Is it false moral equivalence that ails the media today?

A value neutral and non-committal media ends up being blind to right and wrong, to justice and injustice. Not to state opinion with clarity has become a pragmatic option for most mainstream players

In recent times many have attempted to draw up a long list of what ails the Indian media. Quite often, the endeavour to build a rhetoric makes them pull out a cliché from the Emergency years (‘When they were asked to bend they crawled’) and redeploy it in a rather lazy inversion to say: ‘They crawled even when nobody asked them to bend’ or ‘They no longer know if they are standing, bending or crawling’. A slightly more damning version would read: ‘They are not bothered anymore if they are standing, bending or crawling.’

There is an essential problem in invoking a phrase from 45 years ago, from a time in history when not just politics, but the ‘beast’ too had a predictable demeanour. There were essentially four or five big newspapers to deal with and one didn’t have problems with radio and television since they were government-controlled and hence automatically aligned. Therefore, recalling this phrase, in a way, means constantly recycling an old memory to perpetually lock the Congress in guilt. While doing this, there is an attempt to cleverly hide behind the victimhood of the Emergency the illiberalism of the present as well as the current regime. Nobody has ever demanded the victims of the Emergency to put out a more liberal manifesto for the media and society than what existed in the 1970s. The Congress obviously is hesitant to demand that, the BJP exploits this hesitation, and the others conveniently speak about it through the convenience of an old phrase that has no forward moment.

The media as well as the political and government apparatuses are infinitely more complex today and one needn’t reckon the number of round-the-clock news and entertainment channels, daily newspapers, radio stations, social media tools and digital outlets to drive home the point. There is a parading obviousness to this fact as well as to the complex control and circuitry of information and news.

The game of corporate cancelling out of any negative effect there may be to a position that you may take today is obliterated by a position that you may take the day after. Editorials may change from edition to edition in the name of editorial federalism

All this aside, there is a new problem that afflicts the Indian media, one which the old phrase does not even imagine or capture. Let’s be sure, the media today displays full-blown symptoms of a false moral equivalence. In the name of being ‘objective’ (a word that none has so far convincingly described), in the name of maintaining ‘balance’ (a quasi mercantile term) it tries to do ‘both sides’ journalism. It tries to be value-neutral, representing alternate sides of an argument equally. It ingeniously inserts the ‘other’ point of view to remain preciously non-committal. In fact, journalists get paranoid about getting everybody in, be it in a piece they are writing, a prime time debate they are moderating, or tweets they are putting out.

This trapeze act they attribute to the fundamentals of journalism. Agreed, but journalism does not tell you to be blind to right and wrong, to justice and injustice. In fact, to be alive to this distinction is its true mission. Yet, there is no outrage about falsehoods. There are only blind facts from both sides, carefully arranged in a manner so as to not ambush you. They try to sell the idea that this, that and the other are all eminently possible. The game of corporate cancelling out of any negative effect there may be to a position that you may take today is obliterated by a position that you may take the day after. Editorials may change from edition to edition in the name of editorial federalism. The game may be even more tightly knit if you are a bigger player. If one media outlet you own takes a certain position, the other may be on exactly the opposite side. The cleverness will ensure that your business never suffers. But sadly, this deception has made media impact-less and less credible. Readers and viewers have stopped worrying about this endless manipulation because the mainstream media does not inform their opinion anymore. For the media, not to state its opinion with a ringing clarity has become a pragmatic option.

In recent weeks, be it elections, opinion polls, exit polls, Dalit violence, the Cobrapost sting, Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, the economy’s growth figures, Rahul Gandhi’s speeches or the Congress’ intervention on some issue of national importance, media organisations and editors quickly develop two correct views to suit two opposing clientele. Hedging the bet was so obvious during the Karnataka polls when one TV channel put out two exit poll numbers from two different research agencies it had commissioned! It was caught out because it was unintelligent and brazen, but others do it slyly. They don’t play around too much with fact but sing a duet with opinion. Even when it comes to fact, they have a helping hand always from a decontextualised historical setting. Figures like Nehru, Jinnah, Patel, Ambedkar and Indira Gandhi are recruited with nimbleness.

For someone who may say that hedging bets is an old art, editors and journalists have perfected, and have with a chameleon’s precision changed from regime to regime, I would like to say that almost everything has existed in some form or the other for a long time. But, the surge of this tendency that we witness today, and in the last few years, it’s alarming guile and guiltless display, should make it contend as a defining feature of our times.

This false moral equivalence was called out during the Trump election too. Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist said in her 16 August 2017 column: “During the 2016 presidential campaign, the national news media’s misguided sense of fairness helped equate the serious flaws of Hillary Clinton with the disqualifying evils of Donald Trump… In short: Clinton’s misuse of a private email server was inflated to keep up with Trump’s racism, sexism and unbalanced narcissism – all in the name of seeming evenhandedness.” In a reaction to this column, Christiane Amanpour of CNN had tweeted then: “We must always be truthful, not neutral. I learned from the Bosnian war never to draw false moral equivalence.”

My former editor, Vinod Mehta, in his nonchalant prose would often say that one ‘can’t be an ideological eunuch’. He was prognostic about the situation we live in today. In an atmosphere of carefully engineered fear, journalists are indeed afraid of expressing their opinion without thinking genius means of neutering it themselves.

Jhelum Review | Mehbooba Mufti’s unceremonious departure is welcome
Far Away and Long Ago | A memory-image of Mahabalipuram
State of the Nation | Will it be nationalism or ‘vikas’ in 2019?
Editor’s Pick More