A little over 100 days ago, I was having a cup of coffee with the worldly-wise editor of a daily newspaper. This was a few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president. Naturally, we talked about the prospects of dramatic change in the US – and what all of this would mean for its media.
“There is so much the US media can learn from India’s experiences since 2014,” I had said. My hypothesis: “political outsider” Trump would follow in the footsteps of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in “dealing” with US media.
Three months later, I was right on most fronts – barring the final outcome. And, I have never been so pleased to have been wrong.
Within days of taking charge in May 2014, it became clear that the Modi government would actively discourage open access to the media. Instead, in keeping with its social media strategy that helped it crack the 2014 elections, communication with the government would follow a scripted and multi-pronged approach. Conventional media was no longer seen as the primary messenger.
Bureaucrats were told that any form of self-publicity would be seen as a deviation from the anonymity civil servants should seek. It has been apparent for some time that Modi, and a few of his cabinet, would be the voice and face of government. Barring a few babus on the fence, everyone else would be – to use a term Modi’s star-studded team will easily understand – faceless “contractors” pushing government project and causes.
This is exactly how it has played out in “Trump’s court”. Denial of access – shutting out the Washington establishment – has been a key theme. Trump himself leads the attack on the US media, berating them on a regular basis. In India, some newspapers and magazines sought to bridge the access gap by transferring Gujarat correspondents to Lutyens’ Delhi. In fact, I remember the editor saying that US media would do well to transfer foreign correspondents to Washington. You see, such reporters know how to get information within taciturn, diplomatic parameters.
Of course, 100 days later, we know that this hasn’t happened. As David Remnick writes in his seminal piece ‘A Hundred Days of Trump’, in the New Yorker: “Little about this presidency remains a secret for long…Everyone leaks on everyone else. Rather than demand discipline around him, Trump sits back and watches the results on cable news.” Thanks to these leaks and whistleblowers – both, it must be stressed, are vital for democracy – the US media has served up some spectacular journalism. Many newspapers, TV networks and websites have kept up the pressure on the new regime. They have broken tough stories, despite poor official access and blistering threats by, among others, the most powerful man in the US.
In fact the media set the tone from the word go. Days after the inauguration, Charlie Savage’s scoop on Trump presidency planning to reopen CIA “Black Site” prisons led to a halt of the controversial policy. Subsequently, the New York Times bagged a big scalp: Matthew Rosenberg and Matt Apuzzo broke the story about national security adviser Michael T. Flynn’s inappropriate conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the US.
The Washington Post has also done great work covering the White House, including its much-talked about piece about the ‘Democrats’ inside the White House, by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa. Los Angeles Times’ sharp six-part editorial, ‘Our Dishonest President’, sent a message, as did the Wall Street Journal’s (belated) attack on Trump’s credibility. Across the Atlantic, the Guardian did a brilliant piece on Trump supporter, data billionaire Robert Mercer, which should be mandatory reading at journalism schools.
I could go on and on, but this is just the tip of a long, exhaustive list spanning all forms of media. The Trump presidency has invigorated journalism – beyond investigations, fact-checking, calling out lies by the US administration, and innovative graphics have become key tools of journalism in the ‘post-truth’ era.
All this must be celebrated.
In India, in contrast, most mainstream media were quick to take the cue from the early denial of access. Those that haven’t, face enormous pressures. Sure, all governments have an antagonistic relationship with the media – that’s how the cookie crumbles. But the current regime goes a step further – it arm-twists promoters of media houses, mostly business establishments that have a neck in the game. The import: top echelons of the mother-ship RSS, the Modi government, and the BJP are “untouchable”. This pressure goes far beyond the commercial – after all, a self-respecting media firm need not hanker after low-paying government advertising.
The leadership has been wanting. Unfortunately, editors who used to warn us about the dangers of another Emergency are now extolling the virtues of India’s disrupter/leader/motivator/builder-in-chief. Rather than wearing it like a badge of honour, a media baron remains devastated that his newspaper journalists were criticised by the establishment at a time of churn in its TV operations. Slow burn government investigations and accusations of bias have led to “frozen look-over-the-shoulder” at a TV broadcaster. Of course, there are pockets of good work – but often underplayed or, worse, not given the oxygen by other media. Media on the internet offers some hope, but its time will come too, I fear.
All told, Indian media has crawled because it chooses to merge ‘business’ with ‘balance’. This gives it sanction to air views that are patently unconstitutional and divisive, at a time it should be ferociously defending the rights of all Indians. It has stopped taking risks, an essential requirement for good journalism to thrive. For proof look no further than the absence of submissions by many of our top media houses for investigative journalism awards. Worse, a large number have become cheerleaders for the new regime, ratcheting up temperatures in a “new India”. We will bear the consequences of this media warmongering in days to come.
For Modi, paying lip service to media freedom is easy when the interview questions are pre-scripted. When Trump met Financial Times‘ Lionel Barber recently, the president said, “You lost, I won” and then proceeded to take all questions.
There is so much all of us can learn from media in the Trump era.
(This piece was published in The Wire under the headline “What Indian media can learn from the US in standing up to authoritarianism”. Here’s the link: https://thewire.in/132192/modi-trump-media-authoritarianism/ )