After India’s thrilling one run win over Bangladesh in the ongoing T20 World Cup, millions of us watched with great relish as M S Dhoni lashed out at a so called “reporter”:
Dhoni minced no words: he told the reporter upfront that his tone suggested that he was quite simply unhappy about India winning. A direct, upfront attack on the reporter’s patriotism and in the unkindest cut of all, he said that cricket games have no “script”. It was crystal clear what Dhoni left unsaid: the press has a script, but cricket games don’t!
This post is not simply about this one incident and how much I enjoyed it. It is about something deeper that has changed in the public perception of the media…why did Dhoni feel safe enough to go after the media like that and why did so many people enjoy it so much? Quite simply, I want to tell the mainstream media: your golden days in India are over. There has been a drastic collapse in the prestige of mainstream media among the public. What triggered it: whether it was the rise of the internet, the social media, or quite simply changing times, is for people to analyze. But this is the fact. The Indian mainstream media is facing a crisis of credibility among the ordinary public.
I am a believer in the theory that at any point of time, there is always a power struggle happening between institutions: the political class, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the media, the “civil” society to occupy the moral high ground. Whenever one group perceives a loss of credibility of another, it tries to push in and occupy the high space. In the early years after independence, the political class (rightly or wrongly) in general occupied a moral high ground. Then, 50 years of misgovernance and corruption drastically reduced the prestige of the political class. In a generic sense, the words “neta” and “politician” became words of abuse, almost synonymous with corruption and crime. In modern India, you can say almost anything against “politicians” and get away with it. I remember an episode of Aap ki Adaalat, widely shared on Youtube, where a random woman in the crowd screams at Digvijay Singh: “All you politicians are just hungry for money and looting the public”. I despise Digvijay Singh, but that is not the point here. The point here is that this random woman received loud cheers from the crowd for making such a sweeping statement against an entire group of people. Why? Not every politician is corrupt. But the general image of “politicians” is so poor that you can say almost anything against them as a group and get away with it.
I am not sympathizing with politicians here. I am only stating facts. In fact, politicians have only themselves to blame for there terrible image. And with politicians losing the moral high ground completely, others stepped in to claim that space: judiciary, bureaucracy, media and “civil society”. All of these groups are equally corrupt, but they simply took advantage of the situation. This is what I mean by a power struggle. The judiciary, in particular, got away with taking several decisions that are quite frankly undemocratic. But they got away with it because people think so poorly of politicians that they ended up looking up to the judiciary for these undemocratic decisions.
From 1990-2007 or so, the media in India had its golden days. The collapse in prestige of politicians allowed media to claim a moral high ground. In the 90s, Shekhar Suman starred on the hugely popular Doordarshan serial “Reporter”, which would show an honest journalist taking on the “system”. There were similar widely popular shows like “Waqt ki Raftar” showing an honest newspaper fighting the “system”. Shows like those were possible back then because the public at that time had come to see the media as a “noble profession”. Shows like those would be impossible today because no one would find them believable. Today, the same entertainment channels show “news reporters” at best as brainless idiots senselessly asking “Aap ko kaisa lag raha hai” (How do you feel?) to random people. The media today is just as corrupt as it was in the 90s, just that the public perception has changed. And when I see ABP News and Aaj Tak reporters desperately trying to pretend that someone still sees the media as a force for good, I can only laugh.
I wonder if the media knows this new reality. The Dhoni episode should ring alarm bells for the media. People are now taking great joy in watching the humiliation of a random journalist. It is very important to note that most people including me don’t know the identity of the journalist who received the lashing from Dhoni. We don’t know who he was, or who he worked for, or what was his agenda. And yet the public enjoyed the humiliation of a generic mediawallah, just as the public would enjoy the humiliation of a generic politician by an angry crowd. Does media understand what this means? This means that the public in general now associates media with lies and corruption, like politicians. The credibility of the media is now in the toilet. It is an alarming new reality to which the mainstream media has not fully woken up yet.
Perhaps they (the media) have some inkling of what’s going on. Here is Bikram Vohra in Firstpost noticing what happened:
“There used to be time not so long ago when the media was the watchdog for the public and stood by its own tribe. Now, it is dog eat dog….Compare that to the MS Dhoni response to a pretty tame question from the press after the India-Bangladesh match in Bengaluru. It wasn’t so offensive and the Dhoni response seemed out of line. Whatever his reasons for losing it and snapping back about the reporter not being happy with the Indian win, the sad part is that none of his colleagues backed him.”
And why couldn’t the media stand up for one of its own? Bikram Vohra knows:
“Dhoni is on the cutting edge of popularity today and cannot be critiqued, which is fair enough and any comment will provoke a howl of protest, but it isn’t about Dhoni at all. Celebs can lose their tempers, huff off, be rude, even downright offensive, it is about the media maintaining its collective dignity.”
Yeps! The prestige of Dhoni is too high. The prestige of the media is too low! Sorry, the media cannot maintain its “collective dignity” because they know they don’t have any dignity. And, just like politicians, you mediapersons brought it on yourselves. The brazen corruption of the last 20 years in the Indian media is coming back to bite you all now. The Indian public knows enough now about the deals that the media makes, we know about articles that appear on “news” websites and mysteriously disappear, we know about tapes with lobbyists that are suppressed, we know about columnists whose wives are personal secretaries to the most corrupt businessmen. We can all see how brazenly headlines are tilted to conceal or reveal the caste/religion of a victim depending on the narrative you want to push. We know about which media house uses the word “allegedly” in a strategic fashion depending on the religion of the accused. We see through this stuff now…you can’t fool us any more. If you wanted to keep your “collective dignity”, you should have thought before. As Dhoni indicated, the majority of Indians now think that the media simply plays to a “script”. You brought this on yourselves. Now there is no going back.