Pulling the printed word out of peril

This teetering on the edge of the abyss is largely the fault of the rot within.



By Bikram Vohra

Published: Tue 29 Oct 2019, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 29 Oct 2019, 9:32 PM

The attacks on conventional media have now become violent and the fact that the most powerful man in the world leads the assault does make things more ominous. Truth be told, newspapers in the traditional sense where journalists positioned themselves as watchdogs of the public and acted as staunch bridges over troubled waters, are globally in peril.
This teetering on the edge of the abyss is largely the fault of the rot within. Somewhere this conservative element let its guard down and allowed the political masters to invade the fourth estate and lay claim to its territory. This included the peasants who work on it.
I say 'peasants' advisedly because thanks to a collapse of values in the hierarchy the profession bent its back and became subservient to its paymasters. The editorial power and glory were gradually tainted and the biggest flaw that bruised journalism was its sudden desire to survive. By letting down its own. And willingly rendering space to Caesar even though he hadn't asked for it.
Around the world, editors became management reps rather than the Horatian guardians of the citadel and the fall commenced. Those who fought against the dirtying of the tide were banished to the sidelines and the news gradually became plastic, selective and paid obeisance at the altar of the bottom line.
Into this era of self-destruction with unfortunate timing came the onrush of social media disguised as a supportive friend with a stiletto in its cuff, ready to change the goalposts and the chemistry of delivering news. The cruel fact is that newspapers were not prepared for the onslaught. Already on the backfoot at having their turf trampled upon by powerhouses and vested interests and fighting a dwindling revenue as advertising discovered other exciting and novel outlets to the run of press, conventional media was overwhelmed.
As ad revenue went gung ho over the Internet, the overrunning by citizen journalism and instant dispatch of news, fake and fair, was a tsunami under which the standard value systems were washed away. Inundated and off balance the media found refuge in sulking and being offended. This attitude was further exacerbated by the fissures formed by competition in a dog eat dog environment. The unloved became unloving. The immediacy of the news delivery transformed into a huge boulder in the way of studied and factually supported material and with content up for grabs there was neither quality control nor the patience to verify. The dazed fourth estate huddled in a corner like refugees on a winter day, unsure of their next move and even more unsure of their identity. Their spokespersons lost their voice or it echoed tinnily in the wilderness.
Even as the rallying call to fight in the trenches whimpered its way across the free world media and a few stalwarts called for a return to sanity, the moat had already been breached. The sagacious journalist's efforts were no longer required reading. Criticism was being seen through the prism of treachery and the reader, even the discerning one, was happy enough with sound bites and clips. Thirty minutes reading was now absorbed in ten second globs. Journalism had been eclipsed by Whatsapp and You Tube and the overwhelming clout of Facebook. It is still being devoured.
The one ace in the pack that the traditional media had was reader loyalty. When those numbers started wilting panic set in. This panic was distilled through clever PR into a bludgeon and individuals in high places like US President Donald Trump equated support with honesty and loyalty with truth. If you were not with me you were a hostile.
Yes, globally, we are marginalised as editorial entities, whether ensconced in ivory towers or fighting in the trenches and the only option to claw our way up is to woo the reader and get him back.
How that can be done is still a blur. Informed opinion still has a certain authenticity and there are enough takers for it except that they have also been silenced by the throng. But it will need retail and corporate and industrial integrity to eliminate the contempt that is fast becoming mutual. Without money and without some starch in the spine conservative media is risking being dead in the water. The fourth estate was encouraged to play its role as an advocate and have practitioners within who wrote without fear or favour. And let the cookie crumble as it may. That sanctity can only be restored when journalist and reader get back on the same page and manufactured news is whittled out of fashion. Can media achieve this mini miracle against the odds in a world where even the jesting Pilate does not wait for an answer on what is truth.
The jury is out on this one and might stay out for a long time because there is no easy answer.
Today, The Trump administration stops the Washington Post and The New York Times from being delivered to the White House. Tomorrow, it might block a TV channel. Whatever happened to the Winston Churchill dictate: "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
It was on that foundation that the edifice of the free press was conducted. Will no one do it reverence?
-bikram@khaleejtimes.com


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