Growth of an Idiot

It was perhaps 5 years ago… I was still a reporter, I read voraciously, I wrote a lot about big topics and used a lot of big words.

I talked about the economic recession and how the US should have seen it coming. I talked about India and how we were a miracle and I wondered how long we would be able to keep the miracle going. I spoke strongly against caste/religion-based politics. I voted against the BJP and thought Congress was the lesser of the two evils. I wondered how much could Rahul Gandhi contribute to Indian politics considering the man had never really spent much time with the aam junta to understand what the Indian mindset needed. Yet I cheered the entry of young blood into Indian politics, something that I thought was sorely needed.

I participated in rallies, I signed petitions to save the whales, the dolphins, the tigers, the women, the children, the leaf. I believed that journalists were actually the watchdogs of the country. Any country. I was inspired by journalists like Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Tarun Tejpal, Vinod Jose, Aniruddha Bahal and several others whom I knew personally. I strongly believed in what I wrote, and I believed that I wrote a fair story – giving both sides equal importance and allowing the reader to judge what was true and what wasn’t.

I really did believe that.

What a naive idiot I was.

5 years can be quite a short period. But sitting in front of the computer screen as flashes of today’s news pass me, I wondered if the world really changed in the five years or I was just a blind, naive idiot.

True, somethings I knew, if not the extent of it. The corruption in the country would have serious ramifications, I knew. I did know the extent of it. Rahul Gandhi would not really be useful in everyday politics, I knew. I did not know he was a puppet who couldn’t string two intelligent words together. I knew that the field of journalism was getting more corporate and commercial. I never realised the extent of it.

The reporters of yesteryears have faded away into photographs hanging on the walls and journalism textbooks. The key word today to be a journalist is how fast you can get the story and how long the story can stay in the headlines.

True, this could have made for such awesome news and policing. But when that turns into sheer greed for news, you begin creating news. No news stays long enough for people to absorb it. Now, it is about the girl who got raped, tomorrow it is about a child who got raped, day after it is about the politician who stole some money, and after that, some building that caught fire due to some issues in construction.

The world moves at a much faster pace. The capacity to absorb news and care about has also shrunk.

Scams, allegations of corruption and rape have become so routine that I nearly missed the whole Asaram Babu case. And perhaps I would have let it slide as “yet another religious guy” if someone on Twitter had not pointed out that this was the same guy who said the Nirbhaya, the woman who was raped in Delhi in Dec 2012 could have saved herself by calling her attackers “brother”. I would have perhaps forgotten about it if an old photograph with “tips” to keep women safe at night did not make the rounds again.

I would not have been no pissed if I did not get a message saying “It is Breast Cancer Awareness” time again and asking me to post a silly status message on Facebook.

All these social platforms have scrambled our brains into thinking only in form of “status messages”. You go to a restaurant and you think of posting “Awesome restaurant serving kebabs in blah blah blah”. I decided I would not post every little action of mine on Facebook about 4 years ago. My entire friends’ list of 500 and whatever people did not need to know where I was, what I was eating and what I thought of something. They were subject to that anyway when they met me.

There was a time when I read interesting articles through my friends on Facebook and had good debates which made me think. These days, I turn to 140 characters for that – Twitter and interactions with Twitter Handles. I do not know these people and that makes me think harder about the composition of this world.

I know how articles are written, I know how PR releases are made. I know why reporters choose the articles they do, I know why some of them choose the ones they do. I know the ones that are lazy, I know the ones that write articles to further their own agenda. The percentage of Vinod Jose and Tarun Tejpals in the world of reporting, I realised, are very very very less. The ones who became reporters in a journey of searching for the truth. The ones who do their research and are suspicious about all information.

My first disillusionment with reporting came when a senior editor asked me to withdraw my story because the PR of the company claimed it was wrong. The PR provided no proof, but was backed by a multi billion dollar giant. And the editor wanted to oblige. Why? I’ll never know. He wouldn’t get any favours from the company, so maybe he was just scared of his job. We fought and reached an agreement, making the story more balanced. But perhaps that was the beginning of the journey where I wondered if what we were doing was really free of bias, of favours and fear. If what I was doing was actually making a difference at all.

They say that reporters like a particular kind of place… a little shady, a little cheap. It was attributed to our poor pay packets. But it was just that we liked no-nonsense, simple stuff. Where a glass of rum was charged for what it was and not for the crystal container it was poured into. We were supposed to tear into pretense.

Last week, several reporters were fired due to ‘budget’ issues from a major network. I wonder if even a percentage of them would rethink their career stands, or just jump headlong into another company that offers better packages. Would any of them think of all the hours they poured into making stories and telling stories, shaping them to suit corporate requirements? Of how many people would be doing the same to their story now?

It is a dog eat dog world.

Five years ago, I argued for punishment for all wrong-doers, especially celebrities. One of them ended up in jail. Several more probably never will. This is a country that rewards dishonesty. This is a country that feeds on apathy and ignorance. Somewhere, I thought, we need to begin to change that. We cannot go back to the past and change much of what happened. We perhaps cannot even punish the ones responsible for some horrendous deeds. But we could start here, from our generation.

But tonight, even that thought seems futile. It seems we are fast headed towards a precipice, and everyone on the bus just woke up and know to do nothing else but to shout and wring their hands.

I am an idiot.

PR & Media in India

I usually do not write about my other activities, apart from photography. That is the sole focus often. 

But I do work as a PR Associate as well at a firm in India. And recent experiences left me wondering if the scene of journalism has changed much since I quit the field, or if it always had been like this and I was just blind to see it.

The city I work in isn’t yet considered a big ‘business’ center, despite having grown multifold and housing the top IT and defence companies, big brands and the like. Therefore, the number of publications allotting considerable space for Bangalore news in their columns is minimal. Despite decades of growth, we are yet a ‘small’ business town. 

So, when you are doing a business event, you hear the constant excuse of the content not being ‘newsworthy’. Even if the event involves several eminent people to whom you can pose other questions about current happenings. 

As a PR, when I saw the event  mandate, the first thought that popped into my head wasn’t as a PR exec. It was as a reporter. I thought I could get some input about the current happenings in Indian business and leadership confusions. And there have been a few. Infosys and iGate, to name a few. 

You have to wonder as a reporter and even among the public, why a company like Infosys wasn’t able to groom a new leader and would be required to bring back its founder at the head. It sends a horrible message to shareholders. You have to wonder (and some have) why someone who has it all would repeat the same mistake twice – Phaneesh Murthy. And who better to give inputs on this than someone who is known to be an expert in the field.

But the responses we got was that they weren’t interested.

And these responses were got after several attempts at asking if they were, in fact, interested. 

As communication gets faster and easier, we seem to be forgetting the basics of communication etiquette. We know a lot of it but we refuse to follow it. 

For instance, it is rude to be talking on your cellphone at a restaurant or bus station, let alone talk loudly. It is rude to use all caps in your email as that is equivalent to shouting. Similarly, as a reporter, though we were taught this in class, we were taught (and some of it came naturally) to return calls and respond to emails. As a reporter, I made it a point to respond to as many pitch emails as possible. That grew less as the volume of spam increased, but everytime there was an inquiry for an authentic PR firm / person, I tried to politely tell them that I wasn’t interested.

It made my job easier as a reporter as I did not want repeated calls from them. 

I expect the same kind of courtesy when I’m  on other side of the fence. How hard is it to type “No” in a mail. That’s all I ask for. Not a detailed explanation about why you aren’t interested. Just if you would like to participate or not. According to one reporter I spoke to, that one word can be considered offensive to many.

That could be true. We have PR professionals who do not understand their client and the publication fully. They are under extreme pressure by their superiors, who have perhaps overpromised to the client. So the junior associate is forced to run around stories that are perhaps not PR-able. So when even the reporter is polite enough to say no, they chase them with possible story ideas. 

Recently, a gentleman who claims to have over two decades of experience in PR, said “try different angles. If a reporter says no to one angle, come up with new angles and call him back in an hour or so.” 

This kind of PR is just plain harmful to all involved. I hated receiving multiple calls as a reporter, and I hate making such calls as a PR person. I cringe when I hear the tone of the other person’s voice of “Oh it is you again”. If you absolutely must re-pitch, then just use email. You still have a fighting chance.

The PR industry in India is quite young and most people are yet to understand “public relations”. They often confuse it with marketing and advertising. It is the job of a PR Exec to educate their client about what PR can and cannot do. They simply cannot promise everything the client wants.

For instance, if you are a lifestyle company or a small tech firm, Economic Times is highly unlikely to do a story on you till you’ve achieved a certain stature. If you are a serious corporate company, you need to do some fun events to be featured in the lifestyle section. If you make bags and shoes and such, you need to know how expensive your product is to be featured in a Vogue or a local newspaper. And no where, absolutely no where, would that translate to sales.

Yes, it does happen. But I refuse to promise you that you are going to generate 50 grand of sales through that little snippet in the listings column. If you the sort who are selling special cakes or having a gourmet session at your restaurant, your clientele is obviously someone who can afford to spend a few grand in a single evening. How many of these people make their plans by reading the newspaper listings column? You require social media.

If you are an event, perhaps you have a slight chance of grabbing a couple of people through a listings column. Then again, if you expect people to pay anything more than a grand or two for your event…….

Why is the scene in Bangalore the way it is? That would perhaps require someone much senior than me to answer. To me, I just think we need to start off with the basics first so the mutual antagonism between PR and media reduces. 

The Road Of Indian Journalism

Have you heard of this thing called ‘Medianet’? If you are an average citizen, you might not have. If you are a reporter, the chances are you definitely know about it… and you’ve chosen your camp as well.

Let’s try another question… have you heard of the ‘Radiagate’? That whole scandal about that woman who apparently had the power to influence politicians and appointments and all that. I’m sure a lot of you wouldn’t mind being her, despite the scandals.

These are two issues that the Indian media has surprisingly been quiet about. Not a carefully guarded secret but something not bandied about in public either.

Of course, after the ‘sting’ operation by a foreign newspaper, some of our own presses have begun declaring that the supplements, which were thought to carry news, are actually ‘advertorials’.

To me, that move comes as a relief, even if I find it a little funny.

The India media has been sliding down for a long while now. Bribes and corruption exist among the watchdogs too… and has only gotten worse since it all became about the bottomlines.

24 hours of news has to be filled, and it needs to be ‘fresher’ and ‘different’ from the other 24 channels reporting the same thing. Considering how many channels have a chance to get scoops, it is only natural that they each resort to the shock value. And as the audience gets a little numb, the voltage is hiked up a little more.

People break down under constant pressure. Burnouts happen. So sometimes, we do take the easy way out. If someone like Radia offers us an exclusive in exchange to play messenger, the journalist compromises. It doesn’t seem like a big thing.

Then we grow lazier. We want the stories to come to us. If someone offers you a story on a platter, you do not bother digging into facts?

The first rule I was taught in journalism was never take anything at face value, always verify the facts. Even if the PR sent me the release, I would have to double check everything.

Recently, someone wrote an article about how the PR people were harassing the journalists to get their articles in place.

The field of PR and brand management were created for a reason. The PR does have some use to a reporter… they are under as much pressure to get publicity for their company as a reporter is under to get news. Perhaps more.

Any PR person with ethics would not cross boundaries to get their articles in place. Any journalist with ethics would not take the freebies in return for an article.

So it all comes down to ethics… and what you are willing to do to get that job done. If you want to be lazy, if you want to compromise on quality, if you want to misuse the power that you do have.

We become journalists because, somewhere, we were all idealists and we believed we could make a difference.

We can. If people do believe us.

But now, we don’t believe that we can. So where does that leave the idealist?

Who’ll watch the media?

I came across this interesting website today – CounterMedia. A watchdog for the media, you could say (though I wonder about the futility of such an act).

The way the Indian media is going these days, we definitely need someone to keep an eye out for the blatant disrespect for ethics and laws. Sting operations, screening violent and unnecessary images, sensationalizing every single thing and not to mention play those same old images a million times till you get bugged of them.

The screen at work was on continuously today, with one of the channels playing the whole political drama playing out in Karnataka. The ticker kept reading “breaking news” even after it was quite obvious it was the 100th time the Governor’s quote was being replayed. They looped the 1 minute clip of the fight in the Assembly, with people falling over, ripping their clothes out and more.

To be honest, I had not been following the drama so closely. This is not the first time JDU has pulled such nonsense and unless someone ousts the pests that run the party, it won’t be the last.

But I finally googled it to figure what the Governor said that created such a huge drama. And I was shocked to see the entire Democratic set up being ripped apart. The judgment of the Governor and the Speaker is considered holy. True, they are people too and hence biased. But in a shoddy democracy, they are the last hope.

A mere elected representative create such a drama. And now they are off to Delhi to get their case heard. They obviously have not heard of video conferences, telephones or cellphones. It has to be a face-to-face meeting, so they can yell and break things in person.

While I completely condone what is happening in the government, the drama on the television channel completely overdoses on the seriousness of the issue. The problem here is corrupt and power-hungry politicians (nothing new in that either). But I completely lose track of what is happening when I’m watching TV.

[Side note – Can we hope the President bans ALL these people from contesting elections EVER again? That’d be too much to hope for I guess]

The same thing happened with the Ayodhya verdict. For about half an hour, I couldn’t figure out what the hell was happening. There were people shouting.

It is perhaps easy to blame the television media for this kind of blatant disrespect to issues and sensationalizing things. But the problem lies in the viewership. The viewership that has grown jaded with the overdose of reality shows, that trips out on talking how ‘shocking’ that murder was. When you keep listening to the same thing every day, looking for gossip material, merely saying ‘it was a gruesome murder’ will not suffice at some point. We need to go into the genre of gore movies and show the blood splattered all over, the limbs cut away and lying in a pool of blood.

The reporters need to push harder to meet that bar set by their editors/superiors, who in turn are being pushed by the management to get high TRPs, which translates into bigger revenues and profits.

So where does the problem lie? With privately-owned channels that run on a revenue model and a gossip-hungry public.

They aren’t problems exclusive to India alone. Tabloids do more business everywhere in the world. We are curious people and we are mean, so we love to read about other’s miseries. In India, given our tendency to suppress natural desires, subjects like ‘a guy murdered his lover’ – with its tinges of drama, sex and whatever else – really sells.

We talk about it, all the while smugly saying “that would never happen to us.”

Of course, the reporters are equally responsible for bringing such news.  Perhaps as idealistic, just-out-of-college reporters without having bills to pay, we could say we will not report such news. And many do. I know people in the industry who are disgusted with what they do and try to hold on to some of those ideas with which we became reporters. But at one point, someone will slip. It is a high pressure job. 24 hours of news isn’t an easy job… particularly in days when the best you get is boring old economic data.

Would you watch 24 hours of boring economic data? Talking about how chilli prices went up while oil stayed down?

The question is – how far will the media go? Sting operations are now the norm at every channel, since Tehelka pulled one of eons ago. Nobody (excepts for the lawyers) whispers the word “privacy invasion.” It was acceptable with politicians taking bribes but busting into people’s homes for a story is just… sick. How far will we go before someone has to rap us and we lose all credibility?

Hell, I don’t trust what I watch on TV or read half the time. Real news, I believe, often lies in the content of half a dozen newspapers.

Link of the day: Times Now interview with Governor

The reason I love my job

Well, sometimes. After you’ve been working for a while, you settle into a rhythm, a routine and things get boring. Even in a job that is as versatile as mine, sometimes you get into a rut writing about the same kind of stuff. You are writing new things like a new company’s results, a new product and all of that, and you are learning and it is fun. But it is still… mundane.

And one day you interview someone or just talk and you realise how much of a difference your writing makes. That there are issues much bigger than what you do and the writing contributes to it some small way or the other.

I spoke to someone regarding a story I am working on today. There was a brief I skimmed through before I called him. I knew what he did and all of that. It is an interview and you are prepared, to a certain extent. But during the course of the interview, it came out that he was physically disabled. Of course, I knew he worked for the organization that dealt with such things. But I did not expect him to belong to that group.

It is an issue that most of us do not even pay attention to. We do not have time for disabilities in today’s world.

Towards the end of the conversation, he mentioned that it was really nice I was doing this story and bringing people’s attention to this issue, which needs addressing.

Why was I touched? Because he reminded me of how important my job is… that I do make a difference in some small way or the other. And there are people who are capable of inspiring you, who overcome challenges and obstacles everyday and manage a perfectly normal life.

Maybe we expect people with disabilities to be a particular way… We are steeped in our mindsets that we forget to look beyond what appears to be the picture.

There have been several comments the past few days about how the media did a horrible hatchet job on the CWG. Is it true? Maybe not completely. But somewhere, every television reporter gets caught up in the pressure of delivering news 24/7. You need to fill in airspace and you need to get that edge. So you use  bigger and better adjectives than the previous report and the whole thing gets blown out of proportion.

It is an evil world out there, and money is the bottomline. I refuse to believe the media is corrupt but our integrity is somewhat compromised by the advertising revenues. Yes, we all watched the movie Page 3 and there is some amount of truth in it. But the thing is… every person who signed up to be a reporter has some idealism in them. At least when we start out. We are all idealists who are brutally abused by the system, or by what we see, and we choose to either go bitterly cynical, or simply say ‘screw it’ and give the people what they want.

The real news sometimes gets lost in the sensationalism. You know the “shock news” thing now. But we get the news. There is always a Tehelka, a Watergate. But to keep the public’s attention – which is more attuned to Rakhi Sawant’s thumkas and gossip, we need to add the mirch  masala. It sucks. It is also reality. It also isn’t right.

I cannot say which way it will finally go. Will shares dictate the bottomline of news? Maybe. But I do know that as long as there are organizations like Reuters, New York Times, and to an extent, some Indian newspapers like The Hindu, journalism will survive. And there is always a streak of ego and integrity in us that will not allow us to go completely overboard. And if we do, there are always the tons of new journos that graduate every year. So, limited their powers might be, but we’ll have good news till the cynicism takes them over.

And then there are some who weather it all to become legends like Khuswant Singh. And some who end up with a cloak of popularity and disgust like Barkha Dutt. But being a journalist, we take it all with a glass of much-need whiskey.

When Bollywood met Cricket

Lalit Modi, whatever his other faults maybe, managed to combine the two biggest brands in India – Bollywood and Cricket.

Did he tweak some rules, do some under the table work for this? Maybe. (I was reading up about him wondering what exact career path the man had taken, and it never has been too clean. Anyway….) But the general public doesn’t really care about it. Infact, all of that might just add more intrigue to it. After all, Bollywood has the scandals of who is sleeping with whom and cricket, every since the match fixing scandal, is used to things like this as well.

And this is also a common man’s dream – all those beautiful women they see on the screen are now smiling at them standing a foot away… So I guess as long as the matches weren’t rigged, most fans will not just care but even forgive the ‘managerial’ issues.

So I guess it was only a matter of time before Sahara entered the picture, and there was “IPL Awards” ceremony. And when that happened, ShahRukh Khan was the most natural choice to host it, along with Karan Johar.

SRK is an entertainer. And a very astute businessman too (yes, KKR lost. But check their endorsements). But the man has molded himself into that exclusive ‘entertainer host’ position. I enjoy watching him any award ceremony… perhaps he is one of the few guys who has the clout to make certain statements and get away with it (Actually, I respect the guy ever since he refused to bow to the Shiv Sena over the My Name Is Khan movie) or the writers figure he can take a little heat, but the script is no longer politically correct. And in an atmosphere (both cricket and bollywood) where everyone is being saccherine sweet, that is such a relief.

He made Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly dress up women, Adam Gilchrist dance, he ragged Yuvraj Singh (that’s pretty much all I saw actually)… and it was fun. (And we’d like to imagine the ragging some of the guys would take in the locker room). As opposed to Bollywood where everyone is polished and tries to speak in english etc etc, cricket has (had?) people who were picked for talent one and are only one developing the pretenses. It is nice to see people from humble origins making it big… remember Yuvraj Singh when he first came? Before his playboy days? Virender Sehwag, who couldn’t speak english. Harbhajan Singh. OF course, that trend is fast changing. Fancy suits, shiny hair, dancing and white shoes.

I do wonder what will be the future of Indian cricket though? I mean… the national team is already using the IPL as an excuse for their pathetic performance in the World Cup. “Parties caused fatigue” apparently. Which is exclusive to Indians alone, the rest of the world played alright.

Haven’t football clubs been doing this forever? Can David Beckham complain about fatigue?

Oh well… considering the amount of money in both these industries and the public appeal, both of them had to come together on an official platform sooner or later. So yeah, it is a larger-than-life, all the money you can blow, all the booze you can drink fiesta which leaves people a little uneasy and extremely hung over when it is over. And makes some people who were in the right time at the right place, extremely rich.

The rest of us.. we watch, and we envy.

Side note: There were quite a few ads of paan (what is that rajnigandha sorts called) while the awards were on. And I notice there are several familiar faces now advertising these things. Have the people gotten cheap or these companies making so much money that they can hire these notable names for their ads now?
And Nirma found a new girl.. and she is no where as cute or hot as Sonali Bendre. Oh I miss those old ads!! The Liril girl dancing under the waterfall – most of them made in big in Bollywood, starting with Juhi Chawla. Sonali Bendre trying out bracelets in Nirma. That little girl in a white frock circling around and around for the Nirma Washing Powder (I even remember the jingle). And the Diary Milk ad – where the girl dances out into the field to hug the blushing batsman when he hits a six.
Most ads these days aren’t half as interesting. The cutest I’ve seen is the Tanishq one. Some don’t make sense. Some look good so you don’t mind that they don’t make sense. Some just have big names. And some have asses like the Reebok one. I did like the concept… of course, today I noticed that they showed only the shoes, no more butts.

Song of the day: aahun ahun – Love AAj Kal