What the nation actually wants to know tonight

A study by Media Studies Group on response to Caravan article on Arnab Goswami

By Shaheen Nazar,

CARAVAN news magazine has published a detailed article on Arnab Goswami of the Times Now. The article (issue dated Dec. 1, 2012) has evoked widespread responses. It is unusual for a magazine to feature a news anchor and equally unusual for someone to analyse it. But one feels obliged to do this as a lot is being said about the way our news channels are run today. It’s simply appalling. Increasing number of people are criticizing news channels and those managing them. Editorial judgment in the newsroom is taken on business and political considerations rather than on merit. Therefore, the Caravan article should be read as a sad commentary on our TV journalism than on a single individual, who is known more as a television performer than a journalist.

A total of 135 readers have responded to the online version of the article. Forty-seven percent of them are highly critical of Goswami, whereas 16 percent have made general comments disapproving of the present state of Indian journalism. If we add both the figures, 63 percent are not at all happy with what is going on in our media industry. The rest of the letters are in defense of Goswami. If we take all the letters as an opinion of the informed viewers and readers, we can say that majority of the Indian news reading and viewing public have voted against the kind of journalism being practiced in India.

Arnab Goswami

Arnab Goswami is not just one individual. He is rather a phenomenon. He represents the new bandwagon which is blinded by ambition and guided by self-interest and self-promotion. They are not concerned with news. They are deciding what the ‘nation’ should see. “I will set the news agenda for India today,” Goswami is quoted by one of his former colleagues as saying. He and other self-seekers like him are exercising absolute control over the flow, substance and appearance of news. So, our destiny is in the hands of a few journalists who think that personal integrity and professional ethics are things of the past. They have no sense of responsibility towards the society and consider themselves above bode.

The recent scandal involving Zee News and steel tycoon Navin Jindal is just one example of the mess we are in today. This embarrassing episode for the journalistic fraternity has surfaced while the painful memories of the Radia tape scandal is still fresh in the nation’s memory. Both the scandals involve very senior journalists and editors in either extortion attempt or lobbying for their corporate bosses.

Goswami reminds us of late R.K. Karanjia, a synonym for ‘yellow journalism’ in India of 70s and 80s. But while Karanjia was a one-man brigade, Goswami is not alone. The letter writers have also mentioned the names of some of his contemporaries. “Arnab, Rajdeep, Bharka – all cut from the same bad cloth in my opinion, all they do is give you a headache,” writes one reader while another says: “I stopped watching TV after I watched Rajdeep Sardesai. I do not want Arnab Gowsamis and Samir Jains in my house. I do not want my kids growing up thinking that discussion is yelling. Young people who try to learn public speaking or presentation skills, start talking so arrogantly, imitating Arnab and Rajdeep and Burkha Dutt.”

The letters are reflective of the general disgust that is found in our society today, specially towards the private television companies claiming to run news channels. People are crying foul but the self-seekers in the media are pretending to be ignorant. The call to give some teeth to the Press Council of India and bring the electronic media under its purview is being resisted in the name self-regulation which is nothing but farce.

We are living in an age of corporatized media where ratings of private TV channels are measured by the TRPs they get. The responses to Caravan article belie the general impression that people like Arnab Goswami and the media organisations running under their stewardships are popular with the masses. Let us see some of the attributes that Arnab is attracting from the masses who supposedly decide TRP:

Psycho; megalomaniac; uncouth; uncivil news salesman; absolutely disgusting; comedian; mere laughing stock; very shallow and superficial; ‘just like any producer who adds an item number to boost the ticket sales’; ‘in the process of trying to increase the sales, he makes himself look like a duffer; ‘Hysteria should never be mistaken for reason, It is dangerous and Goswami is its worthy exponent’; ‘if there was a trophy for double standards …Goswami would win hands down’; etc.

Times Now, owned by Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited, the publishers of the Times of India and the Economic Times, prides itself as ‘India’s most-watched English news channel’ and ‘playing news fast and hard’. But the Caravan article begins with examples as to how it sensationalises and ‘creates drama’ out of tragedies. It sites the coverage of ravaging fire in Mumbai’s Mantralaya (the headquarters of the Maharashtra state government) in June 2012. First it borrowed footage from a Hindi channel as its crew were late to arrive on the scene and then started telecasting unedited footages and bombarding the viewers with ‘studio-induced flashes’, at times up to 58 in one typical minute. “The coverage that afternoon was a typical Times Now production, designed not just to attract viewers, but to mesmerise them with an array of visual effects and excited voices … No bar stayed still, words evaporated and reappeared, and at the centre of this sea of red and blue were reporters performing the simple task of describing what the viewer could see for himself,” says the article.

Arnab Goswami and Times Now are synonymous with each other. Launched in 2005, the channel’s 9 p.m. “Newshour” debate show, hosted daily by Goswami, has created a name for itself – at times for wrong reasons. He conducts the entire show quite aggressively that includes yelling and shouting at his guests, raising controversies, playing on nationalistic sentiments and dramatizing and sensationalizing issues of public concern. The way he behaves in front of the camera is more like a performer than a journalist.

Here is what one reader says: “I am no editor or writer but a viewer. He does come out as a megalomaniac and I see these traits in him coming out in the way he conducts himself. It is indeed sad that he treats his colleagues this way but this is the way present generation is made of. He is self eulogizing and extremely irritating.”

Another comment is equally readable: “Most of the topics that he takes up for 1 hour plus are not worth even 15 minutes. And these debates have no purpose – with both sides sticking to their stupid sides and Arnab interfering every time and never allowing anyone to make a point. Somewhere, it has gone wrong into his head that he is bigger than everyone else. The downfall is going to be hard for him when he comes thudding down.”

And this comment: “People like Bill’O and Arnab are not Journalists, they are Actors with a stage they come with a rehearsed agenda and know exactly how to deliver their lines to grab the audience and keep them glued to their channels! And to be honest I like it.. If Arnab doesn’t do it somebody else will so why not Arnab! He is good at it.”

Goswami is generally criticized for his behavior and many of his guests have pledged not to oblige him any more. The activist and academic Madhu Kishwar, a frequent but exasperated guest, penned a widely-circulated open letter to Goswami, complaining that “panelists are expected to simply come and lend further strength to the anchor’s delusion that one hour of Newshour will rid India of all its ills”.

A recent case is that of Shabnam Hashmi, who runs an NGO called Anhad. The well-known social activist has accused Goswami of “uncivilized and aggressive behavior”. On January 4, 2013, she put the status on her Facebook ‘Times Now – my status – not available – goodbye Mr Arnab Goswami – sorry for denying you the pleasure of being the ‘conscience keeper’.

She says through a public statement: “All hell seems to have broken out since then. I have been receiving calls after calls from various Times Now reporters. They have barged into Anhad several times, threatening to do stories against Anhad and me … Anhad has been a space where scores of journalists and media friends have come and visited. We have always respected the media and continue to do so and Anhad has received tremendous support from the media fraternity across India and we greatly value and respect that … This is the first time that we are faced with a situation where I personally in 32 years of my grass root activism and Anhad as an organisation in its 10 yrs of work feel being harassed, stalked, and blackmailed.”

The Newshour programme runs anywhere between 60 and 120 minutes and, according to the Caravan article, attracts more viewers than competing shows with fixed slots at 9 p.m. Its advertising rates are among the highest for prime time news television, at Rs 16,000 for a ten-second spot. And the show is so vital to the relevance and well-being of the network that “60 percent of the editorial resources are used for The Newshour”, the article quotes a senior manager as saying. “It pulls in 40 percent of the channel’s overall viewers, and a fifth of its Rs 1.5 billion annual revenue,” it says.

The show is said to be partly debate, partly journalism, and partly a public confessional. “But it is mostly an open-ended chunk of airtime from whose centre Goswami live-directs an intellectual reality show where dramatic things happen. Participants abuse other guests and the show’s host. People walk away, leaving empty windows behind. As a matter of principle, the Newshour pits people and their extreme views against one another – but its main character is always Goswami. A typical episode finds him demanding answers, making accusations, riling up participants and passing judgment, venting the angst of a man upset by how far his country has fallen. His pronouncements are rooted in everyday frustrations: Why is Pakistan dithering? Why can’t Australians admit that they’re racist? Why is the government indifferent to the middle class? Who is responsible for all this?”

“Here is an intellectually sound journalist who has become very much of a comedian on air. What airs at 9 pm on Times Now is not news. It is a programme that revolves around an anchor who appears to be on instances, a comedian and who makes the business of news into a farce. And for a lot of us, news cannot be a farce. It’s serious business. It’s all very well for an anchor to have his or her ‘informed opinion’, but beyond a point the style is so overbearing and so overwhelming and so comical on occasion that it distracts from the news. We believe that it’s not news at all,” a former colleague of Goswami is quoted as saying.

The problem with people like Goswami is that they think very high of themselves. “Can the history of India be written honestly without the contribution of Times Now to a new form of journalism in the era that we are in?” he said. “Think about it. Think about the bigger picture. I can tell you it can’t be written.” This is from a speech that he made in the newsroom in 2011, which was recorded by a former reporter.

The following excerpts from the Caravan article are self explanatory. The inside stories narrated here give a peep into the workings of our news channels.

“I think journalistic integrity comes very low, in terms of the kind of things that we do … There was a rape victim in Kolkata. Usually you’re supposed to morph the face of a rape victim. But we were told that only the eyes will have a black patch, because the minute you see a morphed face on TV, you lose interest. And for a good two to three days, that story ran with just a black patch on the lady’s face and everybody could make out who the person was.” (Statement of a former output editor)

“Militants had killed a 20-year-old girl in Kashmir … It was in Shopian. Times Now kept asking on air, ‘Why are the separatists not reacting? Why are they silent?’ – even though one of the channel’s Kashmir correspondents had recorded and uploaded the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s condemnation of the crime hours earlier. Times Now did not carry the condemnation for the longest time … It was not in line with the story they had taken.” (statement of a former reporter)

“I remember Shopian … I don’t recall this, but I would not be surprised. Arnab’s TRPs are dependent on bashing separatists.” (Statement of a desk editor)

Such unethical practices and Goswami’s extreme nationalistic postures have put pressure on other English channels. “There was definitely pressure to be more like him,” a senior editor at CNN-IBN says. “He forced you to adopt a certain aggressiveness and speed,” an NDTV reporter who knew Goswami well said. “Not just to tell a story, but tell it a particular way.”

Before launching Times Now in 2005, Goswami had worked with Rajdeep Sardesai for a decade in NDTV. Sardesai launched CNN-IBN a month before Times Now. Their personal rivalries are well-known. All the three English channels are strong competitors for the urban middle class viewership. The weekly TRPs released every Wednesday are the benchmark for their popularity which determines their advertising rates. Of late this rating business has become controversial. Last year, NDTV, India’s first private broadcaster of news and current affairs, alleged manipulation of “television viewership data in favour of channels that were willing to offer bribes to its officials,” and filed a law suit for more than a billion dollars in damages from The Nielsen Co. and its Indian affiliates.

Some of the letter writers to the Caravan article are former employees of Times Now. By reading this letter one realizes the condition under which journalist are working in our media companies. The contractual nature of jobs have made them more vulnerable than ever. Excerpts from just one letter is enough to understand horrible working condition in our newsrooms:

“I had the pleasure of working with Arnab Goswami. So when I read comments from those supporting him I want to laugh. I have no vested interests. I am a full-time mother to two young kids and I couldn’t care less if my future as a journalist goes up in smoke. Let me tell you each day, working with this man, was a horror story. He has no moral compass. I personally met and complained to the then CEO Chintamani Rao about the humiliation that we on the news desk were exposed to every single day. The writing was on the wall. Arnab Goswami would stay, the rest of us were expendable.

“I have lived and worked as a journalist in the Middle East, the US and Canada. I have also worked with Arnab Goswami during his NDTV days. But I have to say nothing could ever have prepared me for the man I met and worked with in 2009. Personally, I have never experienced the sort of debasement Times Now expects its employees to undergo on a daily basis. Arnab is a dictator. The language used by him and his cohorts in the Times Now newsroom is more befitting of a brothel in Mumbai’s red light district where women are treated as animals. The words ‘cunt’ ‘bitch’ and ‘motherfucker’ are so common place, no one even raises an eyebrow.

“I quit Times Now in 2009 disgusted and disbelieving. The man who pretends to care and shouts into your face about your rights, your chance, your moment is a mirage. He is a hollow, shallow, selfish brute of a human being who while he commiserates with a rape victim on air is more likely to believe and say aloud, “the damn whore deserved it.” For those who think the world of him, I would say write in to him and get a job. With the highest attrition rate in the business in all likelihood you perhaps will be hired. If you last beyond 3 months you deserve each other or you have no other options. For those like me who’ve worked with him, I wish you healing. We all do…. terrorized, emotionally beaten, humiliated, debased, fractured, we’ve all moved on. But we’ve never forgotten. The moment I saw this article, the only words that came to my mind are: ‘So there is such as thing as God!’ Peace!”

Meanwhile, Times Now was recently in news for in connection with one more controversy. The News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), the regulatory body of the news broadcasters, admonished it for not disclosing the complete credentials of one of its panelists, Maroof Raza, in a discussion on Tatra trucks deals aired by it in April 2012. Raza was introduced in the discussion as a strategic defence analyst and expert, whereas he is actually a consultant for foreign arms manufacturers, suppliers and dealers and runs the business through M/s Maroof Raza & Associates. The Tatra trucks controversy relates to allegations by former Army chief V.K. Singh that he was offered a bribe to clear the all-terrain vehicle and hinting that the trucks were sub-standard.

Note: After finishing my article I revisited the Caravan site only to find that the number of responses to the article has crossed 150. The new letters follow the same pattern. Majority of them are critical of Arnab Goswami. The responses on the article titled “Fast And Furious, The turbulent reign of Arnab Goswami”, published on December 1, 2012, have been taken from Caravan’s website:

Fast and Furious

 *The Author is adjunct faculty in the Department of Mass Communication, Sharda University. He has previously worked with The Times of India, Khaleej Times and other dailies.

 (This article was first published in Media Studies Group’s monthly journal Mass Media, issue February 2013, New Delhi)