Monday, November 15, 2010

enough already: How not cover a President visit Santosh Desai TOI

nov 15th, 2010

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: sanjeevnayyar

How not to cover a presidential visit

Santosh Desai
14 November 2010, 03:20 PM IST

Children are funny. Sometimes they throw massive tantrums, stamping their feet, lying down wailing on the ground and screaming continuously without pausing for breath for what feels like a very screechy version of eternity. And then miraculously after getting  the lollipop they wanted, the tears disappear instantly and they begin to gurgle happily and flash beatific smiles. A significant section of the Indian electronic media gave us an uncanny replay of the above in the last few days while covering the Obama visit. The whining was incessant for the better part of the visit followed by a total turnaround, and while the transformation and the cessation of noise was welcome, it does make one wonder about the nature of the current media discourse in India. Perhaps the following simple reminders are in order.

1. Barack Obama is the President of the US, not the Emperor of the World. He is certainly not the Prime Minister of India. Shock was expressed that the focus for the better part of the trip, was on the things that the US was concerned about and not India. Throughout most of the coverage, there was a sense of betrayal at the fact that Obama seemed to be far too keen to represent the American point of view.  After all, he was in India, and how dare he talk glowingly about anything but us? Of course, things changed dramatically when he went out of his way in his final speech and the real Obama was said to have emerged. Gentle reminder- even when he was giving India reason to feel good about itself, he was still representing American interests. That is his job. 

2. State visits are ceremonial affairs, full of people saying polite things they don't really mean to each other. Policy decisions are taken before visits, not during them. Did Manmohan Singh say profound things every time he gave a speech when he visited America? Did anyone stay awake while he spoke, let alone analyse what he said? Does anyone remember what Hu Jintao said when he visited India last? If at all, if substantive conversations do take place in the midst of all the hopscotch and dancing, they happen behind closed doors and out of reach of the media running commentary. Simply because we don't get to see this doesn't mean that it is not happening. As it turned out, Obama said appropriate things at appropriate times and in the forums where they belonged.

3. You cannot be an equal partner and a tantrum-throwing child never satisfied with what Daddy brings you for Diwali. You have to choose. The desperate need for validation and the desire to hear America acknowledge India's specialness translated into abject neediness that turned quickly into petulant anger. How dare Obama not mention Pakistan when talking about 26/11? Why come to India if he cannot tell us what we want to hear? Now, Barack Obama is not Santa Claus and to look at him primarily through the lens of what gifts he can bring us, is to acknowledge that India is not ready to be treated as an equal. To argue that if he wasn't going to give us anything new, he might as well have stayed home as many did, is an admission of India's own self-perception. 

4. Obama did not discover India for the first time, he visited it for the first time. The expectation that Obama would go beyond his stated policies simply because he was visiting defies all reality. Why would he say anything new about outsourcing for instance, simply because he is here. Why would he turn on a country he needs simply because he is visiting its neighbour? Does coming to India impose a responsibility on the visitor to endorse all things Indian? 

5. A day has 1440 minutes. This is a very long time to be talking about a single subject, particularly when we have to listen to the same old people. Now just because there exist a bunch of people who are ready to carpet-bombast on any subject at short notice does not mean that viewers should be at their mercy all the time. 24X7 coverage creates its own grammar - the fracturing of the subject into microscopic, second-by-second analyses, the emergence of the spectator-talking head who produces verbiage out of instant expertise, the belief that every instant has a responsibility to reveal something new, and the sense of certainty that accompanies each pronouncement. By being forced to talk about one subject for so long, the difference between the important and the trivial gets irredeemably blurred and banality is the result. Of course, the banality is sought to be masked by moderators taking more extreme positions and becoming louder by the minute, as it was in this case.

6. Just because someone appears on the screen with the logo of your channel on it, does not mean you own him. This is an important clarification to make for clearly some misunderstanding seems to have crept in on this front. The ever expanding boundaries of the anchors' self-image have made it difficult for some to make out that the people who appear on their screens are not under their direct command. 

When we look back on the entire trip, we find that Obama did what any visiting head of state would want to do when visiting a strategic partner. He said good things about us, gave us  some symbolic goodies, and re-iterated established positions on contentious subjects while taking care not to offend us.  The media outrage and subsequent euphoria were both misplaced because in truth nothing very remarkable happened. State visits are occasions when countries and leaders convert policy into chemistry. Obama & India did well on that front. The electronic media did not.


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Peace Versus Love

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Inferno said...

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Inferno said...

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Inferno said...

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