Is the media responding to what readers want or are readers being led by the media? I always had trouble with the TOI editors' argument that the critics can hate Page 3 all they want but, hey look, the people love it. And yet, anyone I talk to only says, 'What rubbish the TOI has become...' or words to that effect. Which seemed to confirm that to say the readership was lapping it up was rather like insisting that Laloo Prasad gets elected because his junta simply adores him. While on the subject, TOI takes maximum flak only because of its pioneering and gargantuan status - its bulging bottom lines have spread the fluff of mindlessness to virtually any publication which can say 'print'. Until proven otherwise, I wanted to believe that the readers actually had more sense than they were being credited with - that if the TOI actually did a questionnaire type survey among its readers, there would be some answers worth more than the paper on which its news presently gets published.
Except one had to take extra notice when media analyst Sevanti Ninan (also editor of this site) tended to agree with the same theory in her Media Matters column (The Hindu, March 2, 2003) when she wrote, 'In the old days reader interests (and aspirations) did not define news. Today it does' with examples to prove that premise. So are we really to blame when TOI carried a long piece in the front page - on who was caught in a lift and who thought the Indo-Pak war had broken out - when there was an unexpected power outage in Bombay last summer? (We had to turn to the inside pages to find out which grid had tripped and why it happened) Or when it served up information on that season's happening floral couture, supported by amply embellished celebrity cleavage?
Surely, women like Anuradha Sundara Raman, an 'ordinary' homemaker in Mumbai, have a point when they say, 'I worry that my kids are going to grow up looking at pictures where people party in designer clothes and hold a drink in their hand like it were a style statement - that is certainly not what I want the children to aspire for. What effect do you think these sort of write-ups are having on them?'
Or R.Santhana Raman, a senior executive, who objects, 'Why should the TOI give me information only on the listing of Radio Mirchi - what about the five other FM channels available? Why are they constantly writing about their music store and their beauty pageants? I buy the newspaper for being informed in a universal way - not to find out more about the TOI group's business interests. I think newspapers should be banned from having other business interests - or at least forced to maintain impartiality in what they write about.' These are but two of the readers - who have nothing to do with the media - whose opinion is neither acknowledged nor welcome. Worse still, they are assumed to have even actively contributed to the making of the so-called new way of presenting news.
Here are some examples, randomly chosen from old magazines I had lying around, which also illustrate how the media manipulates the way we think. We were extolled to start 'Understanding Men' in Femina's Valentine Special issue (Feb1st, 2002) and told that 'We Love' Amitabh Bachchan (old, powerful), Pierce Brosnan (sexiest man alive), Bono (mind-blowing lyrics), Prannoy Roy ('for bringing the world closer to us in his quiet, humane way' - this, of a man who has made a career in talking), onwards to Sir V.S.Naipaul and Vikram Seth. We only like Govinda and Abdul Kalam and Amartya Sen.
Can't help but like 'men who can laugh and cry with women, who buy you flowers just like that, a sudden phone call in the midst of work to hear him say he is missing you.' We are told that our most admired priorities include cosmetics, classy furniture, lingerie, designer clothes, watches, perfumes, jewellery, leather. A whole feature dwelt on the origin of the bikini, the bra, the sandal, the swatch and the corduroy. There were also celebs like Suzanne Khan-Roshan dishing out 'shredded chicken baked in white sauce' and 'Austrian cheesecake with kiwi and strawberries'. 'Twenty best dressed Indian males - why isn't your man on this list?' I don't know. Probably because, thank God, he still has a mind of his own.
'If you fail this aptitude test, chances are your teenage child will fail in life.' With that sort of provocation, can one but not read the ad? 'Q1. Which is the most promising career in sciences? Q2. Which is the most lucrative career? Q3. Which IT stream has the highest demand in today's world? In all probability, you did not know the answers.' So you just have to subscribe to Media Transasia's Educare which will continue to lump you with the rest of the herd it is already shepherding.
Outlook's cover story (Dec10, 2001) researched and published the results of a survey of 'the country's best schools' across, but of course, only the 6 major metros (if that still has you guessing, Bangalore and Hyderabad included). This was thoughtfully supplemented by a smattering of elite boarding schools with The Doon School topping that list. 'Clearly (we are informed), it's a daunting exercise for parents to pick schools of their choice for their children. To help them in this effort...Hopefully, it will help you select the school of your choice.' Elsewhere, the article innocently quotes Dr. Ebenezer of Bishop Cotton Boys, Bangalore as saying, '...we're under tremendous pressure during admissions. We receive 3,000-odd applications for 300 seats at KG level.' Nice to see somebody getting real.
'Lust is no sin' tells us the Mercedes Benz ad with a car looking luscious enough to be picked off the page. India Today's April 1st, 2002 issue focusses on Anywhere Accounts and supports the conveniences of personal banking - on page 46 are Kavisha (11) and Urvisha (7) Jagasheth, proud and happy owners of Citibank's Junior Package debit cards who are quoted as saying 'We are the only ones in our class to have ATM cards and have used them twice in two months.'
Mallica Singh in 'Li'l Tweenie Learns to Bop' (Outlook, inset cover mention, Feb 17, 2003) waxes eloquent on Maitre Dalvi who is 'extremely particular that you spell her name right...She's a stunner on an evening out. And she knows it. After all, she has yet again brilliantly orchestrated the stop-stare effect. Immaculately done nails and hair to make-up that pays obeisance to her deft hands, a parlour-acquired scintillating tattoo of a fire-spitting dragon devouring her belly button, a wardrobe that could at once give several actresses an overnight makeover. And she is only seven.'
The willingly bemused writer also goes on laud these supposed role models' multiple talents in maths, swimming, techno-wizardry and tabla plus, 'More and more baffled, though secretly proud and amused, mums are wondering what to make of their little girls transition from crayons to perfume....Look around. They are all over. In the beginning, you just found the odd little Kareena clone running around at a wedding or a birthday party. Initially frowned upon as a precocious aberration, she's now a trendsetter.' Marked by puns and witticisms and happening lingo like 'bro', the writer is clearly having a ball - with inputs from three other bureaus, the article could still summon only a dozen odd kids to drool over.
The only 'expert' opinion came from a Santosh Desai, president of McCann-Ericcson, who commented on companies who 'must create products specifically for the age group.' He also came up with pop psychology like, 'The idea of children playing out adult fantasies is timeless. The difference is that today they are equipped in a real sense with many devices to play out the fantasy.' Someone, somewhere is possibly being inspired by this impressive new 'trend'. Shudder.
Take a look at the flavours of different moments - lifestyle supplements now deem dating passe and talk more about physical relationships, some time back aerobics was the fitness mantra, now we have moved on to Tai Chi and body sculpting (I recently came across the launch of an 'aero-kalari' fitness special - soon enough we are going to have it being described as the answer to all our health problems). Vaasthu, feng shui, lucky bamboo plants, tarot, marriage counselling, child psychiatry, ayurveda, Kerala, what-to-buy-when-you-stopover-at-Singapore - they come and they go (barring exceptions like yoga which are fashionable forever). Lifestyle sections even have peppy 'what's in/what's out' recommendations, just in case we have missed the large print.
All this hype affects people in strange ways - parents line up to audition for a highly hyped theatre workshop in Chennai, where kids get the 'bonus'of appearing as birds and bees for 20 seconds under the arc lights in the annual staged extravaganza - after freezing in the December weather for hours on end. Femina Girl constantly exhorts all young teens, of both sexes, to believe that girls have only two things on their mind - their bodies and those of the guys.
A Times Response guy, upon being asked why they thought Gucci shoes and Prada bags were more important than development and politics, told me that, 'it's what makes people happy. We want them to feel good when they read the paper.' Is the average middle class family - their majority readership - likely to feel 'happy' being told that the most 'must have' thing in the morning's paper costs in the region of at least a month's salary? Never mind that while we are helping all those advertisers sell their goodies, another amniocentesis clinic opened somewhere, another Indian died of malnutrition related causes, another ground water source went brackish. Is serious boring? Do readers like only 'light stuff'? If that were the case, The Hindu would hardly be maintaining circulation figures in its Southern stronghold like it has done for decades.
I remember growing up with 'staid' publications. A then-and-now comparison would probably leave nothing in common between the old and new avataars except the masthead. Changing technology and appearance is all for the good. But what about editorial thinking that had shaped the publication's identity over decades? Who asked them to change? The readers or the management? They are saying we did. What's worse is that a whole generation is growing up not even knowing the difference.