The Sardesai-Goswami cockfight

Author Mohan Guruswamy Last Modified Saturday, 23 September 2017 (18:21 IST)
In his seminal study “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” Marshal McLuhan, the new age’s first media prophet proposed that:
“a medium itself, not the content it carries, should now be the focus of study’’. He said that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not only by the content delivered over the medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself.
The power of television first went home to media observers after the historic Kennedy-Nixon televised debate in 1960.   The 60-minute duel between the handsome Irish-American senator and Vice President Richard Nixon fundamentally altered political campaigns, television media and America's political history.
What happened after the two candidates took the stage is now a familiar tale. Nixon, pale and underweight from a recent hospitalization, appeared sickly and sweaty, while Kennedy appeared calm and confident. Nixon had a perpetual 5 o’clock shadow. Throughout the 60-minute program set in a Chicago TV studio, while the 43-year-old Kennedy "looked to be radiating health, TV also masked another reality, that Kennedy was the one who was chronically ill with Addisons disease and heavily cortisone dependent. Kennedy wore a dark suit and had a wide smile and vivid tan. Nixon wore a gray suit and looked positively uncomfortable.
Those who saw the debate on TV overwhelmingly thought Kennedy won the debate. But here was the surprise. People who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon had won. But those listeners were in the minority. By 1960, 88% of American households had televisions — up from just 11% the decade before. The number of viewers who tuned in to the debate has been estimated as high as 74 million
Back then and for decades after the USA had only three major networks that provided both news and entertainment on the same channel. But the advent of CNN changed all that. For the first time we had  24X7 news. The proliferation of such channels all over in the world was what followed. But even so, it is still mainly CNN and C-Span.

But not so in India. At last count there were 402 24X7 news channels in English and all the regional languages. When all the news is the same its  personalities which stand out in this swarm. TV channels create personalities for themselves through their presenters and presentations.
Audiences now demanded news performances instead of just news. They also know who purveys how and who is aligned with whom. Naturally the emphasis now is not on content but on style of  presentation. The personality of the newscaster is now even more important. With few exceptions all channels now have provocative and eye-catching styles. The male anchors all wear suits, as if it were some symbol of their professionalism and modernism. Even Ravish Kumar, who I particularly like, wears an ill-fitting suit for his Hindi show. The ladies exude similar professionalism and modernity in their western attires. Even the regional channels have ladies similarly attired. And have you ever wondered why there are no dark skinned news anchors?
In such a surcharged  environment with “public mood” too having to be constantly, TV news gets swung by the mood. As Rajdeep Sardesai candidly admitted in 2014:  “The media mirrors a particular political reality at a particular moment. It is in constant search of newness. The monsoon belonged to Narendra Modi, and the winter has belonged to Arvind Kejriwal as the challenger. Who knows what the summer will bring?”
Nowhere in the world has media become so personality driven as in India. Our anchors now are media personalities and several of them think of themselves as the news and believe that they shape and form opinions. People like Arnab Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai most of all. They also make no secret of their political leanings. Arnab’s new channel is funded with rightwing money, and Rajdeep was at one time touted as the AAP’s man in Goa till he denied it.
In the Mecca of modern television news people like Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkhite of CBS, and later anchors like Dan Rather (CBS) and Peter Jennings (ABC) became trusted names and it was the trust they engendered that made the news credible. They created their aura by being politically neutral, unemotional and self-effacing.  The self-effacing blandness with which Cronkhite narrated the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War are now classics of an age, where the news was in the content and not seasoned to popular tastes by the anchor. Even now, with the possible exception of Fox News, US newscasters prefer to be low key and focused more on projecting news rather than themselves.
India now has over 167 million households (out of 234 million) with television sets, of which over 161 million have access to Cable TV or Satellite TV, including 84 million households which are DTH subscribers. Digital TV households have grown by 32% since 2013 due to migration from terrestrial and analog broadcasts. According to a BBC survey The most important news sources for Indians in a typical week are television (mentioned first by 37%), newspapers (36%), radio (7%) and newsmagazines (4%) with no gender bias. Clearly TV is a major influencer.
In the frenzy for eyeballs and TRP’s, content is increasingly meant to put the viewer in a kind of REM trance. REM is a unique phase of sleep in humans characterized by random and rapid eye movement of the eyes, accompanied with low muscle tone throughout the body, and the propensity of the sleeper to dream vividly. The REM phase is also known as paradoxical sleep because of physiological similarities to waking states. Like most dream sequences viewers too seldom recollect the full message but have vague recollections of it. As one who is often on TV, I mostly hear people tell of seeing me on TV but not really recollecting what I said. Often the recollections are very different from the original content. 
Rajdeep Sardesai and Arnab Goswami are the most representative of the new age anchors who dominate our consciousness with their projected personalities – not by being self effacing and rational – but by their combativeness, imperiousness and sheer political partisanship. We know where both are coming from. They dominate a universe of watchers who hand over their minds to personalities every night rather than to reason and sanity. Rajdeep Sardeasi and Arnab Goswami fight for a similar space and it should hence come as no surprise that they are also bitter adversaries.
This adversariality was on display recently when Sardesai tweeted the link of the YouTube video titled "Arnab Goswami talking on Gujarat Riot (sic)", and said, "Wow! My friend Arnab claims his car attacked next to CM Res in Guj riots! Truth:he wasn't covering Ahmedabad riots!!" Sardesai followed this up by  tweeting the link again and saying, "Fekugiri has its limits, but seeing this, I feel sorry for my profession."
Goswami, the onetime king of the anchors doesn’t  really have many friends but has many imitators. The anchors he has left behind in carry the same venom, obnoxiousness, partisanship and blinkers to their daily shows. This has been somewhat infectiousness. TV discussions are more slugfests and shouting matches with anchors often taking sides to badger a hapless victim of the day. The victims vary from Pakistani generals to a JNU students – both equally the enemy.
The respected monthly magazine “Caravan” not long ago did a story on Arnab Goswami’s media avatar. It wrote:“Goswami’s most severe act of dereliction was on display during the channel’s show with BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra in Febriary 2016.  During the course of this episode, Goswami allowed the airing of what now seems to be doctored footage of JNUSU President Kanhaiyya Kumar shouting “anti-national” slogans. While Goswami made a few comments, stating that the authenticity of the video was yet to be verified, this was act of ethical abdication that undermined our profession. When this was pointed out, Goswami first lied by denying the video was aired and then admitted to doing so. A young man was marked, damned and condemned before a vast audience with no opportunity to defend himself. It was on the basis of this video that the channel carried out a damaging campaign, only magnifying the government’s propaganda.
Goswami makes no bones about what he is doing and why. When a reporter queried him on his abrasive and partisan style he is said to have replied:  ‘How does it matter?’ he asked perfectly reasonably. ‘I’m playing the story this way, and I’m getting 45 percent in the TRPs. My two principal rivals are trying to be calm and moderate, and they’re at 13 percent and 11 percent.”
Goswami may be happy for now. But he will do well to realize that in the last US presidential it was internet which determined  Hilary Clinton’s fate not popular TV. CNN, the biggest news channel and the powerful New York Times never really hid their animosity towards Donald Trump. Internet is now growing exponentially in India.
The number of Internet users in India is expected to reach 450-465 million by June, up 4-8% from 432 million in December 2016, a report from the Internet and Mobile Association of India and market research firm IMRB International said. “Urban India with an estimated population of 444 million already has 269 million (60%) using the Internet. Rural India, with an estimated population of 906 million as per 2011 census, has only 163 million (17%) Internet users.” Indians are spending 28 hours on mobile as compared to 4 hours on television, with 45% of time spent on entertainment and 34% time spent on search, social & messaging. Clearly TV news faces a major challenge and it has to fight hard to be seen.
But another way to view the cockfight is to see it as a replay of the old Avis versus Hertz advertising open war. In this historic advertising war the two car rental companies went for each other directly with no holds barred. The consequence that both fared well and expanded but at the expanse of the other players in the car rental business, who still languish. So when the Sardesai-Goswami war emerges in the open in a bigger way, it actually might be good for their TRP’s. But the viewing public runs the risk of getting even less news and more bias.
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