Is there an emergent people’s medium in India?

January 11, 2011

A version of the following was published by DNA on jan 12th, 2011 at http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/column_india-is-finally-seeing-the-birth-of-alternative-journalism_1493314, and the PDF is at http://epaper.dnaindia.com/epaperpdf/12012011/11main%20edition-pg16-0.pdf

An emergent people’s journalism finally in India?

Rajeev Srinivasan on how a spontaneous movement of neutral, patriotic, non-professional citizen journalists and commentators on the Internet may be rewriting norms in media

Some journalists get confused and start believing they make the news, rather than just report it. This, and journalistic groupthink, has led to a grotesquely skewed discourse: India’s supposed ‘centrists’ would be considered ‘far Left’ elsewhere. Their conventional wisdom is curiously anti-national as well.

“All the news that is fit to print” simply isn’t printed in India, only that which supports a particular viewpoint. Besides, those who do not toe the line are blackballed: you cannot get published, period. Several people have told me about their personal experience of being excluded for their views.

This perverted system engenders a persistent anti-India bias in international media, too. When in India, foreign correspondents interact primarily with Delhi’s insular, incestuous journalist-sling-bag-wallah nexus that sneers at middle India; their endemic prejudices infect the foreigners.

At least Western media pays lip service to being non-judgmental. In India, there is an obvious industrialist-politician-journalist axis. They ‘manufacture consent’. But they were caught red-handed, Watergate-style, in the Radia tapes incident. Thereupon the entire media closed ranks, and simply buried the story, hoping it would go away: this tactic has always worked in the past. Unfortunately for them, this time it didn’t work, because Internet readers, especially Twitterati (those using the instant, SMS-like, 140-character Twitter social network), reflected popular outrage, and kept the issue alive.

Self-important scribes became concerned about their image on Twitter. When they were not given fawning adulation, they began abusing Twitterati as cave-dwelling illiterates or “Internet Hindus”, showing their habitual scorn for the ‘little people’. One even threatened people with IPC 509, “insulting the modesty of a woman”, simply for questioning her dogmas.

But the Twitterati, mostly middle-class, urban, young, tech-savvy Indians both in India and abroad, were not browbeaten, and responded in kind – and in this level-playing-field medium, they had exactly the same access as any high-and-mighty journalist. The latter, accustomed to being little tin-pot dicators, and to being able to say ‘off-with-their-heads’ and censor any opinions and retorts they didn’t like in their media, were quickly put on the defensive.

And this developed into a sort of dependency: the scribes desperately want love, or at least respect, from the Twitterati! Not surprisingly, Twitterati have utter contempt for the journos, and say so in no uncertain terms. The Twitterati – some influential commentators include @atanudey, @barbarindian, @sandeepweb, @swathipradeep2 – are the very upwardly-mobile cohort that the English-language media craves, but they are clearly not buying the same old anodyne Kool-Aid that is dished out.

One more thing began to happen: the western media picked up what bloggers and Twitter people were saying. This hit the uppity journos where it hurts the most. They fulfilled their greatest ambition – getting the coveted fifteen minutes of fame in the NY Times or Washington Post; but, alas, it was via a commentary on their (lack of) journalistic ethics and on the harsh judgment of Internet readers.

As a result, Vir Sanghvi for all practical purposes fell on his sword, shutting down his impugned column. Barkha Dutt tried the opposite tack: brazening it out and proclaiming innocence. This did not work; NDTV’s credibility is damaged and her ratings have plummeted (according to TAM data for December). An attempt at self-defense on TV boomeranged: she appeared shifty and guilty as charged, Nixon-like. She may have committed journalistic hara-kiri.

Furthermore, the IBN network, also viewed with derision as #IBNlies, was caught by @preeti86 ham-handedly fabricating fake tweets (messages) from non-existent identities in an effort to inflate support for their positions.

Pathetically, the scribes and their sock-puppets (planted supporters) are attempting to paint themselves as victims of a conspiracy among Twitterati. But this snake-oil is not selling. One of the sock-puppets, some minor Bollywood type screeching #stopabuseontwitter, showed himself a hypocrite by making crude sexual suggestions to a woman online, and then running for cover when someone brought up IPC 509.

Fed-up Internet mavens have long complained that the media in India is corrupt, sold out (#paidmedia and #dalalmedia are popular terms) and anti-national. It appears that Twitterati have finally created an alternative, uncensored, independent channel for news and commentary.

This is as subversive as the samizdat underground press in the erstwhile Soviet Union was. Even more ominously for the powerful, there is the example of OhmyNews in Korea. This little paper, initially a one-man effort, became so wildly popular that eventually it was instrumental in toppling an elected regime in 2002.

Will the emergent people’s media in India play a similar role? That would be poetic justice – he who corrupts the media falls to its new, web-enabled incarnation. The establishment, naturally, will fight this: a new push to monitor Internet usage may lead to a Great Firewall of India, stifling the new medium.

Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant.

825 words, 11 Jan 2011

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