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Is the media chasing red herrings?

What is more important – protest by farmers or the alleged drugs link of film celebrities? What is of public interest? This fortnight, Chat explores these issues

The Indian television news channels are full of pictures of two events: protest by farmers and women actors going to the Narcotics Control Bureau. The former is a recent phenomenon and the latter, a continuation of months-long chase. Media, especially electronic, has been drawn to the drugs trail in film industry after Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide on June 14 like moth to fire. The interest grew in the case after the actor’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty came under radar for her alleged role abetting suicide. Even after farmers across the country erupted in protest over three contentious bills in Parliament were passed amid pandemonium, the interest of TV news media did not wane in the celebrities being chased, in air and on roads, even at the cost of getting criticism that it was ignoring a more important issue, the protest by farmers, that is. Before the protest over farm bills, there have been protests by the jobless youth, who find employment a chimera. This issue, too, got media short shrift. Or, maybe not as much space as it deserved. More recently, the south Rajasthan is in flames for the last few days as tribal youths have resorted to arson and vandalism over demand for filling up of unreserved posts in teachers recruitment by candidates belonging to scheduled tribes. We are sure the national TV media didn’t find it even worthy of one package in any of its primetime bulletins. This brings us to the moot point – is the media chasing red herrings?

Media comprises print, electronic and digital platforms but in recent times, media has become synonymous with the television news media in drawing room rants and social media outpourings. When people criticize the media for focusing on what they feel are irrelevant or less relevant issues, the target is the 24X7 national TV news channels. This has an inherent message – that the print media is doing its job correctly, and dispassionately, like it should.

In journalism classrooms, students are taught to be emotionless when writing or reporting on an issue. Be objective, just state facts, is what they are told. Passing judgment is not a journalist’s function. But when they get into the profession, their bosses in TV newsrooms tell them to be passionate and emotional about issues they are reporting. The transition from just stating the facts or someone else’s opinion to stating their own is not always easy and some of the young journalists eject early. But a fair amount of them continue in the rigmarole for the love of being on screen and for bigger pay packets. TV journalists get better remuneration than their print counterparts. But that should be no excuse to defenestrate the principles of journalism learnt in classrooms.

After Sushant Singh Rajput was found hanging in his house on June 14, there was a glimmer in the eyes of TV anchors who had grown bored of reporting on the insipid coronavirus disease. The ratings-hungry TV media pounced upon this opportunity to dig out salacious details from the personal lives of two young individuals who loved each other and lived together. First there were theories about Rhea being a leech, sucking Sushant’s money for herself and her family. Then there were stories about her being part of a drugs cartel. Her WhatsApp messages were selectively dished out to slurping TV crews. From a leech, she became an adulterous, scheming Bengali woman who practised occult.

The Covid number in the country was climbing up. Reports of shortage of oxygen and ICU beds in hospitals were galore. Rays of hope from labs working on developing vaccines kept emerging but the TV media would have none of these and continued to chase the Sushant Singh Rajput case. The film industry looked divided between those who demanded justice for the deceased actor and those who chose to keep mum on the issue.

Then the CBI stepped in. The case was progressing as the TV crews would want it to. Rhea was summoned for questioning several times before being arrested with her brother. Her WhatsApp chats threw more names, all women actors, of course. TV cameras ran after these new names, doorstepping them and banging car windows, in a typical paparazzi style.

When the Narcotics Control Bureau walked into the picture, there was more interest. The actors smoke pot, they deal in contraband, didn’t we know this always. Smoke wafts from colleges, universities, corporate dos, ashrams and monasteries but the NCB never went after them. The agency is keen on exposing the bigger cartel – in the film industry. The argument in their favour is that film actors are role models for society; people, especially the youngsters, follow them. If they smoke weed, so will the young generation, swooning over them. So they need to get after these celebrities if there is evidence about their involvement in sale or purchase or consumption of narcotic drugs.

When all this was happening, three bills entered Indian Parliament. These sought to reform the farm sector in the country. The Modi government said it wants to empower farmers, free them from the clutches of middlemen in the mandi system and give them a free market where they could sell their produce without being bound by geographies. The dissent over the bills started in the Parliament. In Rajya Sabha, the bills were passed with a voice vote amid ruckus by Opposition members demanding voting. States said the new laws shall make the mandi system, a source of revenue for them, redundant. The dissent soon spilled over to streets, majorly in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Agitated farmers squatted on highways and railway tracks to disrupt road and rail traffic. Thirty-one farm organisations in Punjab gave a call for statewide bandh on September 25, and farmers responded to it with their family members, including women. Protests were also seen in West Bengal and Uttarakhand. The Prime Minister and other ministers of his team took to Twitter to justify the bills. Full-page ads in newspapers were given to reiterate that the mandi system would stay and so will the minimum support price (MSP). But farmers don’t seem convinced and protests continue. The Opposition leaders liken the new regime to slavery under the East India Company. Farmers will end up being farm labourers and slaves of big corporates if the bills become law, is their contention. Farmers seem to have bought this logic and are refusing to budge.

Earlier, there was a campaign by jobless youths in Uttar Pradesh. A government order that said people will be appointed on contract even in government jobs for 5 years fuelled this protest. The campaign took the social media by a storm as hashtags related to it became top trends across the world.

But all this is absent from TV in our houses. The TV crews, hanging out of moving cars, or stationed outside houses of film personalities involved in the alleged drugs trade, pass judgment 24X7. Trial in courts can wait.

This brings us to the question we raised in the beginning – is the media chasing red herrings? Of course an issue that affects 60% of Indian population, the farming community, is more important than an issue that affects a few individuals. Of course an issue that affects the youth of the country is more important than the personal lives of film actors. The country has become number 2 in Covid cases and may soon overtake the US to be the nation with the highest number of cases. The hospitals are short of beds. Life and livelihood face danger. Therefore, it is about time that the TV media left the red herring and returned to these more important issues.

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