On September 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Patrika Gate in Jaipur built by the Patrika group of newspapers. He said that the world was now listening to India with more attention.
On that same day, the world was listening to India, by way of reports in the international media, including this report in Washington Post, which noted that India had beaten Brazil in the number of Covid-19 positive cases. Only the United States remains ahead of India.
One would have expected the Indian media that Modi exhorted ought to have a "global reputation", would have front-paged this fact. Yet although there was a mention in the print, it was mostly on inside pages if at all.
If you survey the front pages of most newspapers, you find that the pandemic has slipped off the radar of the media. This, at a time, when Dr V. K. Paul of the Niti Aayog has stated, "Our Covid-19 numbers are rising -- we haven't stablised yet. The pandemic is still on... a large population is still vulnerable."
Apart from absolute numbers, which must be viewed against the size of our population, what is worrying is the rate of the spread. It is far higher than that of any other country. In India, it took five months for Covid-19 positive cases to grow from 0 to 10 lakhs; 21 days to increase from 10-20 lakhs; 16 days to grow from 20-30 lakhs and only 13 days to exceed 40 lakhs. On any measure, this is a story that ought to have remained a prominent part of news.
What is also significant is that the growth is now seen not in the big metros but in the smaller towns. While big cities have reasonable health infrastructure, it is meagre in smaller towns. One can well imagine the havoc the pandemic must be causing there. Yet, our metro-centered media is simply not reaching out to report. Why has it taken its eye off the ball?
The consequences of pushing the pandemic story to the back are many. For one, we do not fully know how people in these smaller towns are coping with the spread of the virus. Who will record their stories?
Second, the absence of a constant focus on the pandemic allows the authorities to pretend that things are under control when they are not. In the early months of the pandemic, the media did stories that illustrated the shortcomings in the health care infrastructure. This helped put pressure on governments and municipal authorities to invest in additional infrastructure such as isolation centres. Despite this, reports about people not reaching medical centres in time appear from time to time suggesting that the last line connectivity, such as having adequate ambulances, is still a problem even in bigger cities.
The questions about the death rate, whether the data is truly reflective of the reality, and also about the increase in testing still remain. The Ken, which does in-depth stories on issues, carried this useful piece on testing, basically pointing out that the majority of tests being carried out are the antigen tests that really do not capture the extent of the spread of the infection.
And finally, by reducing the focus on the pandemic, the media has possibly contributed to the sense of complacency in the public. We are already witnessing this in cities like Mumbai where with the gradual opening up, many people believe that the crisis is now behind us. Overcrowding in markets and people walking around without masks are now every day occurrences. All those messages about prevention being the only real cure in the absence of a vaccine, and that physical distancing and face covering were essential appear to have been forgotten.
Apart from the pandemic, we now have the facts on the economy. With GDP shrinking and growing unemployment -- a loss of 21 million salaried jobs according to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) -- this is another big story waiting to be investigated and reported. Yet where are these stories? The New York Times sent a reporter to Surat and gave graphic details of what happens to people when the GDP shrinks.
None of this appears to have any relevance for the majority of TV news channels. They continue to focus obsessively on just one story, that of the death of Sushant Singh Rajput in June and the subsequent investigations around it.
The way his former girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty has been hounded is now legend. Here the Indian media has certainly built a "global reputation"; I doubt if there is any other media in a democratic country that can match this performance.
While people can choose not to watch television news, or at least the channels that are doing this kind of coverage, the impact of this trend in TV news has wider repercussions. It is also the culmination of a process that began with print several decades back but has now found its true home in TV news.
And it is this process, of tabloidisation, of converting news into a commodity, of making media houses profit centres with no other concern than the bottom line, that is worrying.
Mainstream media is today interested primarily in catering to its "market"; the idea that it is the fourth estate, that it is there to speak truth to power has receded into some distant past. Not all have succumbed to this entirely; as always there are honorable exceptions. But the most popular channels, or the most read newspapers by and large defer to profit over relevant content.
The trend began in the 1990s, led by Times of India but swiftly followed by several others. Apart from calling the newspaper a "brand", a term that was necessarily foreign to many old-school journalists who still worked there, over time what counted as "news" was judged by its marketability.
Not just that, but sections were created that would enhance the sale of the newspaper. These had paid content about celebrities but displayed in a way that readers presumed they were being reported, as was other news. Separate companies were set up to deal with these sections.
Once you erase the line between journalism, and paid content, there is only one way you can go, and that is down. Or rather up, if you are interested in profits.
As I see it, what began then is now manifesting in the crazy chase for ratings at any cost by television channels, started once again by a channel that belongs to the same group as Times of India, but which has now become the template for success imitated by all and finessed by the daily performances on Republic TV.
In fact, this recent editorial in Times of India is truly disingenuous in that it deplores "hysteric TV anchors" when the channel belonging to this group pioneered hysterical anchoring.
When journalism becomes entertainment and performance, you have truly entered a dystopian world.
Perhaps print media, and digital, can still bring back some sanity. But with shrinking revenues, and the lead given by TV news, it is possible that news sense will be decided by the noise on the channels and not the reality on the ground.
Is there a way out?
I believe there is. Often the search for an alternative is felt more strongly when you reach an extreme, as the media surely has today. After the Emergency of 1975-77 for instance, the media was compelled to appreciate what freedom of the press really meant. The decade after that was probably one of the best so far as the Indian media is concerned in the quality of reporting and the range of reporting. It was, of course, before the age of 24/7 private news channels.
This is an issue that should elicit much greater discussion not just amongst journalists, those that still believe that the media has a role to play as the fourth estate in a democracy, but also readers and viewers who look to the media not for entertainment, but for credible news and information.