Even as Western academics and political analysts discuss a decline in public trust in democracy, hardly anything much is debated on any likely link with the news media for the disturbing trend. Within weeks after taking office, the United States President Joe Biden described as “fragile” the existing status of American democracy. News media outlets are expected to carry contents contributing to a lesson-laden past, testing the present and visualising the future. Democracy ruptures when the news media get captured in the battle ground of crass commercial interests, clandestine strategies or other dubious considerations. In these times of instant information ridden with facts and frequently riddled with fake content and nasty news, audience discernment of communication in action is a valued determinant in understanding the quality, quantity and utility of the volumes of information thus disseminated. When the press no longer serves as a professional public platform for mass trust but a party press, the valued expectations from the vulnerable are dashed. The press becomes a villain and the vulnerable sections of the public its victim. For paid information carrying propaganda aimed at partisan purposes, the need is to scratch the surface of media content beneath and beyond the obvious.
Inside story In January, British royalty turned furious with a 1969 BBC documentary, deemed not so seemly, found its way to YouTube. Five decades ago, the ostensibly “ceremonial” monarch directed the BBC authorities not to air the documentary, Royal Family, as it “cheapens” the royal folks. Queen Elizabeth’s consort Prince Philip’s use of the F-word met with the chopping block but the detail the Buckingham Palace thought mundane was retained. Even if the BBC is supposed to have placed the embarrassing documentary under lock, it got leaked to YouTube viewers, reiterating that royalty has frailties as human as any other man or woman on Planet Earth. History is hard to be arrived at as a clear and comprehensive description and conclusion pertaining to events and actions. Individual and, at times, collective perceptions might differ but to deliberately make false claims and present distorted projections is an intellectual perfidy. Democracy demands congenial conditions for free voice channelled through effectively independent choice of public platforms that seek to democratise discussions. If enslaved by prejudices and partisanship, news media lose their professional integrity and public credibility. They do a disturbing disservice by deliberately disseminating information compromising accuracy. Bias creates a fog in the way of unalloyed information. Party press is a rigged press just as biased press is an unprofessional press. Deliberative democracy means participatory process whose transparent purpose and enduring influence depend upon how informed the discussants are. Political leaders, celebrities, socialites and others with mega ego and misplaced sense of pride want their names and faces on front pages of newspapers and television broadcast news bulletin headlines — and in “positive” light. They can be very thin-skinned and wearing overly big boots. Donald Trump last winter imperiously ordered a reporter who confronted him with a nagging question about his election claims: “Don’t ever talk to the president that way.” Information in itself is not necessarily always adequate. The quality is in the content’s accuracy and dogged determination to dig, deliberate and draw conclusions without any personal axe to grind except to share unalloyed view for the public’s critical reception in its various aspects. While content’s meaning does count and the existing context determines its strength of immediate significance, its value rests also on the longevity of the relevance. A section of society always supports censorship of what they see as sordid detail of personal nature or that of gory description. The cycle of long memories revolves. Censorship is the certainty of compromising any inclination of conveying messages inconvenient to the big bosses or defying the establishment. The proactively independent and free speech lover find censorship chilling and constrictive, thanks to enforced media capture. In the name of censorship, however, free voice gets stifled and creativity stunted. For instance, encounter with the censors can become a harrowing experience to cinema banners. A movie maker will have to bridle his full potential for creativity on account of the risks involved. They are the victims of conviction. Media dictating to the public what they should think about, how and why is a grey area in vis-à-vis the disparate audience’s right to be informed accurately enabling them to make decisions and form opinions on their own. Partisan media discourage, condemn, boycott and confine someone with opposing views to enforced isolation. As American media critic Walter Lippmann, in the 1920s, reminded a journalist to “remain clear and free of his irrational, his unexamined, his unacknowledged prejudgments in observing, understanding and presenting the news”. Debating on media coverage style, Wesley Lowery, a working for a major American TV channel, CBS News, was quoted saying: “Objectivity-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment.” However, the Columbia Journalism Review warns: “What comes after we get rid of objectivity in journalism?” Unhappy with the manner in which the issue of race was covered in their paper, more than 150 Wall Street Journal employees protested against their employers. They found “the way we cover race to be problematic”. Another 500 staff members at the Washington Post, too, called for “combating racism and discrimination” at their publication.
Partisan-prone In 1963, McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Advisor to the US President John F. Kennedy, commended a White House staff regarding statement released at the time of the deposed and subsequently assassinated pro-American Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963: “Excellent prose. No surprises. A communique should say nothing in such a way as to feed the press without deceiving.” When Trump, donning the presidential hat, ordered a quartet of non-white congresswomen to “go back” to the “crime-infested places” they came from, the Wall Street Journal interpreted the “racially charged” the uttering. The New York Times termed it “racially infused”. But, what words would these two American dailies have picked to describe Russian President Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping if they borrowed Trump’s words to address minorities in their own countries? When opinions differ, the final arbiter in the passage of time is a comprehensive filtration hailed as the test of history and by no means the sector that claims no more than being the first draft of history. Party press and political activists are prone to passing, inserting and disseminating bias-filled content as free and fair information, which in no way rhymes with the letter and spirit of a democracy constitutionally pledged to free access to information proclaiming a lofty status to the press. Society risks the media being captured and subjected to deep misuse by individuals and institutions. After all, the media constitute the first port of call seeking unvarnished news and views, based upon facts upon more facts, are of vital importance in divided times.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)