Sucheta Dalal :Media's patchy memory and disproportionate hype
Sucheta Dalal

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Media's patchy memory and disproportionate hype  

November 22, 2000

Laxman Sitaram Ziman? Who's that? If you asked that question, you are obviously not reading the newspapers. His photograph has been splashed all over the media, he has granted scores of interviews in the last week and at least two leading newspapers have documented in detail each day of his life last week. His quotable quotes include threats to avenge the death of his lover and a refusal to part with her ashes until her killers are booked.

No, his lover was no national heroine - she was Neeta Naik, the slayed wife of jailed underworld don Ashwin Naik, who allegedly controlled the purse strings of her husband's gang while he remained behind bars. According to unofficial briefings from the police, she was gunned down by her husband's hit-men because of her adulterous relationship with Ziman, who was a former constable and bodyguard to the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra.

As far as the news value goes - the story is certainly front-page stuff.

The liquidation of Neeta Naik has all the ingredients of a Bollywood blockbuster - love, sex, adultery, the underworld, a physically challenged husband operating from his jail cell, violence and politics (Neeta Naik was a Bombay Municipal Corporator representing the Shiv Sena). Apart from the new value in the laments of the bereaved lover, the murder is supposed to have broken the unwritten underworld code of not killing women and children.

I am not complaining about the coverage, I only have a grouse about the quality and texture of coverage. The press is guilty of romanticising the Ziman-Naik story or the Ashwin-Neeta marriage and turning gangsters into martyrs. Let us not forget that these gangs make their moolah from extortion, exploitation and murder.

It seems as though nobody guides rookie reporters anymore. Someone has to tell them that there is a difference between gangland killings and interviewing the families of our soldiers who sacrificed their lives at Kargil, relatives of the hijack victims, or those who suffered from the drought in Gujarat or the cyclone in Orissa. All the stories have the same bleeding heart treatment.

The fault does not lie with inexperienced juniors who get assigned these breaking stories - at that age they are bound to be carried away or be even less cynical than they ought to be, but aren't there any supervisors anymore?

The awestruck reporting about gangsters is bad, but when the same rose-tinted vision is trained on business and corporate houses it gets even worse.

The gushing reportage of corporate developments as represented by expert spin-doctors, is made worse by the shocking ignorance of history. It is about the horror of a leading economic paper going into self-congratulatory whoops when one of its editors had recalled the name of the country head of a leading foreign bank just eight years ago.

The business press has become used to a variety of handouts that are not necessarily from PR agencies. The off-the-record briefings by regulatory bodies which border on stenography and research reports by industry associations and brokerage firms are other sources of information. Research reports from foreign firms always have better credibility - this phenomenon is never more obvious than in the real estate business.

Earlier when information sources were Indian builders or real estate brokers, the information was invariably cross-checked or at least a couple of versions obtained before pronouncing prices in a locality. These days when the reports are glossily produced and neatly packaged with attractive set of charts and graphs and peppered with jargon, they become instantly news-ready even if they are single source stories in a highly sensitive market. There are plenty of examples where the rates quoted are out of line with true prices and seem like an attempt to drive up rates through the press.

Finally, another frightening manifestation of this problem is the people that are covered and those who are forgotten. For instance, the death of a former president was dismissed by most newspapers with a small brief. As it happens, the death coincided with that of a leading political journalist, who was certainly much less known than the former President. Yet, a day after the two deaths, the obit for the journalist - who can hardly have been called a national figure, least three times the length of an edit on the former President of the nation.

It gets worse with business leaders. The coverage depends entirely on the hype and prayer meetings conducted by the group connected with the leader. Corporate memory works fine when prodded by skillful PR managers, others are forgotten. The worst example is the coverage of the demise of Darbari Seth, once considered a business visionary and one of the powerful satraps of the Tata empire under the legendary JRD Tata. Though the late Mr Seth had retired just a few months before he passed away, none of the leading newspapers thought it worth doing a decent edit or an obituary.

Had the house of Tatas (which he served with distinction for several decades as a technocrat) put out a release documenting his contribution in building the empire (Tata Chemicals and Tata Tea among others) accompanied with an easy to use photograph -- the coverage would have been vastly different. But the Tata empire today is in the process of forgetting its former titans, so no such information was forthcoming. So Darbari Seth, a charming and highly skillful communicator moved on, nearly unremembered.

The death last week of C Subramaniam -- a towering politician during his time and a Bharat Ratna awardee similarly received perfunctory coverage by the media. H Y Sharda Prasad, a former advisor to the Prime Minister of India, puts it best in his column in The Asian Age. He says: "It is distressing that the passing of the Bharat Ratna was dismissed with just a paragraph or two in our major newspapers and a niggardly mention on television. We must remember that if we get out of the habit of praising our great men, there will soon come a time when we shall be left with no great men to praise. One of the functions of the media is to serve as the nation's memory bank."

-- Sucheta Dalal