In the 1964 case ( Jacobellis v. Ohio)  in the Supreme Court of the United States,  Associate Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote about “hard-core pornography”, and his apparent struggle to define same in the form of text, in black and white: “Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

On the sarcastic side of it, Enron’s strategic goal was to become ‘the world’s leading company’. One can’t deny them that place today. They have been the world’s leading company in cases and examples in class rooms across B-Schools in terms of how not to run a company. Against a similar question to Jeffrey Skilling, of Enron, on ‘How would you know’ on that strategic goal achieved or not; the response was: ‘It’s like pornography. You know it when you see it’.

No denying that Justice Potter Stewart was better at it due to his profession, because he used ‘hardcore pornography’ instead of just ‘pornography’ as Skilling did. It’s all in using right vocabulary, as we teach our kids. There is scope for debate on what ‘softporn’ is, but there probably is none on the other part of it.

I use same scale here for Indian news channels. And name does matter here!

Often times, parents complain that kids watch too much cartoon or play too much computer-games. As a single parent, I also often face the same context. I try and suggest to my son to watch news channels, or read newspapers; however the more I read or watch their Indian versions (barring the Hindu), the stronger is my hypothesis that they simply have nothing to do with news media.

Although I would never admit it to my 11-year old son personally, and knowing fully well my son would never read this article anytime in near future, I feel it is better to watch cartoons than Indian news channels.  Our generation in India grew without cartoons or TVs. But whatever time I had been forced to watch cartoon as my son keeps control of the TV-remote at times, I never regretted same once the show was over.

On the contrary, whenever I had spend time watching Indian news channels, rarely has been the case that I didn’t regret it. They never fail to get worse than what you felt about them before. It is not only on how productively you use your time, it also saddens one to see the quality of national debate in national TV channels, not under the censorship of the state as DD is, although DD scores much better on journalistic ethos.

Quality of debates in Indian TV channels actually competes with quality of debate in Indian Parliament, some would consider it to be a complement for the news channels. And sadly, both play a critical role on its 1.2 billion people.

Last night (26th July, 2012) was another such example.  There were ample national level issues. The clashes in Assam, Anna going back on fast again, Narendra Modi issuing an interview with an Urdu newspaper, and some more shocking events that regularly happen in India, where their regularity, unfortunately ensures that they no longer remain shocking to the nation and its people, irrespective of the dramatization of the anchors of the news channels.

At times, the profession of these anchors resemble those in the funeral business. A shocking death or a shocking tragedy only adds to the business volume. And Indian apathy, from government to society, never fails them with opportunities.

How do these anchors get paid? Do their salary has a high variable component with the periodic TRP ratings, or even by the number of harsh comments they receive in twitter, during or after the show? Is it true that they think the more controversial they get, or attempt to get on an apparent non-issue, the better it is for the nation, or for the bottom line of their channels?

All said and done, it simply does not make any sense. It’s too bizarre! Television news, barring a few like BBC or Al-Jazeera English,  globally has been susceptible to being ‘a slave to the loudest and most garish stories’. But there is a limit to which it can get. After every dark night, there comes the dawn. However, Indian TV news media never fails to live up to their notorious reputation, to systematically beat your last spirit of optimism that they can’t get worse than this.

Next time, they simply outperform themselves, on the worse side.

Last night, in one news channel, a doctorate Muslim panelist from Assam used the word‘Nazi’ without any hesitation (or thinking?) to describe BJP. In an advanced country, he (and probably the anchor of the channel/channel too!) could have been sued for millions for same, with or without imprisonment. It was little comforting to see the controlled but strong rebuttal from the BJP spokesperson. Most panelists used euphemism on the issue of illegal migration in Assam, although it is well known to even every shoe-shining boy on any of the roads in Assam, it’s apparently as clear as daylight. In another, one questioned whether Anna’s movement needed Oxygen from media. In the 3rd, one was holding a placate of old news reports (not readable, although, probably pertaining to Gujarat riots on Narendra Modi) as if we live in the age of trial by media. that too ‘Indian news-media‘.

And mind it, this is not the media of the type of NYT, WSJ or FT; who can lead to real big stories before professionally managed government institutes acknowledge same. The LIBOR fixing scam was reported by WSJ back in 2008 (that too with due caution and with restraint, not by beating its own drums!). Examples like this are aplenty in Western media. In India, news media seldom is the 1st entity to break news stories, rarely performing what news media actually should be doing (and please don’t mix it up with‘breaking news’ section of Indian TV; after news outlives its fractional second life span of being truly breaking news, they remain breaking news for hours or days in Indian TV news channels). They mostly follow up news from secondary sources, or to put it without euphemism, they mostly act as ‘dalals’ by hawking already known news, at different pitch of their voices, without much of internal structured examination on reporting side, or on the analysis/opinion part of the same borrowed story.

In none of the programs last night, there effectively was any debate, no thesis, no schemata, no construct, no measure, no proper argument with evidence, or an iota of logic. It effectively was about unbalanced, biased opinions, none of which could stand a scrutiny. The anchor decides the issues, s/he decides who should be called (no expertise needed, free for all as applies for Indian parliamentarians), who should be given how much time, who argues in favor or against the motion, and the same anchor finally announces the judgment – the final verdict – to hang or not to hang. Apparently ‘three in one role’ of democracy is performed by these 9pm-10pm news anchors of Indian TV media, barring the role of the fourth-estate of the democracy, their actual job, as they act as the executive branch by arresting the culprit (issue identification), act as the lawyer (loves his/her own voice than that of the panelists) in interpreting moral and legal terms, and finally as the judge, they again deliver the verdicts on the issue (and at times against panelists too!).

Surprisingly, some of these channels probably have more advertisement breaks than content, as whenever I surf them, I see advertisement more than content.

In any good society, these anchors are not ready to be admitted as journalism students in the undergraduate levels in any reasonable colleges. I would not be surprised if they are considered to be a threat to the society, as many psychopaths are, in advanced nations.

The panelists are another species of animals. Same set of people (barring political parties, for whom it is a liability) probably have another income model by doing a second shift of earning across news channels, understandably as inflation has been constantly high in India. They try and enact every childish act to get attention, one not allowing other to speak, raising a finger all too often and more frequently than academic classes see. Adolescent girls don’t commit such stupid acts to get attention from boys as the panelists’ do among themselves. The new-comers particularly don’t want to miss their  10-minutes of reputation, and they want to break-in in the already noisy debate all too often.

I also get a feeling that their family-members and professional colleagues would be glad that these panelists are not present during evening hours. In today’s age of instant coffee and fast food, one becomes an expert by browsing the headline stories of the day, and get license to share same expertise in the name of ‘news‘. Personally I know a few such panelists on a close level, and believe me – some of them cannot write a few coherent sentences.

And on the nature of such noisy debates, as a faculty I had my experiences of selecting students for admission in B-School, where the ratio was almost as high as 200:1, that is against 200 applicants, one got selected. In the Group Discussion/Personal Interview (GD/PI) round, it was around 3:1. We often witnessed such fish markets there, and my picks were those who qualitatively added value – speaking time actually was inversely proportional to the performance. Something was better than nothing, but nothing was better than nonsense.

Whatever you call it, Indian news media over cable networks simply is not qualified to be under ‘news-media’, whatever inclusive definition of news one applies. It can be akin to David Dhawan’s movies with Govinda & Kader Khan, where you see one for one minute, another for the next one minute – and you still haven’t missed any context (same applies as I surf the news channels usually). It can be Indian innovation of ‘song & dance’ with its latest versions of ‘item numbers’ as seen in Bollywood films. You can call it Indian soapbox …whatever, ‘itemize’ them if needed to get more commercial attention. But for God’s sake, avoid the word ‘news’.

You can produce, pack and sell it in any name you want as there seems to be a market – from advertisers to audience – disgruntled like me or pleased with the same, no problem with it. However, using the word ‘news-media’  in its name is a criminal misinformation. It is an insult to that word, to all journalists and is grossly misinformative at the highest, organized, and formal level in the society.

In India, usually everything goes in the name of politics, governance. Let’s not add ‘news’ to that list.

Incidentally, and sadly again, it is usually politics and governance that are the focus of the news coverage in these cable news channels in India. They act as if they are the much needed ‘change agents’ in India. But as charity begins at home, let them either change themselves first, which looks a tall task now, knowing the degradation and the industry-structure/revenue model; or they should follow the easier option by removing the word ‘news’ from their channel names.

It will be the biggest service they can offer to the nation and its 1.2 billion people, until they be worthy to call them ‘news channels‘.

Prof. Ranjit Goswami works as the Director of School of Management of RK University. Opinion expressed in this article is personal. He invites you to visit his blog, Wondering Man (or take a look at his book, Wondering Man, Money & Go(l)d). You are also invited to join him on Twitter

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