The day Ashok Chavan was sacked as chief minister of Maharashtra, the papers were full of this fact. But try getting anything further, and you would be hopelessly disappointed.
None of them could really tell us what exactly transpired behind the scenes to get him out, except the all-important phone call from 10, Janpath, that sealed his fate. It is one thing to say journalism has gone to the dogs and another to see it live. The coverage of the Chavan ouster is a loud demonstration of the pathetic standards of Indian journalism.
A scam such as Adarsh -- where everything still remains unclear right from the land holding to the irregularities involved --is never enough to claim a chief minister's head,(consider the monumental evidence against A Raja in the spectrum scam and Congress's monumental silence over it) unless the party leadership is scrounging for an excuse.
The charges of alleged improbity and nepotism can hardly be sufficient ground for an ouster for a party known for serious nepotism and bailing out the accused in several high profile criminal cases every year. Remember how the Ottavio Quattrocchi was dropped from the CBI's wanted list in the Bofors case in 2009? Or, how the CBI dropped the disproportionate assets case against Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2008 in return for his valuable backdoor support to the Congress-led central government?
Clearly, the real reason for this drastic action lies somewhere else. But not a single political reporter has bothered to probe the real reasons behind Chavan's ouster. Probing is a strong word. What was really needed was some grasp of power politics (read: the money angle) and party politics (read: ties with party bosses) to work out the larger picture.
If no reporter could really boast of such expertise, he still need not try hard. There was help at hand in the form of some tapes last October that spelt out Chavan's real indictment. A local satellite channel carried conversations inadvertently picked up by their mikes. These were quite revealing in the current context, if any attempt had been made to decipher their message.
The tapes had Maharashtra Congress president Manikrao Thakre lamenting Chavan's poor and reluctant financial contribution to Sonia Gandhi's rally. A simple application of mind would yield the suspicion that Madame Gandhi was dissatisfied with Chavan's performance as chief minister insofar as his inability to fill up party coffers was concerned.
A little digging here and there would establish that hypothesis. But none of that unnecessary labour for the political journalists. They would rather stick to the simple if not incredibly naive belief that the Congress lopped off Chavan's head on grounds of probity (front page, Times of India, November 10, 2010). This kind of inane reporting in this day and age of mercenary politics would be laughable if it wasn't quite so regrettable.
Most mainstream newspapers stuck to the Congress line with not a single one questioning whether probity indeed drove the mighty 'high command', as Sonia Gandhi is loftily referred to, to this decision, or whether she was looking for an excuse to stop suffering him.
Journalism is in a state, and this state is appalling. The Indian Express, which prided itself on being anti-establishment all its life, has also caved in with lavish odes to the ruling party every now and then. A few like Maharashtra Times did offer a wise perspective aside of the media hysteria over Adarsh by posing a simple question: 'Adarsh is not the only residential structure to violate the law. What happens to the hundreds or thousands of illegal buildings dotting Mumbai and Thane?' But this offered a sideways perspective; the real question why Chavan was sacked was never asked.
Whatever happened to old-fashioned cynicism, the hallmark of good journalism? Arguably the singular, or at least key, factor responsible for this sorry state of the print media being dumb and playing dumb is its obsession with television. For more than five years, the news channels have dominated the media space completely, thanks to the mostly inadvertent and helpless subordination of their print sibling.
Newspapers and news magazines are obsessed with TV. Editors and publishers fret forever about being knocked out of business by the visual medium and believe that the only way out is to follow suit. They issue a one-line instruction to their editorial team: do what TV does.
In what is a suicidal form of oblique flattery, print competes with TV all the time, offering striking visuals, quotes from 'experts' and affected parties, sensational treatment, puerile reporting; in short, steadfastly skimming the surface, never ever delving beneath or even attempting to scratch it.
In one Delhi daily that I worked in, I had barely any time to work on my own stories. I had to track television constantly fearing I would be caught out ignorant in one of the hourly calls from my boss. Any contradiction of the television version was not acceptable either. If TV said Mumbai was flooded, it was. Never mind the fact that I was travelling all over the city with not a single flooded road in sight.
As print is a different medium with its individual strengths and pitfalls, the imitation plays out as a limp version of TV. This grievous weakness has hugely contributed to the collapse of old-fashioned journalism as we know it. Reporters are warned to cover their ground by sponging up TV details; additional information is a bonus but not imperative.
Ideally, a newspaper can be a goldmine of information and understanding as it can go beyond the news in a way no television channel can. But that depth has been sacrificed at the altar of currency.
Till such a time that the bottomline dictates media priorities, the written word will continue to mimic the pixel. And parties like the Congress can safely expect to retain an image of probity in the public eye.