Ranjona Banerji: Were journalists of 30 years ago mere stenographers, as Rajdeep Sardesai said?

01 Apr,2014

By Ranjona Banerji


According to an article written in Hoot by senior journalist Seetha, editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN Rajdeep Sardesai commented at a CII panel discussion that 30 years ago journalists were stenographers rehashing press releases while today’s journalists are more assertive and questioning. The credit for this, he felt, was due to television.


Seetha’s excellent piece demolishes the stenographer accusation. I found the supposition a bit strange and thanks to the logistics of Twitter, had a small conversation with Sardesai – whom I do not know – on the issue. The upshot of which was that Seetha had not quoted his whole contention and used his comments out of context, that 30 years ago journalists were stenographers but there were also some good journalists then and it was unfair to attack TV journalism which was a soft target and finally, “Let’s not glorify the past and damn the present.” (That’s a direct quote from Twitter by the way.)


I am not going to venture into Seetha’s territory, since she has done an excellent job defending the “stenographers” of the past. (http://thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=7398&pg=1&mod=1&sectionId=10&sectionname=Columns)


But I am going to look at the further discussion. Past and present. TV and print. My understanding is that there were good and bad journalists then as there are now – which is hardly rocket science. In which case the “stenographer” remark is gratuitous. The additional argument that TV has made journalists more assertive and questioning is intriguing. I suppose in one way, Sardesai is correct. TV journalists are forever asking all kinds of questions: How do you feel, why didn’t you do this or that, should X do this or that, are you a tomato or have you at any time been a tomato. Not to mention asking questions on behalf of the nation. Then there’s assertiveness. Which you have to be if you are going to stick a microphone in someone’s face.


So let’s assume that Sardesai is correct. TV has made journalists more assertive and questioning. The problem is the quality or the need of the questions. And that’s when we feel old, like Father William. Even at the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy stenographer of yore, TV journalism in India at least has failed at taking the profession further. Our primetime programmes have descended to chaos and melodrama. Decibel levels determine success. And if investigative and development journalism earn low dividends in print, you can rest assured they are meaningless on television.


Obviously, there are good and bad TV journalists and good and bad print journalists. And there are better and worse as well. But on an average, the nature of TV journalism, in India at least, seems to have got stuck. The discourse has been lowered and like commercial cinema, the lowest common denominator always wins. Newspapers have also dipped in quality in some areas, but they have maintained them in others. That is the nature of the beast. Print will always find it easier to be all things to all people. It will also be able to fish in a larger pond of interests. And the time that print has to process and absorb “breaking news” gives it an edge.


The biggest threat to both however comes from the internet. There will be good and bad websites (I am getting so tired of this meaningless chestnut) but on the whole, they will give both paper and TV a run for their money. News websites can be immediate, like television, but they can also be discerning like print. I am all for the future even if I am an old and grizzled stenographer. The present is what I find dubious. There was perhaps no golden age in journalism like there was no golden age in anything. But to damn the past is beyond my limited capabilities or understanding as also to demean my peers and forebears.


Let’s put it this way then: one would only wish that today’s journalists, especially some of those on TV, would be a tad more intelligent and aware while they are being assertive and questioning? Is that a lot to ask? I am aware of today’s date, so am not holding my breath.


And here’s from the genius BBC comedy series Broken News: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRbihhHfTcQ



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