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Journalism: The new performance art

Whether it is the monochromatic journalism of yonder or the dramatic journalism of today, the information that has percolated to the masses have often been tainted, at least, when it comes through the mass media.

Our earliest memories of journalists and journalism, that we saw on TV, is perhaps that of a motherly looking woman reading out the events of the day in a voice that could put one to sleep. Speaking in a low register, with her hair tied up in a bun, pronounced kohl and tons of foundation. The anchor would often drone on about a dog stuck in a well and a terror attack without any pitch-contouring whatsoever. One could simply not understand the difference in emotions behind the two stories. A dog being stuck in a well and a terror attack killing hundreds sounded exactly the same.

One could say that journalism depended on the Wisdom of the Crowds. It was trusted that a group of disparate people, crores of them, would take a piece of information and draw the right, collective decision from that piece of information. As Aristotle said, “It is possible that the many, though not individually good men, yet when they come together may be better, not individually but collectively, than those who are so, just as public dinners to which many contribute are better than those supplied at one man’s cost”.

This was not really a terrible principle to work on as far as journalism was concerned. The power resting in the hands of few experts and intellectual elites was indeed problematic. And in theory, the people of the country, the crowd, should be able to reach their own conclusions without being prejudiced with personal biases.

However, then and now, that is not exactly what happens. When the flow of information itself is tainted, the Wisdom of the Crowd can do little to reach the conclusion that it must. Noam Chomsky explained the mass media rather perfectly, except for one pesky point. He essentially said that the mass media applies ‘filters’ to ensure that the information flow toes the line of the establishment. The news ‘filters’ include what information is allowed to be given by those who control mass media, and the wealth/profit thereof, what information would sit well with advertisers, the reliance on ‘experts’ funded and approved by those who control the media and the most important, ‘flak’. If any media platform chooses to go against the establishment and the information that mass media has deemed fit for consumption, that platform is vilified, tarnished, discredited and deemed unfit by the mass media.

Of course, Chomsky also talks about “anticommunism’ as a national religion and control mechanism”, but one can fairly conclude that in India, the flow of information and the ‘filters’ to news are applied far more with the prism of ‘anti nationalism’ or at least, anti-BJP and anti-Hindu.

Chomsky says that “The raw material of news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print”.

Now, when the raw information itself has to go through filters to reach the people, the Wisdom of the Crowd principle becomes tainted. The crowds believe that the intellectual elite wants it to believe.

Whether it is the monochromatic journalism of yonder or the dramatic journalism of today, the information that has percolated to the masses have often been tainted, at least, when it comes through the mass media. Therefore, Wisdom of the Crowd, in its truest sense, has never really been tested in its purest form, as far as how a country might react when they are given a naked piece of information by the media, and the conclusions are to be drawn by them alone.

The mass media today barely relies on documents and hard facts. They rely on sources, information that has been fed to them, and how that information can be twisted, broken, represented to ensure that the people believe that agents of power want them to believe. The mass media decides a common enemy and anyone who dares to present anything that is in non-observance of the narrative that has been decided receives flak. They are dragged to the courts of law, whose value code is more often than not aligned with those who wish to ensure that a people live and think like herds, led by the elite in power. 

The common enemy and the universal victim is pre-decided and facts, which inconvenience the narrative that is to be furthered, are pushed under the rug, till someone manages to shine the light on them, at which point the cycle of them receiving flak from the powers that be is kickstarted anew till the facts are conveniently filtered again – to help the elite subjugate the people.   

What Chomsky perhaps did not forsee is a sixth filter that the media would apply to craft its propaganda.

Theatre.

Journalism, more than ever before, relies not only on tainted information and subjugation but on drama, theatre (sometimes of the absurd) and visual propaganda.

You have panels as large as the jury’s in a Scotland court, the largest in the world, the words are over-the-top, the sentiment is tumultuous and the discussion, clamorous. The recent Sushant Singh Rajput case was perhaps the greatest example of journalistic drama being played right in front of our eyes. An entire swath of people were emotionally bullied, mentally subjugated to give wind to opposing narratives from each side. On the one hand, one section wanted to paint Sushant Singh Rajput as an innocent middle-class boy who fell victim to Bollywood vultures, brutally so. On the other, we had a section of the media interview Rhea Chakraborty, with questions that redefined cringe and tears that appeared as fake as the forehead that refuses to show any form of life after being addled with Botox.

Since the mass media created a furore over the case, even those who had no interest in participating in the drama, covered the drama nonetheless. Mostly, to cover a case that the crowd was reading about, a bit, to settle scores and largely, to mock the drama that had been created.

In the end, the truth was lost. After a point, nobody really cared about the facts. What really happened. What is the conclusion by the CBI? How was the initial investigation botched up? None of it mattered. It became a performance art revolving around the imagined life of a person who had tragically passed away and those he had left behind. We still don’t know what really happened and perhaps, we will never know.

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging on, journalists have transformed themselves into the Soothsayers who would scream “Beware of the Ides of March” to just about anyone who would listen. Barkha, for example, looking like one of the 4 Biblical Horsemen of Apocalypse and proving beyond doubt the Biblical verse, “wherever there is carcass, there the vultures will gather” (Matthew 24:28), sat crossed leg in a Hindu crematorium, “reporting” and feeling mighty proud of herself.

Like Laurie Anderson’s early pieces, Duets on Ice, where she wore ice skates frozen in blocks of ice and danced a duet with herself, and continued to do so till the ice on her skates melted, Barkha sat there, on a tattered cloth, with her laptop perched on a dirty bucket, till the last Hindu was cremated.

One could wonder if it was necessary for Barkha Dutt to create this entire dramatic scene, where woods for the funeral pyre of those who passed by the virus unleashed by China could be seen in the background, but art follows reason. And that is what journalism perhaps is for Barkha, the woman who has fallen from the grace of the powers that be – from both ends of the political spectrum.

From marching with good-looking men in uniform on either side to sitting on a tattered cloth, covering the death of citizens, with no resources whatsoever. It could be argued that perhaps the lowest ebb of the ladder could become the foundation that helps Barkha catapult herself to the top of her now waning career again. How? Well, who would not respect a journalist, a Padma awardee no less, who would toil in the dust and dirt to bring stories of death and destruction to the masses. To open their eyes to the “apocalypse” that seems to have engulfed the country.

But do the ‘aesthetics’ of the setting have anything to do with facts? Does one need to sit in a crematorium, with paltry respect for those who have lost their lives, to tell people just how many people have died due to the pandemic? Is it necessary to perch your laptop on a dirty bucket? Does she not have the basic means to carry along a foldable table?

If the aesthetics are not essential to the facts, then what purpose does it serve? Without the drama, will the facts themselves sell? Will the aesthetics, the trauma of seeing PPE clad men taking dead Hindus to be cremated perhaps exponentially exacerbate the panic and hysteria that has gripped the world?

Let’s not talk about the fact that Barkha being in a crematorium and not in a Muslim burial ground is a statement in itself. But truly, that drama that Barkha seems to have created only works as a sixth ‘filter’ of propaganda. Much like the media feasted on the dead body of Sushant Singh Rajput, that Barkha had taken offence to back then, Barkha now seems to feast on the dead bodies of those who lost their battle to COVID.

The visuals shock, horrify and help with the augmentation of widespread panic.. the panic which can then be used as fuel to prove how a good journalist covers the very panic that their reportage created. The result is not just the amplification of panic but also helps in the multiplication of notability for the journalist.

Laudatory tweets retweeted by Barkha Dutt

To keep the conscience of the people awake, to shine a light on the political agenda, to present a human interest story, one just has to desecrate a crematorium with the cinematography of an Oscar-winning artist.

Because in performing arts, it’s always about location, location, location.

Not about the truth. Not about the facts. Not about public anger. Not about assigning blame. Not about investigations. But about creating hysteria to settle political scores, about putting on a dramatic rendition to entertain the masses and about elevating one’s own distinction while stepping on the dead bodies of those who lost the fight… denying them even a dash of dignity even in death.. because the show certainly must go on.

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Nupur J Sharma
Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017

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