Censored within the fourth estate

Disclaimer : This is a post written after a friend was ‘Tharoored’ recently by his publication for his use of social networking. If it is slightly politically incorrect or even incoherent, apologies. This is just a personal view.

Now why am I putting out a disclaimer already? Well its thanks to what happened to the friend I mentioned earlier in the post. We are a status message generation I could say. So this friend of mine, who writes a no-holds barred, sarcastically yours blog loves to proclaim his world view once in a while. He puts up something about a recent much talked about event on FB, the only glitch is that it involves some higher ups in his organisation. Suddenly he is branded as a rebel without a cause and asked to change his status, which due to professional pressures, he eventually does. Now I am not taking sides, not saying whether he was right or wrong. But it made me wonder how insecure we fourth estate people ourselves can be of the one thing we keep talking about upholding – ‘Freedom of expression’. My friend had been ‘Tharoored’, as he put it.

While I was in college, I remember avidly reading this blog called War For News. This blog was started when the English news channel scene was hotting up in the country with the launch of two new channels. The blog started out as a sharp critique of news room decisions and on air presentations of news channels. As a student, struggling with an ancient syllabus that was divorced from reality, this blog was one of the places I used to go to get an idea of what happened day to day behind the studio lights so to say.

Some might say it was a warped view of the news industry. Indeed some of the comments were too personal in nature and the site was reportedly blocked in many a newsroom, but it was the only place where media men themselves critically looked at what was being dished out. At first it was all the rage, but then later on the site degenerated into accounts of who was seeing whom and who was whose favourite, clearly losing the aim of being the watchdog of the watchdog. Stories still abound about the forceful closure of the website after it indulged in unethical leaks of corporate mails and such.

The only other well-read media watchdog is probably The Hoot, but it sticks to the basic debates of journalistic integrity rather than day-to-day decision making in newsrooms. The Hoot was the Indian express to the Mumbai Mirror of War For News. The slew of copycat websites after War For News either died a neglectful death or degenerated to gossip magazines about media celebrities.

Social media makes freedom of expression a dicey concept. The lines between professional and personal blur on most of these sites. Recently a friend’s twitter account was added into the official twitter list. She had to now refrain from posting all the personal updates she did till then, because now it had been made into a professional mouth piece. What she tweeted now would be seen as the view of a responsible journalist. Some editors recognise this power of the new media and make wonderful use of it to serve the cause of expression.

But introspection is not a strong point yet in world media. And criticising your own system is a big no no. Tharoors of the system are mostly strongly dealt with world over. The Washington Post, the BBC and the Wall Street journal all have a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ in social media for their journalists. The Post circular says ‘We must remember that Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists’, and that, ‘[we must] relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens.’

‘Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website.’ (http://www.editorsweblog.org/newsrooms_and_journalism/2009/09/should_journalists_self-censor_on_social.php )

While a certain amount of responsibility is required of any media professional using a free for all medium like FB or Twitter, the question arises if we are taking ourselves too seriously? Are we taking these mediums of communication, that cater to less than a tenth of our population, and as Rajdeep Sardesai puts it ‘perfect to express a strong opinion without having to actually get involved in the muck of public life’ (http://ibnlive.in.com/blogs/rajdeepsardesai/1/54062/to-tweet-or-not-to-tweet.html ) too seriously? Would censoring opinions of their own vocal employees amount to negating all that the fourth estate stands for?

The question shouldn’t be whether to express an opinion or not. The actual question is where to draw the thin line between constructive criticism and disrespect, the line between rebelling with and without a cause. Maybe the day we as the fourth estate figure it out, we would be able to decide more precisely whether bigoted views of right wing politicians and idiotic or insensitive representations of issues in various art forms should be given a voice in the name of ‘Freedom of Speech’ or not. Should it be a voicing of opinions or informed opinions, maybe that is the bigger question.

Journalistic ambitions

As a journalist, every one of us probably wants to be an Anderson Cooper or a Christiane Amanpour. We all want to do the high profile stories, bust rackets, hob nob with those who matter. The power trip seems important to many, which leads to the misconception that if you are not there, then you are nowhere. In my short career so far as a journalist, I have seen that view being reiterated many times. You cannot be just a reporter, that’s not done is what you are told. You need to be seen with the right people, appear to be leaning on the acceptable side (no matter what your personal views are) and have a slightly if not totally elitist approach. The last because as a country we still have a colonial hangover and we believe that it is fashionable to say that ‘I can hardly speak Hindi/any regional language.’

And when you are way down in the corporate hierarchy, all these issues seem to have the potential to ‘make or break’ your career choice. I firmly believe that talking things out with other experienced people, with people from other professions and also reading up and watching movies help a lot when anyone faces such problems that are common to youth all over. So it was not a surprise when I found some of my answers in the movie Bruce Almighty. Jim Carrey plays a journalist who does happy go lucky stories about blood donation camps and cookie making contests. But he is not happy even though his editor says that he has the rare gift of making people laugh. He wants the anchor job and that’s all he cares about. He messes up his first live opportunity (which he gets at the age of 40, my boss would probably say look we give you these opportunities much earlier), because he gets to know that his rival has been given the anchor job. He messes his relationship, when Jennifer Aniston goes to dinner with him, expecting a ring, Carrey quashes all her expectations by saying that the party is for him getting the anchor job. Carrey is so blinded by what he doesn’t have that he fails to consider what he has. It’s a habit we all get into. Eventually God comes in and straightens things out in true Hollywood style and Carrey is seen telling his editor in the climax that he is ok with doing the funny stories and making a fool of himself, because that’s what he is good at.

Watching that movie, I realised how many times we all fall into this trap of aiming at something we may not be. In some ways, we never grow out of high school, always trying to fit in with the ‘in’ crowd. It is a trap and many times we know it, but fall into it nevertheless, because we are conditioned to believe that our self worth depends on what others think. Maybe its not that important to get that exclusive, maybe its not that important to boast about an address book with contact details of the who’s who in the world. What is more important is whether you were happy when you did that story. Whether you were satisfied with what came of it. This fact was reinforced for me by an assignment that I got this week. A story on how a group of owls were rescued by some rock climbing experts from a crack in a building wall. It was a totally random story, something some may even scoff at. But it was by far one of the most interesting and enjoyable stories I have done. I met interesting children, interesting rock climbers and some homemakers, one of whom I interviewed later on for another hard news piece. So it was a win win story, even though I may never get an award for it.

Over time I have realised that though ambition is good, it should not be to the point that you lose your own sleep. There is a need to draw the line, know how far you should go. I know I don’t want to be Christiane Amanpour. I know I want to be just me and want to be remembered however faintly, by whatever non descrepit story I do. Its easy to get disappointed that one is not among the ‘chosen few’, but maybe one would start a creed of one’s own 🙂