The raucous television debate and the explosion of outrage on social media over the death of Sushant Singh Rajput triggers a sense of deja vu. Witch-hunting, malicious personal attacks, fiction paraded as fact, conspiracy theories, bland lies — we have been there before, haven’t we? Robert Vadra’s land deals, Sunanda Pushkar’s death, AgustaWestland deal, Vijaya Mallya‘s flight from India, the INX media deal involving P Chidambaram and the National Herald case involving the Gandhis and so on. The pattern is all too familiar now.
How much of this has resulted in a conclusion? For all we know, Vadra is not in jail, Tharoor is a free man, Chidambaram is out on bail, investigating agencies still looking for proof to nail him, and the Gandhis are doing fine. In short, all the cacophony, conspiracy theories, exclusive information from ‘sources’ and ground-breaking investigation have proved of no consequence in a single case. So, what do we make of it? If none of this stands in the court of justice, then the credibility of such charade should be in question. Yet we move on unruffled, waiting for the next big issue to begin witch-hunt again.
Zombies relish fresh flesh. To see them in action you need to maintain a steady supply of it. A section of our media treats us as those braindead creatures of the imaginary world of the walking dead, digging up or manufacturing controvesies at routine frequency to see us animated and energised. We get trapped in the same psychological manipulation again and again. Why is it so? The answer perhaps lies in the idea of infotainment and our growing proclivity to suspend reason for satisfaction of basic instincts.
We are suckers for good stories. As a rule, all good stories must be emotionally fulfilling, easy to place in a comprehensible continuum, and with a degree of shock value. They must carry the potency to make us react. Disbelief and sense of logic are not necessarily hindrances to our appreciation of them so long as they appeal to sentiments. There’s a reason why in newsrooms the words report and story are interchangeable. The days of good old reports — no-nonsense, passionless, and staid — are practically over in the age of new communication technology, multiple platforms and gimmick to attract eyeballs. They won’t go away but the primacy has shifted to how they develop into stories for mass consumption. The transition of information to infotainment took time, but it is truly in.
It is no surprise that primetime news television has intruded into the space of entertainment channels. The multi-platform social media has cut into the space of both traditional print and visual media. Viewer traffic and TRPs being critical to the revenue models in both cases, it is logical, maybe perversely so, that they churn out content solely tailored to pander to raw emotions through sensationalisation. A story, after all, is what everyone is interested in, not so much the truth. It involves infantalising the reader/viewer. If they started exercising their sense of judgement and stopped being gullible, stories would not fly. Of course, in this paradigm ethics, principles and sense of morality are dispensable. Half-truths, blant lies and maliciousness are par for the course.
Allegiance to certain principles and human values are what separate old school journalism from crass infotainment. In the times of post-truth, where the moral universe of the consumer is confused and tribal tendencies overwhelm free judgement, the latter guarantees bang for the buck entertainment. It is always more agreeable than the truth, which can be complex. Stories will prevail in the foreseeable future. Fiction will continue to be the basis of our judgement, not so much facts.
The potential damage from it is humongous from the perspective of immutability of truth and the whole system built on the credibility and legitimacy of facts. The television and social media debates create a parallel narrative to the one built on facts and painstaking accumulation of relevant information. The former throws so much suspicion into the latter that any conclusion it finally arrives at becomes questionable. For example, in the case of Sushant, the media discourse has poisoned the minds of people against Rhea Chakraborty. Even when she is declared not guilty by courts it won’t make any difference to the public perception of her.
The situation is akin to the working of khap panchayats, where community sentiments often clash with the laws of the country. Those condemned by the khaps find court verdicts in their favour unredeeming because they remain offenders in the view of the community for ever. Conversely, people sentenced by courts for honour killings may be welcomed back to their community with rewards. Television channels and the social media are the khaps of our times. They would pass verdicts according to their whims and logic, if at all it exists, and the target would stand condemned for ever.
Their action not only undermines set processes, institutions but also corrodes the legitimate status facts are assigned in rule-based societies. Kangaroo courts maybe acceptable in small tribal communities, but as society evolves and gets complex, rules and independent institutions become necessary. We appear to be reversing the process through the media. The problem with this is truth and processes would forever remain under a cloud, open to interpretations and doubts.
Where does it end? There is no clear answer. The pursuit of the media for eyeballs and revenue won’t stop. They would continue to discover witches at intervals and coax people to burn them amid wild dances and drumbeats. The trivialisation of serious matters to pander to low emotions would continue till we stopped being treated as zombies. Our fascination for stories agreeable to our senses and biases is our weakness. As is our lack of reverence for the sacrosanct truth and preference for noise over result. The buck stops with us.
[This is the first part of a series titled Decoding Democracy]