Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Mirror Cracked



Image Courtesy: www.thedelhiwala.com
1999, Kargil. With a microphone in her hand and grit in her spirit, a spunky young Barkha Dutt was a bit of an enigma. She was different. Different from carefully coiffed DD news readers like Rini Simon, Salma Sultan, Komal GB Singh and Minu Talwar. Said to be our own blend of Oprah Winfrey and Christiane Amanpour, Barkha was perhaps the first Indian woman war reporter who brought a live war in our living rooms. At a time when I was fighting my own demons, Barkha’s refusal to stick to the gender stereotypes, her disregard for good looks and her compelling narration taught me a thing or two.

Thereafter, I read all about her early days, her journalist mother, her numerous awards and her interviews. While her achievements were an inspiration, her personal life was of little interest to me. I didn’t care why she married or didn’t, frankly, I have no clue. But I remember her saying, "News was as intrinsic to our formative years as the mandatory daily portion of green vegetables or the evening reward of milk and cookies. As a child of five I remember being asked to identify obscure world leaders from the covers of Time magazine..” 

 
Today,
as I read Barkha's interview in HT on the eve of her book launch, ‘This Unquiet Land’, I wonder why she faces sustained on-line ire and why she isn’t my Christiane Amanpour anymore.

As it happened, almost a decade after the Kargil war, private news channels cropped up like mushrooms in monsoons. By then, news anchors had climbed up the power pedestal to perch alongside politicians. That is when a reputed magazine alleged cozy collaboration between journalists, corporate houses and politicians by releasing several audio tapes. My muse had fallen from the heights of Kargil to the depths of Radia. Rather ironically, her colleague Rajdeep said, “The robust tradition of unbiased journalism has been mortgaged at the altar of cozy networks.”
Power is a potent aphrodisiac. It can, after all, result in an error of judgment. But when you hobnob with political friends, play power games like appointing ministries, and then judge others, all the while claiming that no law was broken, the ethical halo gets diminished. Perhaps, no law was broken. Perhaps it was an error of judgment. Perhaps. Ms Dutt refuted allegations, the tapes dumped in the dustbin of history and nothing was proven. But the cracks in the veneer of ethical journalism ensured that my admiration for the lady ebbed with every passing controversy. Because by then, my muse was on a slippery slope of a series of judgment errors including the sensational Mumbai attack coverage. 


In her recent interview to HT, Barkha says, “We are journalists; we are not here to take sides.” So, why is it difficult to digest? Frankly, I don’t grudge political affiliations. Most journalists lean a certain way despite professing allegiance to a bipartisan centrist position. Which is fine, in fact, it is human nature. Those who admit it openly command more respect than those who toe a certain line, and yet, fake fairness. 
Given that social media is laced with hyperbole, and the fact that same people who hate her today, applauded her for defending India at an international forum, one can disregard the laceration as fickle. Moreover, most angry voices on social media belong to right wing supporters who feel that some members of the mainstream media club present one-sided stories by ignoring divergent views.While abuse is unjustified, social media ire is perhaps an expression to question the monopoly of a privileged few who write columns, conduct debates and tell us how to think.

Television is a transparent medium. For any discerning viewer, the attempt to shove words, harp on a controversy more than necessary, or  tilt the perception scales allows the viewer to see through the mask. Why, even at her recent book launch, the panel discussion was mostly about discussing fault lines, vendetta and intolerance. A cursive glance at her select audience said more than words could.Above all, it is difficult to convince viewers about your unbiased streak when your media house has umbilical links with a particular mother. 
Regardless, no one can take away Barkha's articulate eloquence, her indomitable spirit, her intellectual sharpness or her journalistic precision. Her interviews with world leaders including Hillary Clinton are a notch above the rest. Her shows are different from noisy slanging matches on rival news channels. But. But as I order her first book, I don’t feel the adrenaline rush of a smitten fan. She is no longer my Christiane Amanpour. Or Oprah Winfrey. And it is not a comforting thought at all. If at all, it is a sad commentary on how role models slip on the staircase of power and pelf.

29 comments:

  1. I hung on to every word of this post! Being one who prefers sticking to the entertainment section of news, this was no mean feat....thanks to your gripping POV. Many of us were enamoured by Barkha Dutt post her war-reporting coup. So much so that she was even glamorized by Preity Zinta's role in Lakshya! But eventually her brand of journalism too fell prey to political linkups. Neverthless she still stands apart from the crowd and has that aura about her that wants you to stick on and take notice....maybe yet....she will pull off something extraordinary! Btw it was good hearing names like Rini Simon, Komal G.B Singh amongst others :)

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  2. I am a huge fan of Barkha whom I regard as an inspiration as a journalist. One thing I'd like too say about the Radia link and I watched when she was grilled on NDTV. As a journalist, I am a good terms with polits across the board and do indulge in sympathetic conversation to give the impression to be one of them. That's how we get news and things ahead of our competitors. True, the Mumbai attack was one brownie point. But, that doesn't take things from her. She's a chip off the block and has a commanding persona.

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    1. No, it doesn't take away from her journalistic precision but it diminishes the halo.

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  3. I share your sentiments about her. I think they all start starry eyed and high on morals and then as they get seasoned and grow in popularity, the lines blur. Mumbai attacks coverage was the first time when I saw her ruthless, TRP crazy site. Then the Radia tapes bumped off her credibility for me. I am not interested in reading her book. In fact, I don't watch her anymore. When I can't differentiate between propaganda and news, I just stop writing. Nicely written, Alka.

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  4. I do not agree with you. I have seen her handle abusive trolls with humour and dignity. These days it has become commonplace to target influencers, especially the ones who critique the govt. (Which is their job in the first place).

    If we refuse to accept media reports and dismiss them as biased, why should we believe the allegations made against journalists?

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  5. Barkha exudes a spirit that's different from the older types. She belongs to the present time and rightly so.

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    1. That spirit shines across, despite all the criticism.

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  6. My uncle - a journalist worked alongside her Mother- Prabha Dutt. He said she was a woman of spunk and indomitable spirit. Perhaps something of that has rubbed off Burkha Dutt. Unfortunately in the last few years there have been a lot of things that have made me uneasy and she may have slipped off the pedestal a bit !

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    1. You are right, many say she's taken on her mother. Thanks for reading.

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  7. I still turn to her if I ever have to watch news on TV. Somehow, in a sea of grey, I find her shade of journalism a bit more relevant to my taste.
    Maybe it's just habit.
    I absolutely relished this post.

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    1. Yes, given the noise and cacophony on other shows, her shows are the most watchable.

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  8. Very well written ! I feel exactly the same about her. And about Rajdeep too. "Power is a potent aphrodisiac" sums it up.
    I am however not clear about your view on TV being a transparent medium. Do you really believe that even an intelligent viewer can see through the deliberately layered and smoked news cast? I see NDTV, India TV and Fox News in the same light where propaganda overshadows the news. Just my view :)

    One of the best post I have read in a long while !

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    1. Thank you Prateek. When I say television is transparent, I meant for discerning informed viewers and not public at large.

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  9. Her show is still the only one I can watch. Most others are cacaphony. I enjoy reading your posts, well thought out and articulated. Nice work, Alka.

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  10. Terrific post, Alka. As you rightly point out, it's inevitable that journalists and news channels will take sides, like politicians will get sucked into the game of politics. Barely anyone remains as clean as a lotus in a swamp. Why hesitate in acknowledging it, then?

    Will wait for your review on Barkha Dutt's book.

    P.S. I would beg to differ about TV being a transparent medium. Yes, intelligent and well informed people like you can figure out when creating controversy is being attempted. But the vast majority of humanity? For them, what is said on TV becomes the truth, and that is the beginning of trouble.

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    1. Thanks Vishal. Your point is well taken. When I said TV is transparent, it was a personal observation given that I follow news closely. Many can get carried away with agenda driven coverage as it was evident prior to Bihar elections.

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  11. It is indeed disheartening and sad to see people you have placed on a pedestal slip down. Very interesting post!

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  12. Reading your post I am reminded of a conversation I had long time ago...one of my friends told me that his cousin who was a newbie journo and an avid fan of Barkha trudged up, with a group,in the dense jungles in Assam to meet a rebel group. Barkha later arrived by the chopper and then she smeared dirt and grime on herself and then shot for the interview. It told me how much of these episodes are stage managed and we as viewers, absorb everything with naivety, while most of the time our reactions are manipulated. I would place the media as the most powerful player in the political arena and in shaping the future of a country.

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    1. That is an interesting insider story. Well, yes, power does different things to different people.
      Thanks Asha.

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  13. Fantastic write up, cannot agree more! She has certainly slipped down the stairs of politics and that halo of ethics long gone and just because some people say this grudgingly because of the consistent made up propaganda they are subject to, they don't become trolls, nor is it abusive. Like her people on social media have a right to expression and this does not make them right wing or left wing, just because they have an adverse point of view!

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    1. Exactly, many who have studied abroad, are children of privileged and powerful in media are not used to being questioned by not so literate but aware common man. And herein lies the problem.

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  14. I think there could be some truth in what themoonstone says as I know of another anchor who did a similar thing.
    As for Barkha, was it overexposure that was the cause of her slipping down?

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    1. Overexposure and proximity with power, perhaps.

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  15. For long I tried to defend her... thinking that perhaps she was still that ethical and articulate person that I looked up to. After so many controversies, I actually feel bad ... that can't cite her as an example anymore. Brilliant write up.

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