Media and the Poll-Bound State
Assembly elections in Assam are just round the corner and we take a momentary lapse to analyze the role of media in shaping the political conscience in the peripheral state. By media we mean the news media here. We as human beings shape our judgments based on the information we acquire from the bounty of knowledge available in abundance around us. Each one of us on this Earth is stuck to a particular time and place, armed with specific and particular set of knowledge about the world. It is practically impossible for us to have a first-hand access to all events that occur around us. In such circumstances, we need an entity to gather, refine and bring to us the information that we consider relevant. This particular entity that we are talking of is media. Neil Postman argues, “We couldn’t know anything in the world without different forms of media to convey information”. This article is an attempt to analyze how media shapes our political judgments. The role of media in democracy is indispensable. Some see it as the ‘watchdog’, while there are others who consider it not more than the ‘mouthpiece’ of the dominant class. No matter which of the above two propositions we wish to stand with but the fact remains that none of us today can stand outside media and claim that they do not affect our political judgments. While receiving the media representations most, if not all of us, tend to assume that our responses to them are always rational, judicious and measured. But, to the contrary, our responses are spontaneous and often emotional.
The life would have been much better if we had only writers or journalists. But, the fact that we have a whole range of terminologies behind every news report namely, producers, editors, comptrollers, focus groups, advertisers etc. probably is enough to raise an eyebrow to the assertion that media is neutral. Debbie Lisle delineates, “all media information comes from somewhere and is trying to advance someone’s agenda”. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in their seminal work, ‘Manufacturing Consent’ claimed, “among their other functions, the media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them.” To that extent therefore the words like courageous, true, unbiased et al. seem to be misnomers when associated with media.
Media and Assam
The news media in Assam like most other states in India is mostly dominated by regional media houses. The circulation of national and international news media is considerably very limited. Leaving aside the Guwahati based middle class and aspirants of various competitive examinations the readers of mainstream national news papers are few. The most one can expect of is a range of English newspapers printed in Kolkata. The limited circulation to a great extent accrues to the cost factor. The numbers keep reducing as one move towards the peripheries of the peripheral state. By the time one reaches may be Kakopothar in the eastern frontier, asking for a copy of the Indian Express might make one an alien. As a result the audience is destined to stay within the clutches of the regional media (regional here does not mean only Assamese media but include other languages including English). When talking of regional media in Assam it requires no mention about who actually own them and what they actually produce and reproduce. It is also clear to the masses how the news channels with the highest TRPs produce and present news. In that regard, the claims of Lisle, Chomsky and Herman as outlined above gain even more legitimacy. It is disturbing to realize that the news media to a great extent has been reduced to a ‘mouthpiece’ of the influential sections. The use of words such as courageous, true, unbiased, etc. therefore seem to be a mockery.
It would be wrong to claim that the ‘watchdog’ role of media is completely absent. Criticizing politicians and political parties is an everyday affair and as a result audience presumes that the media actually is the ‘watchdog’ that keeps a check on the government activities. But the truth between the lines is that while the media are able to critique politicians and political parties, they actually fail to challenge the foundations and structures of the political power itself. They provide superficial critiques of particular parties and policies but never actually go far enough to question the foundations of the system itself. The audience is preoccupied at the superficial level to such an extent that foundational questions are ignored. They fail to ask for instance that in an egalitarian society how come so many families live in poverty while there are some who hold so much wealth. As a result, media sustains and reproduces the hierarchical social structure and becomes a tool of persuasion advocating that the existing structure serves all sections at best.
The media in the state has cocooned the audience within the same old issues of development, new trains, Bangladeshi migrants, defection by political leaders, electoral coalitions and the like. The audience is so much preoccupied with these age old signature debates that they do not bother about whole range of other factors. Such indifference has resulted in lack of bargaining power vis-à-vis the democracy. We do not for instance realize that if every individual has a vote which is supposed to be equally valuable in a democracy why the fruits of the same democracy are not equally available for all. A good population of us is so much contended with the free mosquito nets and blankets distributed prior to the polls that we never ask why after more than 6 decades of poverty alleviation schemes, poverty still remains a fact. We are carried away by the projects assuring flyovers but forget about the water-logging-streets in the capital on which we perhaps will not be able to walk if it unfortunately rains on the polling day. We do not bother about deals that New Delhi signs at the WTO summits and how such events influence our daily lives across prices of cereals to non NET scholarships. We do not bother about why the amount of precipitation is fast reducing and the extent of summer temperature is fast rising. We are still indifferent that after more than 6 decades of independence our kids still rush to mainland India for quality education. We are so much overwhelmed with the promise of newer medical and engineering colleges but seldom do we analyze the state of already existing institutes. The premiere Cotton College with a huge bunch of super glamorous alumni and meritorious faculty and students after more than a century since establishment could not figure into top 3 Indian educational institutes.
We fail to indulge with all such questions because the popular discourse still cocoons us within the same old issues of migration, development schemes, new trains and road projects. We still look up to government schemes as favor bestowed by political leaders in political rallies and fail to understand that in a “Socialist”, “Democratic” “Republic” – which India claims to be one – such schemes are not favor but responsibility of the government. This polling season let us move beyond the traditional fodder that our media brings to our plate every morning. Let us question not merely the stuff that makes up the news of the day but also let us indulge with the process by which the stuff is produced and brought to us. Let us analyze not what we are provided with and rather demand of the knowledge which we are debarred of by the media.
Uddipta Ranjan Boruah
( The author is a Post Graduate Student of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi and a contributing Author of Eurasia Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )