Books

Exposing the crisis in mass-media

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on March 09, 2020 Published on March 09, 2020

Title: Myth of ‘Free Media’ and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era Author: Kalinga Seneviratne Publisher: Sage India Price: ₹1,150

Seneviratne’s work is useful, but his critique of the ‘western’ model of journalism is unconvincing

In an exact sense, the present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis of journalism, observed Walter Lippmann, legendary American editor and political commentator, in his seminal work Liberty and the News, published way back in 1920. Such was the importance Lippmann, and many of his ilk, attributed to the act of news reporting and analysing in those golden eras of journalism. They felt, and rightly so, that free flow of public opinion was one of the most essential characteristics of democracy. When that faculty is under attack, when facts are obfuscated and masked, and when misinformation spreads masquerading as fact and news, darkness enters newsrooms and society. And as the official slogan of Washington Post candidly declares, Democracy Dies in Darkness.

In Myth of ‘Free Media’ and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era, Sri-Lanka-born communications scholar Kalinga Seneviratne makes an honest attempt to look into situations that have led global media into the dark continents where it finds itself now and, in that process, he tries to formulate theoretical if not really functional suggestions that could mitigate the crisis.

Seneviratne starts by analysing media function theories, old, new and emerging. Dissecting the existing models, popular in media studies — such as ‘media should be the watchdog of people and government and enjoy absolute freedom while performing this duty’; or the authoritarian model which states the ‘media must respect what authorities want and work according to their wishes and must be ready to accept censorships’ (the media in Gulf countries in an example); — Seneviratne feels none of these models is good enough.

Unfortunately, a sense of confusion that runs through all chapters of Seneviratne’s book begins right here. The Chapter, ‘Media in Crisis’ — where Seneviratne looks at how commercialisation, corporate interests, propaganda machineries and monopolistic interests throttle free mediaand presents a long litany of quotes and arguments from both ends of the mass media criticism spectrum — also reflects this confusion.

This list of scholars discussed here include the likes of Noam Chomsky, whose idea of manufacturing consent the book endorses and examines. Then there’s Naomi Klein and Julia Hobsbawm, who in a Guardian essay ‘Why journalism needs PR’ say that the members of the fourth estate may love to hate the world of PR, but without it they would struggle to fill their newspapers. Even here, the author shies away from offering a functioning solution to the crisis, despite delving deeply into understanding it..

Infotainment

The third chapter, titled a tad trivially as ‘Did we ever have a truth era?’ starts by discussing what international communications scholar Daya Thussu calls the ‘Murdochization of the Media’, a phenomenon that started in the mid-1990s, thanks to the omnipotent media mogul Rupert Murdoch who actively promoted what later came to be known as infotainment-driven television news, which Seneviratne cheekily notes “was executed brilliantly in India by (TV news anchor and editor) Arnab Goswami”.

Here, too, Seneviratne confuses the reader. He says that, in the context of the sound-and-the-fury journalism allegedly promoted by the likes of Murdoch, the latest “fad” in the West is “mindfulness” a system of human communications that originated in India over 25 centuries ago and was taught by the Buddha as Vipassana Bhavana (meditation). This development, Seneviratne feels, could bring Asian and Western thinking on communications much closer together.

The very suggestion seems, to borrow Seneviratne’s pet word, a “fad” as it is followed by a flummoxing statement that such a union (of eastern and western communication philosophies) will take time because it needs an understanding of the so-called eastern mythology as modern wisdom, by the West in particular. Mythology as wisdom, really? Seneviratne elaborates this point rather grandiloquently in Chapter 10 — ‘Fighting the Gloom with New Thinking’ — which he begins by quoting Filipino communication scholar Crispin C Maslog, who argued two decades ago that Asian journalists have absorbed the Western values of journalism uncritically and become more “popish and the Pope”. It is a fact that journalism as we know it today came to Asia via the West and hence, for obvious reasons, it followed Western rules of fairness and objectivity. It is not very clear, at least to this reviewer, why Seneviratne desperately tries to find fault with the western ideals of journalism and force-feeds the reader the idea of introducing an ‘eastern’ branch of the said ideals as a panache for the problems that dog mass media today. After all, journalism is an Enlightenment offspring, as noted in a recent paper by Jeffery A Smith.

Western versus eastern

The crisis in global media today is not a problem of western ideals, as Seneviratne seems to suggest, and replacing it with ‘eastern’ ideals might not be the ideal solution because the the history of the east is less promising when it comes to appreciating freedom of speech and including public opinion. Also, given the toxic strands of anti-westernism and anti-intellectualism gaining momentum in eastern public debates, including in India, such arguments can become really counterproductive and antidemocratic.

Seneviratne tackles the fake-news menace a little differently. Analysing how Donald Trump ridicules the likes of CNN by calling their work fake news, Seneviratne says such acts reflect tendencies to suppress alternative opinions and the trends are visible across the globe. That said, Seneviratne doesn’t seem to be equally bothered about how right-wing propaganda machineries churn out misinformation, especially in countries like India, and prefers to stay surprisingly neutral.

That said, Seneviratne’s book is a must read for all media practitioners, journalism students and any one interested in the current crisis of the global media industry. It is meticulously researched and well-written.

Published on March 09, 2020
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