunstein, author of Republic.com, has pointed out how ‘filtering’ information on the Internet has a direct bearing on freedom of speech and democracy. Democracy is built on shared experiences, he reminds us, and communications media had helped create that shared culture. But as customisation of media like the Internet grows, increasingly you get more information on what concerns you, and less on what does not. By unlimited personalisation of your communications package, you may miss out on information that is essential for a functioning democracy. This is the ‘Daily Me’ — a term Sunstein borrowed from new media guru Nicholas Negroponte — a personalised information package where the concerned consumer is king, but the concerned citizen is erased.
Sunstein speaks with hope about other media that people are exposed to — like print or television — as public forums that can counter this ego-centric, blinkered world by supplementing the Daily Me with information that the consumer cannot control, and therefore needs to at least glance at before she discards it. This choice is important, he says, just as it is important to not restrict yourself to confined, exclusive meeting places but to go out in the street where you may or may not come across someone you know. Because what you do not plan or wish to encounter may also be important. Sadly, though, freedom of choice may also lead to segmentation of the media and ‘group polarisation’ as buyers choose only content they like, and there is the same danger of being cut off from each other and the rest of society, which may lead to disharmony.
I would like to apply Sunstein’s argument about new media to more traditional Indian media. Print and broadcast media have always ‘customised’ as much as they can for a large, amorphous target audience. As the race for the bottomline intensifies, market-driven media has been customising at an alarming rate. Media producers think they know what their consumers want, and sink serious money into marketing schemes to find out more. In general, media houses do know that their consumers would want more of themselves, and their views, which is what the essential concept of the Daily Me is all about. So they flood their publications or channels with what would appeal to the lowest common denominator among their target consumers.
Then, in the absence of an immediate filtering mechanism controlled by the consumer herself, media producers filter out whatever they fear may be uninteresting to most. They don’t have the luxury of catering to every single person, so they ‘customise’ on a mass scale. Sunstein speaks optimistically about the more inclusive ‘Daily Us’, but we have it already, and as an extension of the Daily Me.
In this case it is trivialisation of news, caused not just by the superabundance of entertaining and sensational news but also by the under-reporting of issues that deal with social concerns and the ‘other’ — whether underprivileged Indians or underprivileged countries or people who are far away and therefore do not matter. (Of course there is no trouble in Africa anymore, there is only cricket… but listen to this, Nelson Mandela’s divorced Winnie and apparently remarried!) If they have neither entertainment value nor are part of the target audience, why talk about them? Thankfully, with the growth of groups and institutions that are interested in such worthless people, and who can also buy the paper, these muted voices now make cameo appearances.
And when situations go beyond the ‘ordinary levels’ of suffering, those subjected to it are swept back from the sidelines. Like when we have a famine in Orissa, or starvation deaths in Kerala, suicides by farmers in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, or the fifth year of drought in a row, as we do this year. But endemic hunger or systematic neglect of women or continuing harassment of the low-caste or the age-old problem of basic education for the masses, which don’t have startling mortality figures or dramatic stories are still not getting the kind of space they would deserve in an aware democracy. Just go by the number of stories that are written/aired keeping the needs (physical, mental, aesthetic, cosmetic, emotional, societal, culinary, sartorial, obsessional, you name it) of the privileged class in mind and the number of stories produced dealing with the needs (well, er, basic, physical…) of the underprivileged.
Clearly, news content is not what it used to be. "The look of the channel is as important as the content," Star News president Ravina Raj Kohli is quoted as saying, "and we will be doing great injustice to the viewers by appearing shabby while reading the news." (Asian Age, June 15, 2003) Must be New Age vocabulary. In old-fashioned usage, ‘great injustice’ meant something else. For the viewer, shabbily dressed presenters may be inconsequential, amusing, mildly unpleasant or horrifying, depending on the presenter and his or her taste in shabby clothes. And admittedly, none of the above would help in enhancing the channel’s TRP ratings. But a "great injustice to the viewers" they would not be. That distinction goes to the deluge of brainless stories about high life and high society and the branding of beautiful people as experts on everything under the sun.
The news agenda has steadily narrowed over the last ten years, producing a kinky world-view which we can no longer recognise as bizarre. Constant repetition has produced tired acceptance. And that cannot be set right by token stories about starving village children. We need more than that for the ‘other’ to enter our consciousness.
Too much of a good thing
Not so long ago, most Indian towns had access only to State radio. The luckier ones had one local daily, and maybe a few copies of a larger daily came in from the big city later in the day. This may still be the case for some villages today, but in most towns, several newspapers and radio and television channels are now available. And the metros are flooded with all kinds of media. Yet, after a point, variety doesn’t produce real choice, as most newspapers or news channels compete with each other for the same news, are fed by the same agencies and public relations networks, and are manipulated by similar business interests that control their advertising revenues. What we actually have is an unreal choice between near-clones.
Take the new crop of news channels that have sprouted over the last couple of months in India. We now have marginally more choice. Each looks like the other and covers similar news, separated only by their language (Hindi or English) and the colour of their prejudice. Also, who has the power to select these? Most television viewers still depend on State-owned Doordarshan, the only terrestrial channel that one can get without paying the cable guys. And the new Conditional Access System (CAS) will limit our choices further. Even with such a surfeit of channels, democratic choices will be, to a large extent, restricted to those privileged citizens who can buy access to more than just the free-to-air channels.
Now, we can stomp our feet and demand fairness, but we cannot expect commercial news media to change over in a way that harms their own financial interests. Maximising profit is in the nature of the animal, and if we want democratic choice, we cannot grudge commercial media exercising theirs. We need to work out ways of bringing what has become the ‘other’ into our consciousness, focusing on issues that may be sidelined by mainstream media. For example, three years ago we started The Little Magazine as one such option, as a concerned if small public space to supplement the information that one gets through mass media. And happily, of late even in mainstream media, there has been an attempt to balance ‘news as entertainment’ with ‘real news about real people’ — but there is no escaping the trappings. Like the new and very welcome slot in a national daily for women achievers that is tantalisingly named ‘The Real Hot Babe’.
As we push harder, the ‘colour’ stories that were traditionally done to spruce up politics or highlight socio-cultural matters have now been upstaged by a fantastic kaleidoscope of the same set of people, patterns and trivia tumbling endlessly onto each other to give you an illusion of rich variety. And as diverse voices representing different priorities ebb away, we showcase the opinion of the usual suspects and rent-a-quote masters on everything from global politics to personal grooming to conjure up an ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ impression.
Media producers rush to cover the same areas and leave others untouched. Take Nisha, the new darling of the media. That she will appear on CBS’s 60 Minutes with Christiane Amanpour made huge front-page news in our national media. Here’s a lovely story of a media creation being repeatedly bounced around in every medium: print and broadcast, local, national and international. Of course there have been other women who have also walked out of their wedding at the last moment because the dowry demands kept growing, but not all of them were lucky enough to have a cell phone to call the police on, or television reporters sitting with the police right then, or are as photogenic and eloquent as this charming and brave girl from the national capital. Missing a story is routine, but if the competition gets it, we go into overdrive, regurgitating the same story over and over till you are painfully aware that we haven’t missed it.
Antara Dev Sen is editor of The Little Magazine. She lives in Delhi