This article is a part of the ongoing Citizen-Politician debate series Mandate 2014 on LILA Inter-actions, the online debate platform of LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives.
Though we can call it growth of media in general, the effect has been more revolutionizing for television than for any other platform. The contrast is rather obvious, as India had been a late entry into the field of television (only in 1959). Private television stations mushroomed in such a way that as of 29 March 2014, according to the I&B Ministry website, there are 792 permitted satellite television channels, of which 392 are news and current affairs channels, and the rest 400, entertainment-based channels.
But the important question is, with this growth in numbers, are the people getting choices in content, and what exactly does the content consist of? A close look will show that media content has become more about entertainment and reality shows than the ‘real’ issues inflicting the society. It seems that the news channels are also convinced that only entertainment gets the desired eye-balls. This challenge of the ‘only entertainment’ television was very quickly accepted by the print and the radio. The print redesigned itself with almost 70% entertainment (barring a very few) and radio as 100% of it, in the form of private FM channels. It has not helped that the government had not allowed news and current affairs in private FM channels as well as ‘in incubation’ community radio.
While analysing this deluge of entertainment in media, Erik Barnouw said that “entertainment has the merit not only of being suited to helping sell goods; it is an effective vehicle for hidden ideological messages” (The Sponsor, 1978). Herman and Chomsky called entertainment the contemporary equivalent of the Roman “games of circus;” which diverts the public from politics and generates a political apathy that becomes helpful to preserve the status quo. It is undeniable that television has a very strong role in constructing opinions about people and events. In the Third World, it is rather a constructed space moderated by the state and the market. This has given birth to what Adorno had called the culture industry. Here, culture is apolitical and bereft of ideological and philosophical understanding, more for plain entertainment rather than preservation of heritage and tradition. This outlook desensitizes generations of citizens to genuine issues and creates a homogenized culture, which is unhealthy for a multi-cultural country like India.
Is the media feeding us opinions?
A TV news capture after the 2012 Delhi rape: were the deep roots of the problem discussed?
One often has a feeling that today’s journalists are not educated enough to handle any complex issue. The debate then comes down to whether journalism education should be made mandatory. A person goes through a long social and political conditioning from childhood to become what she or he is. A one or two year course cannot develop a sensitive journalist. But this does not mean that journalism education is useless. Our society must urgently begin to discuss this in greater depth.
In this uproar of the media, online platforms seem to offer a more democratic and analytical space. It is not that these platforms are not susceptible to various pressures. [pullquote]But, seeing the way this space is expanding, and how more and more young Indians are logging on to it, we may pin some hope onto those new spaces to give us genuine debates and deliberations, to breathe in fresh air into the mediascape.[/pullquote]But it will take time, as the access to these platforms is very skewed as of now.
The proliferation of media that India is witnessing often gives us a false sense of having choices. But do we have it in reality? Cross media ownership, dominant business model and the homogenized programming pattern leave, in fact, no space for healthy competition or even choices. However, even to sustain the hegemony that this corporate media aspires for, they need to understand that giving space for democratic and constructive as well as informed discussion and debates is a must. Else, media fatigue might seep in and the people might stop taking the media seriously. This, in turn, will be a threat to the edifice of a healthy democracy.