Driven by anger, fear & ratings, TV news has changed discourse


It happened slowly, then suddenly. Over the last decade, TV news unhinged itself from older norms and social media clickbait was everywhere, even as a new political dispensation came to power. No wonder we’re reeling.

Ratings drive TV, anger and fear drive ratings (as does manipulating the meters, apparently). So the news on TV is not what matters to your life, but whatever gets your indignation flowing and keeps you hopped up on righteous rage.

TV news is the perfect medium for propaganda, because it can expertly activate emotion over thought. Even if you’re watching it for laughs, it sets the frames, it worms in its assumptions. In some cases, by repeating catchwords like “tukde-tukde” or even “lobby” and “netas” exclusively for the opposition, it entrenches a picture of the world without having to state the bias. With visuals and graphics to drum in the message, it can make existing social prejudices seethe with new life. It demonises out-groups and individuals to horrific effect, as we have seen in the Tablighi Jamaat and Sushant Singh Rajput cases.

Even when they are not trying to egg viewers into any particular direction, TV shows tend to constrict the discourse with their partisan sparring. They assemble a panel to argue over a random issue from ‘both sides’, to stoke separate angry demographics. A decade ago in the US, Jon Stewart, then host of the Daily Show, tore into CNN’s ‘crossfire’ format, showing it up as self-serving theatre. Today, it seems perfectly natural to sort ourselves into clear sides with talking points, on topics chosen by others on our newsfeeds and news programs.

But why? Why jump to the bait like earnest puppets when they dangle pseudo-events like the Tanishq ad or what someone said about madrassas or some sexist remark by a public figure? There are far more important things going on that don’t make for easy TV — collusion of business and politics, sharpening inequality, climate harms.

TV panels tend to dictate the bounds of our discourse, with their brackets of right and left (or rather, conciliatory liberals). Their technical constraints shape how we see our world — because they are bad at explaining processes or institutional workings (say Parliament, or courts) or sociological roots (of crime, for instance), you see the news as sensation and “optics”. Honourable exceptions apart, TV can’t rise above conventional wisdom and caricature, or ‘boon or bane’ type debates, because only cliches can be instantly processed. It applauds the quick-thinking soundbite, the professional ‘TV intellectual’, the glib and charismatic politician.

But here we are anyway. TV has changed our public sphere over the last three decades, and there is no turning back. This babble and din, this mix of commerce and ideological pressure, is the media we have now.

It’s not easy to change the incentives of corporate media. As individuals, all we can do is adjust our own settings. Turn it off, limit our intake, choose sources thoughtfully. We don’t have to let ourselves be jerked along by the 24×7 circus of breaking news and commentary and distraction.

This can restore perspective, it can help us discern the real shapes of things. For instance, for lefty-liberals, this country seems to have changed in drastic ways. It has, and it hasn’t — violence and discrimination against the poor, Dalits or minorities  or women is not new, it is just more plain to see now. And some of the depressing lows are just media illusions, bots and trolls sparking arguments on Twitter, TV spotlighting some sentiments.

Turning away from this reality constructed by others can help us deal with our own.

Besides, this media environment has another terrible side-effect — the gland of self-righteousness gets horribly swollen. In our own echo-chambers, we despise others to feel better about ourselves. What if they’re not that bad and we’re not that good? To shun the news cycle is not to advocate passivity.

The news we’re getting on TV and social media is not about civic engagement, it is just corrosive sport and entertainment. We can’t hector others out of their material and cultural interests anyway. Political solidarity is not about ‘speaking up’ in these daily firestorms, it has to be actively forged. Participating in a real-life movement, trying to live your values as a small speck among other specks is more useful than feeling responsible and besieged by the state of the world.

TV news and social media will do what they do, but we can refuse to be their commodities. Our attention is all we have. We should choose and notice where it goes.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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