Among celebrities of every country there is always this peculiar group of people whose reason for being famous remains frustratingly elusive. They are not brilliant artists or exceptionally good looking or weirdly creative. Unable to pin any particular admirable quality down, we call them famous just for being famous. This is the group the Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons belong to.
Unfortunately in India this trait has extended to envelope most of the media landscape where we have ended up with too many Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons in our journalism. Television screens, glossy newspapers, hurriedly written books and over-priced magazines keep assuring us that these stalwarts deserve all our respect but just a hint of skepticism is enough to bring this strenuously built facade collapsing under its own weight.
If not for anything else, the ten year UPA rule provided innumerable opportunities to journalists to permanently establish their credentials. There were so many flabbergasting stories of misuse of power and corruption coming out from Delhi, that our journalists should have been fretting over the agony of choice. But none of the so called top journalists broke the 2G scam, Coalgate, Adarsh, CWG scam or any of the countless gifts from UPA. The corruption was instead uncovered by NGOs, individual MPs, private citizens and the CAG. Even more criminal was the lack of proper investigative follow-ups to these breaking stories. Of course the TRPs demanded that the media make a lot of hoopla around these events but instead of uncovering new facts and following the money trail, our elite scribes just moderated shouting matches between party spokespersons.
Such lack of curiosity would have been mysterious if not for the timely release of the Radia tapes which did a splendid job of encapsulating how compromised and beholden the Indian media is to those very powers it is supposed to keep a watch on. No wonder we never see them breaking genuine stories anymore. And when famous journalists are no longer breaking stories or following up on important events, they become like Kim Kardashian. They are famous just for being famous.
When was the last time the Kim Kardashians of the media took a break from typing their gag-reflex inducing tweets and exposed a new scam or conducted a truly memorable interview? When did they last take a time-out from assaulting us with images of politicians launching their books and instead spared time for an investigative feature on those very people? What we see instead are chequered careers built on questionable methods. Their supposed Hall of Fame moments like the coverage of the 2002 riots and the 26/11 attacks have instead come accompanied with umpteen accusations of irresponsible reporting which seem to qualify those exploits more for the Hall of Shame. And when the buck finally tried to stop with some of them with the release of the Radia tapes, we saw how rickety the foundations of their principled reputation truly were.
When the top echelons of Indian media is overcrowded with sell-outs, does this mean that objective and genuine journalism is impossible in India? That’s not true at all. Our country has seen some astounding work in the past. Chitra Subramaniam almost single handedly brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government with her work on the Bofors scam. Sucheta Dalal blew the lid off the biggest financial scam in India in the nineties which forced the government to introduce safeguards on how the markets function. Arun Shourie and S Gurumurthy bravely laid bare the perils of crony capitalism in the eighties. P Sainath filed multiple reports from the darkest corners of rural India which forced governments to rethink their ideas on poverty alleviation and development. These journalists tackled different issues but a common theme of hard work, painstaking research and an investigative attitude bonded them together. And they did their work without any outlandish bombast or arrogantly pretending to know what the nation wants to hear. Instead they chose their stories based on what the nation needed to hear.
In today’s scheme of things, fact, figures, research and nuance scare the Kim Kardashians of media more than anything else. To hide their ignorance of details, they use phrases like ‘in the big picture’. They rephrase sundry motherhood statements and try to sell them as original opinions. Incorrect reporting is casually explained away by claiming that situations were evolving rapidly. Instead of impartially elucidating different perspectives of a story for their audience, they try to force fit all stories into their favourite running narrative. Nothing is more precious to them than their pet narratives. They stick by it no matter how many facts, realities or truths are hurled at them. Their valiant attempts to present reality in the manner which suits their world view would make Don Quixote proud.
One could have been more forgiving had it been an original world view but it seldom is. It is usually different versions of the same rants one might hear in a Lutyens drawing room after the third glass of Scotch. The Kim Kardashians of Indian media have built their own cosy club where newcomers can join only if they share their polished mediocrity and agree to periodically yell out that the emperors are indeed wearing fine outfits. In this club, the ability to ingratiate oneself with the politically powerful is seen as a badge of honour instead of a question mark on their independence. The higher up one is, in the club hierarchy, the more liberties he or she enjoys. Ethically compromising situations are swept aside by calling them errors of judgement. Manufacturing stories about coup attempts which are a shade less fictional than a Harry Potter novel are brushed off as minor inconveniences.
This club would have continued to live long and prosper if not for the unexpected advent of social media. Suddenly the Kim Kardashians were being called out for what they really were. Vacuous, bungling semi-professionals with egos the size of an Airbus 380. The erudite and principled profiles that they had built for themselves over years began to rapidly peel away to reveal petty individuals desperate to maintain their sense of superiority. It is one thing to browbeat one Chaitanya Kunte into apologizing but suppressing millions of Chaitanya Kuntes from every corner of the country demanding accountability is a whole different ball game. And if current evidence is anything to go by, the Kim Kardashians of the Indian media are fighting a losing battle.
Next time you turn on the television and see one of these elite journalists on the screen screaming questions, ask yourself some questions of your own. When was the last time this gentleman or lady really shook the foundations of power? When was the last time they went after someone really powerful without a second thought about their careers? When was the last time they truly helped us learn something we needed to know? When was the last time they behaved as journalists? The answer to those questions will help you understand how similar they are to the Kim Kardashians of the world.
P.S.: Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have been used as metaphors. Please don’t accuse me of sexism. Most Kardashians of Indian media are men.