View: What leaked chats reveal about the cult of celebrity TV anchors

If there’s a single word to describe the leaked WhatsApp conversations between Republic TV editor Arnab Goswami and former BARC CEO Partho Dasgupta, it is hubris. The chats reveal a shocking collusion between a channel head and a TV ratings agency and how the entire system of rating TV news is seriously compromised. Yet the nub of the issue is more than collusion, it is the journalist’s notion of his invincibility.

So what is the self-image of the celebrity TV anchor today? More often than not, it is one where he or she places himself as part of the ruling elite. The advent of private news television should have strengthened the media vis-à-vis the state, instead it has actually weakened the media as TV journalists have sought to embrace state power.

Journalists, particularly in the “Delhi durbar”, have always operated in close proximity to the powerful. Several top journalists have been appointed press and media advisors, some becoming ‘rajgurus’ of political parties. Journalists in Delhi and state capitals have often accepted government largesse like accommodation, awards or Rajya Sabha nominations.

But the advent of TV news over the last 25 years has drastically changed the rules of the old game. Today, there’s been an exponential rise in journalists’ visibility and media personality cults now go far beyond the blistering byline or stirring news report. The highly visible prime time TV anchor has achieved stardom to the point where he starts believing that he’s a central player in national life.

Goswami’s recent dare for a “direct duel” with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi shows the TV anchor playing political combatant rather than observer.

Goswami’s template is the journalist equating his own opinion with that of “the nation”. In this situation, the commitment is not to the truth but to the desire to always be right. All contrarian opinions are targeted as “anti-national” because if one always has to be right, then there is a daily need to find someone who is always wrong and conduct a noisy, one sided media trial in the studio. An infallible god cult means dispensing with the pursuit of truth.

In the new paradigm, access to power matters more than telling truth to power. The “don’t-you-know-who-I-am” mindset has always existed, but when journalists use their VIP status as their sole equity, then they become unable to interrogate the system or hold up a mirror to society.

The journalist Jorge Ramos, thrown out of a Trump press conference in 2015, said: “Spanish has a great word to describe the stance journalists should take: “contrapoder” (anti-establishment), on the opposite side of those who wield power.” But since access to power is an end in itself, most TV anchors’ self-image is as part of the establishment.

This trend has terribly damaged the credibility of the media profession as a whole. Farm protesters are flatly refusing to interact or consume “godi media”. Social media is lampooning mainstream media as “B&D” et al. Such labelling creates a dangerous fragmentation in the press. When journalists become polarised on ideological lines, journalistic unity (for example, when the press rose up against Rajiv Gandhi’s attempt to push the 1988 Anti-Defamation Bill) is impossible. During the Emergency, many “star” journalists stood up against government repression. But in the age of TV, the journalist has come to believe that he or she is bigger than journalism.

The celebrity bubble means vital stories do not get told and viewers are left uninformed. Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide received wall to wall coverage for days, farmers’ suicides are barely noticed. The personal liberty of an anchor becomes a cause celebre, arrest of student activists under draconian terror laws is justified. Since the anchors’ self-image is entirely linked to ratings, even the terror strike in Pulwama was seen not as a national tragedy but as a TV event with high ratings potential.

In all this, it’s advantage politicians. In the mad scramble for ratings and revenues, politicians can easily control journalists by making access and government advertising the currency, a power they hold in the palm of their hands. The state can set up a hierarchy among journalists, those with highest access ranked at the top.

Newspaper editors of yore who wrote thundering columns could also be accused of pomposity and political affiliations. Yet today as many editors seek to build their own media empires, the financial stakes are much higher and integrity quotient arguably lower. Are TV journalists neglecting the duties of journalism simply because they are or want to be media superstars? Forget what the ‘nation wants to know’, focus on what the nation ought to know.

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