Media and the economy are intertwined in a very sensitive way. The universal fact that wrong and irresponsible reporting can hurt any economy is axiomatic and doesn’t need much explanation. But how bad economies can ruin the media is a little more complicated.
The first victim of a financial crunch in any country is investigative journalism, because it requires a lot of press, people and resources, a lot of caution to make it foolproof and sometimes also the latest technology. It is no solace but a fact that the continuing bad economy in America (just like in India) is also affecting journalism, especially investigative journalism.
One of America’s most prominent investigative journalists, Seymour Hersh, says that investigative journalism in the US is being killed gradually by three factors: lack of resources, the crisis of confidence, and a misguided notion of what the job entails. I believe all these factors are also present in India and they are definitely affecting investigative journalism here.
When there is a lack of resources, a TV channel tends to just report the “debate” on a particular issue. But it stops short of doing its own investigation to find out the veracity of the claims made by the two sides of the debate and, more importantly, to inform its viewers who is right and who is wrong.
Hersh adds another dimension. He contends that even if a newspaper or a TV channel has the resources, their editors these days are trying to appease the management because they are scared to be an “outsider”. He claims this is happening even in the historically impeccable newspapers like the New York Times. When asked about the solution, Hersh said that most editors are pusillanimous and should be fired. He talked about his solution during an interview with The Guardian: “I see people who get promoted are the ones on the desk, who are more amenable to the publisher and what the senior editors want, and the trouble makers don’t get promoted. Start promoting better people who look you in the eye and say ‘I don’t care what you say’.” Hersh also criticized the Washington Post for holding back on the now world famous “Snowden Files” (about the alleged US surveillance of its own citizens and also other countries) until it learned that The Guardian was about to publish the Snowden story. By the way, if Hersh was in charge of US Media Inc, he wouldn’t stop with newspapers.
“I would close down the news bureaus of the (TV) networks and start all over... The majors, NBCs, ABCs, they won’t like this – just do something different, do something that gets people mad at you, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” he says.
He is certain that America’s National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden “changed the whole nature of the debate” about surveillance. Hersh says he and other journalists had written about surveillance, but Snowden was significant because he provided “documentary evidence” to back up his story.
Here is an example of how much hard work it takes to do investigative reporting. This was done by Hersh back in the Vietnam War period.
Back in 1969, he got a tip about a 26-year-old platoon leader, William Calley, who had been charged by the army with alleged mass murder. Instead of picking up the phone to call a press officer, he got into his car and started looking for Calley in the army camp of Fort Benning in Georgia, where he heard he had been detained.
From door to door he searched the vast compound, sometimes marching up to the reception, slamming his fist on the table and shouting: “Sergeant, I want Calley out now.”
Eventually his efforts paid off with his first story appearing in the St Louis Post-Despatch, which was then syndicated across America and eventually earned him the Pulitzer Prize. He was hired by the New York Times to follow up the famous Watergate scandal and ended up hounding Nixon over Cambodia. Almost 30 years later, Hersh made global headlines all over again with his exposure of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
In India, Print media was ahead in investigative journalism for several years. But now it seems that TV media is also catching up, despite the fact that some channels have no qualms about sensationalizing their investigative reports. But, as we know, most TV channels are facing a financial crunch due to an economic downturn in the world including India, and that can further hurt the quality of their reports.
I believe that to save a credible media environment in the country, editors and publishers should avoid blanket reduction of news coverage across the board and should come up with an innovative way of prioritizing the cost of coverage. Eventually, this may even lead to an end to the ongoing cut-throat competition among 24/7 TV news channels and bring about mergers in the not so distant future.
(Author/news analyst Ravi M Khanna is currently freelancing after a 24-year stint with Voice Of America in Washington DC, as South Asia bureau chief)