Give Us This Day Our Daily News
Posted on 1-May-2008
On 21st May 1991, I was at a lunch with a visiting Indian group at an Indian restaurant in Manhattan when, some time between half past one and two in the afternoon, a man from the eating establishment whispered to me that Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister, had been killed in a bomb explosion near Madras. Two or three hours later that afternoon, the press officer in my office was contacted by CNN, the US television organisation, with the request that we facilitate the issuance of visas to a crew of theirs, in Tokyo at that time, whom they intended to fly out to Delhi about three hours later, so that they could cover the events following Rajiv Gandhi's death. We reckoned that it would have been about six in the morning of the following day in Tokyo when the CNN in the USA telephoned my office with their request. They were obviously in a hurry, anxious that they must have people in place the earliest possible, so that they could give their viewers direct news coverage in "real time". Also, in the competition between various news organisations to be always "on the ball" in their coverage of "important", "breaking" news across the world, CNN would have wanted not to be left behind, if not to be ahead of the others. This competition is driven by the desire of each organisation to retain or expand its viewership--readership in the case of print media--and thus increase its advertisement revenues. Considerations of relevance, necessity or even quality of reporting are most often lost sight of.
Let us look at this example of the coverage of Rajiv Gandhi's death a little more closely. For people for whom his assassination was the most tragic, that is, the members of his immediate family it was important that the news came to them the soonest possible, whether through news organisations or from other sources. For India's politicians and for people in governmental positions in India, it was important also that they knew of the event as soon as possible because of its significance in the political life of the country. For the people of India who were in the middle of a general election at that time the news had relevance. For a number of people in other countries of the world, with an interest in developments in India or for those with a general interest in world affairs, news about the suicide bombing that killed Rajiv Gandhi probably had some significance, but hardly any urgency--it would not matter if they learnt about it the same day or one or two days later. For a bank clerk in Boston or a rich businessman in Lagos, both probably with easy access to newspapers and television, that death would be one of many daily occurrences with the stories about which the media crowd his mind. For a large number of ordinary television viewers or newspaper readers, following news--any news- is hardly more than another form of entertainment.
In many instances, stories about natural and man made disasters are for the audiences of television channels or of newspapers simple faits divers. In 1984, I, accompanied by my wife and son, went up the volcano Nyaragongo near Goma in eastern Congo. About three years earlier a smaller volcano nearby had erupted. That was reason enough not to dismiss out of hand a local man's advice that Nyaragongo was fragile and likely to erupt any moment; but we did go to the mountain not feeling frightened nor particularly adventurous or daring. When Nyaragongo did erupt in the year 2000 destroying half the town of Goma, the dominant feeling in my mind, while watching on a television screen, at a safe distance one quarter of the globe away, scenes of hot lava flowing down into the town, was one of curiosity and wonder, spiced with memories of our own, earlier visit to the mountain. Any emotions of pity for those directly affected was, I must say, secondary.Thus we watch unfeelingly, our sensivities numbed by over exposure, seals being clubbed to death in Canada, the bombing of the White House in Moscow by Boris Yeltsin's tanks or the beating of a black man by white policemen in Los Angeles.
This is not to say that news distribution does not have an important social function. Media coverage of the destruction wrought by the recent Tsunami in south and southeast Asia aroused people everywhere to donate generously towards rescue and restoration efforts. Media coverage of various aspects of America's war in Iraq has largely fed the opposition to that war in the USA and elsewhere. News reports of mutual acts of cruelty between Israeli defence forces and Palestinian militants increases the animosity of Israelis and Arabs towards each other as it also reinforces the wish of a small number of third party individuals for peace in the old mandated territory of Palestine.
The emphasis on speed in news gathering and reporting encourages superficiality and triviality; it almost detracts from the value of a slow and systematic gathering of all the facts, which alone can lead to a proper understanding of developments around us. Present day large, mainstream, media organisations in the "free" world of West Europe and North America are driven either by considerations of their profitability and commercial viability or by the larger economic interests of the owners of those organisations. As a consequence a great deal of news reporting becomes a mindless anti-intellectual activity in which the latest forecast about the possible outcome of the next election in Ruritania competes with news of the last nervous breakdown of a Hollywood star for the attention of the reader or the viewer. At other times news presentation becomes manipulative with the deliberate purpose of leading the unsuspecting reader or viewer to form a predetermined opinion of some events. I cannot remember who said the following two things: most newspaper readers are happy reading only the headlines and most newspaper readers think what the editors of their newspapers want them to think.
Yet, in a recent television discussion about the comparison between the "old" and the "new" media that I watched, a newspaper correspondent with an iconic status in the American newspaper industry, bewailed the absence in the new medium of the internet and the blogosphere of filters like "experienced", "knowledgeable" reporters who could distinguish between the important and the unimportant and who could provide proper insights to their readers, viewers or listeners and that much undesirable material gets put out on the web. Such views about the internet and the worldwide web are sufficiently widespread to be looked at critically. There are at least two problems with them. One is that behind all censorship is an assumption by some--governmental authorities, leaders of political parties, intellectual elites--that they know better than the populace what is good for them to read or hear or see. Such views have been anathema to believers in the free press for a long time. There is no reason why the contents of the internet should not also be free from the "filters" that the wise might wish to apply to them.
The second problem with the lament about lack of "filters" in the internet is that it implies an elitist condemnation of much of its content as lowbrow and gross. But it cannot convincingly be maintained that much of what is printed or aired on television and radio is not also crude and vulgar. In fact through much of the history of many cultures there has existed a dichotomy between the popular and the common and the "intellectual" and the "refined" with only a few, exceptional, creative artists like William Shakespeare managing to belong to both sides of the divide. The fact that there is a world of the "refined intellectual" does not make the world of the ordinary people, their tastes and preferences any less important. In many situations the "refined" and the "intellectual" can become sterile and lifeless if they lose touch with ordinary lives of ordinary people. Attempts to put down the new medium of the internet and the world wide web as uncontrolled and full of mindless matter look suspiciously like a reluctance to come to terms with a new and powerful means of mass communication, in many ways freer and more open than the "old" news media of newspapers, television and radio, to anyone who has something to say.
Some of of the most impressive advances in the intellectual history of the last two hundred years have been in the amount and quality of information available to people everywhere. It is due to these advances that people's attitudes on so many matters have changed for the better: the inadmissibility of wars of conquest, the de-legitimisation of colonialism, slavery, genocide and, more recently, awareness of the need to protect the planet from environmental degradation. Progress of democracy, individual rights and secularism--all three beneficial for people at large--would not have been possible without the free flow of information. The spread and dissemination of news and information is beneficial in spite of the distortions and some of the negative aspects of modern mass media. It is only reasonable to think that if free, unfettered flow of information is desirable for the print media and for the television and the radio, it is desirable also for the world wide web. The law can take care of criminal activities and slander on the web as it does in the case of the "old" media. Besides, the internet and the web, at least for the present, are more democratic and freer from manipulations by media tycoons, established reporters, governments and political pundits than are the "old" media. It is to be hoped that this freedom and this equality will always be there.