Aakar Patel


Something unusual happened in America this week. More people watched liberal MSNBC and centrist CNN than they did conservative Fox News. This is unusual because the norm is that the conservative media dominates ratings for news, whether radio or TV.


This is for two reasons. First, what passes for conservatism is usually a blend of racism, misogyny and xenophobia. The Western obsessions of these times, meaning immigration, terrorism and border walls, all respond to this blend.


The second reason is that people who are prejudiced like having their prejudices repeated to them. Conservative talk show hosts offer little illumination, but what they have is certitude and strong emotion and their listeners tune in to nod in agreement.


On the other hand, liberals are more relaxed and also they tend to accept and offer a diversity of opinions (the place I work in, a civil society organisation that is stuffed with such people, reminds me of this daily). The lack of uniformity and a general openness means that liberal talk shows are not of the constantly angry variety. The problem is that it makes them less entertaining than the ones hurling brimstone and fire, and less satisfying to those seeking validation. This general rule explains why conservative news shows are the ones that do better in terms of ratings.


Why has this reversed this week in America? Because an incompetent presidency is imploding and the conservative networks are not reporting the story. At this time it is not a defence of ideology that most viewers seek, but information, and because of their nature, conservative stations don’t do information as well as they do opinion.


In India’s media, angry opinion of course always dominates. Whether it is a ‘liberal’ or ‘rightwing’ government in power, the kooks are running the asylum from the studios.


I’m coining a phrase: anchor jihad. It is the fake crusade launched from the studios every night, recklessly urging the nation to war. There is of course no real fighting in this jihad of make-up and cameras. Like WWF wrestling there is shouting and threatening but little else. Retired soldiers and politicians and assorted experts and hapless people representing the ‘enemy’ (no doubt paid to accept their ritual humiliation) are the forces arrayed in this fake war.


They claim to worship the jawan but in reality have zero respect for the fighting man, who is expected to martyr himself so that they can show our nationalism.


The jihadi anchor is not loyal to any cause higher than ratings. This can be proved quite easily. It will be a call for more surgical strikes one day and the doings of the Mukherjeas the next. Everything is reported at the same level of lunatic intensity. And news media is ultimately a business, which is fine but it means that the currency they operate in and the one that the anchor is given his increments and promotions on is ‘impact’, meaning how many people watched the show.


Focusing on issues requiring the gathering and analysing of data is tough and it is boring and it does not make good visuals. Hence the daily screaming and threatening. All of this would be entertaining but for the fact that it is quite damaging to India.


In the US, 10,000 children do not die of malnutrition  every week (as in India). They don’t have the abysmal healthcare and education system that stunts millions of Indians, physically and mentally. They can afford to obsess over trivial things in their nightly news, meaning the doings of their enemies across the border. We don’t have that luxury.


When our media deliberately and for economic reasons turns the focus away from the meaningful to the trivial, there is real damage it does to other Indians. The reason why we have enthusiastic participation from the government on our debates is that it is much easier to shout about Pakistan and terrorists and then return home for supper, than it is to offer an update on health and education. That is why Kashmir and violence in the Adivasi belt are covered like they are recent stories of separatist perfidy rather than complex conflicts that have been with us for decades.


Most of what I have written, readers of The Sunday Times of India already know. However, the reason I am writing this is that it is actually getting worse. I do not know how many readers have noticed that the thoughtful, balanced anchors of our time are leaving or forced to go because they refuse to do jihadi anchoring. Karan Thapar is off the air, and it staggers me that someone who is prepared and focused on fact is not available to Indians who seek choice and do not want cacophony and make-believe war.


It works to the interest of the anchor, the media business and the government that we carry on with news jihad. It hurts the citizen deeply.

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