SEEMA MUSTAFA | 17 NOVEMBER, 2018
The essence of journalism, like the Constitution, cannot be changed without damage to democracy.
White House reporter Jim Acosta and the CNN have finally demonstrated what real journalism is, away from the embedded tag that American scribes chose to attach to themselves when they marched atop military tanks into Iraq to justify a thoroughly evil and immoral invasion. But in this face off between Acosta and US President Donald Trump, the American media came out trumps, with even the ultra-right wing Fox News (our very own Republic) joining forces with the rest to denounce the White house decision to ban Acosta and snatch away his hard pass.
And why? Simply because Acosta was doing his job of questioning the President as a good journalist is expected to do. As he said himself, and as we know but do not practice, journalists are in position to extract accountability from the powerful, and in particular the government of the day. And to do this without fear or favour, with independence and honesty. Of course those at the receiving end of the journalists interrogation for the truth do not like this and tend to shoot the messenger with varying degrees of ferocity. But there are few governments who let the media breathe, and allow it the space and the independence to act as a true watch dog for the respective country.
In this case too Trump did what was expected of a man who has shown zero tolerance for a free media. In fact while Acosta remained polite, but firm, it was the President of the United States who was offensive and rude in the brief interaction. The senior journalist, with the reputation of asking it as it is no matter what, did not back off and nor did he lose his temper. Trump on the other hand dissolved into a hostile and nasty politician who threatened and virtually abused the reporter by telling him what a bad job he and CNN were doing. Acosta did not even bother to dignify the comments with a reply, sticking instead to his question on the migration policy. And then to justify snatching away Acosta’s pass, the White House relied on a distorted video of the exchange that was then investigated and revealed as such by several media houses. CNN was just one of the many in this show of solidarity.
This makes one wonder what would have been the case in India had the media been united, honest, and independent. Where instead of licking the boots of the government of the day, to the point of circulating fake videos and justifying the worst kind of action, we the media had unitedly held the government responsible, questioned it, and ensured that it did not get away with the lies and distortions that we unfortunately, help it turn into truth. There was a time when such unity and fearlessness was visible, even if not the norm. Journalists at press conferences came together to place powerful leaders in the dock with hard hitting questions demanding an answer. They were not allowed to get away, at least not always.
Over the years the media has capitulated as have individual journalists. We are so busy questioning each other, that we have no questions left for those in power. In the US the institutions run, with Trump having to face the media even though he visibly hates it. And the Judge intervening now to ensure that the White House removes the ban on Acosta. India never had this policy. Access to the Prime Ministers Office was always determined by the media managers who made favouritism and loyalty the criteria. Travel with the PM was the lollipop earlier when the PM’s were more accessible than Narendra Modi, and any reporter or publication not meeting the tests of loyalty was struck off the list. Never to travel with the PM on any assignment, with the aircraft packed with loyal media buddies whose job was to give the travelling leader a puff job.
PM Modi has gone a step further than his predecessors by dispensing with the media almost entirely. He does give the occasional interview with the questions screened, and the questioner very clearly a tame member of the stable. Counter questioning is frowned upon, with the interview an exercise to allow the PM to be at his best expansive self. That the process lowers the credibility of the media house and the journalist is barely of any consequence, as the corporate owner is smiling all the way to the bank chuffed with the media coup as it is usually presented.
In India to get a statement out of the Editors Guild, a body that was founded years ago with august intention, is an uphill task with moral custodians of corporate power reluctant to step out of the comfort zone to support the individual journalist being targeted for fearless reporting. Political divisions have ripped the media apart, with journalists categorising each other according to real or imagined political affiliations without holding aloft the basic principles of responsible and ethical reporting.
True reporting barely exists. Most of the corporate media houses spend more on evening talk shows over-laden with guests who scream and shout at each other at the instance of the anchors than on news gathering. News documentaries have become a casualty in the process, with little on 24 hour news channels to show that the journalists are out in the field reporting on the poor and victimised of India. As for those in power, we lost the battle the moment we started standing up with hands folded, pleading for a sound byte to retain our jobs. Having worked in a News Channel I know the unbearable pressure reporters come under to come back with a byte, that leads them to virtually supplicate themselves before the politician to just get him or her to look their way. As for the Prime Minister and Ministers and officials in power, forget it. They all come under the undeclared protection clause of media houses, with not an awkward question asked or a questioning sentence aired.
Exceptions of course appear occasionally even in this controlled world of journalism, but for the people to be energised independent journalism has to be the norm. Gandhi or Nehru or Sardar Patel are not above question. Nor are Indira Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi or Narendra Modi or Amit Shah. They are elected members and hence accountable. The media has to hold them responsible. Trolls often insist---but of course out the ignorance of their very being---that PM is an elected representative and hence above questioning. In fact quite the contrary. The President of India and the Vice President who represent the Indian state are above media interrogation, every single elected representative in fact has to be answerable for his or her actions all the time, every single moment of the day, every day of the year.
That the media itself no longer knows the raison d’etre for its existence is the new tragedy. Entire generations of youngsters are being groomed in journalism as conformists, bowing to power, along with the owners and so called editors of the media house. That journalism is a powerful profession escapes them entirely as the ‘sir’ and the ‘ma’am’ (terms that journalists abhorred because of the baggage these carry) becomes more important than the story at hand. Alongside is this hunger to become a celebrity, as yet another cardinal rule of journalism falls by the way side in this age of the electronic and the social media ---that scribes are not stars, the people are. Unfortunately after television created celebrities by the simple virtue of anchoring the evening reality shows---sorry news debates I think these are called---Twitter has set lose a similar phenomenon where instant stardom is guaranteed for those who join in the rat race with witty or abusive (or both) tweets as frequently as possible. Wit and abuse in 40 characters ---regardless of substance---is the road to stardom that many have found already.
All said and done there is no substitute to old classical journalism of the Acosta kind. Perhaps those looking for an answer should see the genuine video of the press conference, and subsequent interviews given by Acosta and many others of what journalism is all about. It has a clearly defined essence that like the Constitution cannot be changed without severely undermining democracy and placing it at risk.