Sunday, December 28, 2008

Celebrity journalists and pretty faces

My dear students,

Gift No. 3 from Santa Claus, before we have rung out the Old Year and rung in the New Year, recalling the famous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

In the manner of Amith Prabhu (see “Working one’s way up and other queries”, 28 October 2008, on this blog), another of my students has put to me questions that have caused her some “disillusionment”.

The issues she raises are of “professional interest” to us all over the world as journalists, whether in print, on-line, or on-screen. I have borrowed freely from the raw material, contained in our messages to each other and written out this reply.


She asks, “My question is about the whole personality culture (cult) that we have in journalism, especially the electronic media. I am not talking about the extensive coverage given to celebrities (celebs). I am talking about how journalists and editors themselves end up becoming personalities and how a smooth operator with connections is at times considered a better journalist than the ordinary guy who writes well. It is something that is more characteristic of TV, of course, because of the visual nature of the medium and our own preference for pretty faces to watch on TV.”

I have chosen the headline for this piece, “Celebrity journalists and pretty faces” from her question itself. Celebrity journalists are not the exclusive creation of TV. They existed much earlier and thrive in the print media today also. One species of celebrity journalist goes by the name: “syndicated columnist”. Readers have their own favourites and some even change papers when their pet columnist switches allegiance.

In a hard-hitting book, “Journalism: truth or dare?” (Oxford, 2003), Ian Hargreaves, the BBC and FT journalist who became a journalism professor at Cardiff, is concerned about “the end of journalism” and “the polarisation of the news media with, at one end, badly paid and sometimes inadequately trained young people in smaller newspapers, radio stations and magazines, and at the other (end), a handful of celebrity journalists who present television shows or write columns for the big newspapers and earn show-business salaries.”

Hargreaves makes this observation based on his experience with British, European and US newspapers, but I can vouch personally and from the expereinces of senior colleagues, friends and my students, that this is true in India also.

In a cruel piece, the late Dhiren Bhagat (1957-88), wrote a poison piece in "The Contemporary Conservative (Viking, 1990) about a certain famed columinist, let us dub him “PQR”. Dhiren Bhagat entitled the piece, “Why PQR can’t think straight.” When I first chanced upon it, I was stunned speechless by its naked frankness. Now I know how factual Dhiren Bhagat is. That Dalit-baiting columnist still thrives, churning out stuff that Dhiren Bhagat said deserves to be “flushed down the toilet.”

This slick gentleman does not have a pretty face, nor is is his style with words, gripping. But he is “a smooth operator with connections” and part of a coterie of cronies that believes in “you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours”. And, therefore, he is still “syndicated”, a jargon for the simpler “racket”. Is it surprising then that such unethical practices carry over into TV and create “glam scribes” on the small screen?


Our student then poses the dilemma with which she grapples daily, “How does one keep working in the face of this obvious bias towards the celebrity journalist? How does one deal with the fact that a Shobaa De is probably going to be more famous and earn more perks than a P Sainath?”

But should that really surprise us, honest journalists, who have our eyes and ears to the ground?

Shobaa De gossips about her cats and dogs and other party animals, immersed in the trivial pass-times of the idle rich, where “the pursuit of happiness” has decayed into “the happiness of pursuit.” Beyond a tiny circle, in which her sponsors and advertisers bribe the mass media to ensure her notoriety, De is unknown.

The rural affairs editor of The Hindu, P Sainath is concerned about agrarian distress and farmer suicides and about the impact that LPG (liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation) is having on agriculture. But farmers (alive or dead) or their widows and orphans do not consume the newspapers, which have transmogrified themselves into brands.

Ignore the fame, which is actually notoriety. Speaking about war, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) felt that as long as people saw war as "wicked", they would accept it. But as soon as war became "vulgar", the people will reject it. The same logic applies to the "vulgar" fame of the celebrity journalist, propped up by the bribes of sponsors and advertisers. A lot of PR and Corp Comm also goes into building up the images of such dubious characters.


Our student continues, “Whatever specialised course you do (in places like SIMC, where she was a student), it doesn’t actually prepare you for the reality of actual professional life. Maybe it’s the realisation that certain ideas were naive and that not everything goes as you want it to that caused this dissillusionment.”

Nothing in our student career prepares us for life itself. The university of life is one of its kind and never to be replicated in our frail educational institutions.

But she herself describes a technique she uses, which I recommend highly to all my students and all those who get depressed by the adventures of the celebrity journalists and who want to keep their sanity.

She writes, “On my clipboard, I have made a habit of pinning up a paper listing all the praise that I get for my blogs or my coverage on Facebook and Orkut from perfectly random people. It’s mails like these that keep the hope alive and make one feel that somewhere you are doing the right thing. Sometimes, I lose sight of the fact that I should work for these people who watch me.”

I would also recommend strong doses of Studs Terkel.

After her first question, which I have discussed above, I spoke with her on the phone (and if you, dear students, have a problem don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and speak your heart out). I picked up a sad undertone in her voice and I told her to firmly keep in front of her eyes the ordinary reader or viewer. I think my advice registered, for she goes on, “Thanks for reminding me about that. And thank you for the phone call. I guess I do take things a little to heart; has always been a weakness and I am trying to grow out of it.”

I told her, and tell all of you who get depressed by the antics of the celebrity journalist, that you are one among the chosen few. That if it pains and hurts, you know you are on the correct path. Beware of the sycophants. Listen to the blowing wind ... that is where the readers speak ...

Warmest smiles in the times of ... disillusionment,
- Joe.
Pune, 28 December 2008.


Glassbeads said...

What's sad is that such celebrities fall in love with their own voices and sooner or later readers/viewers realise this.. and if they don't, well its the loss of the reader/viewer and unfortunate times for the journalists.

Gauri Gharpure said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gauri Gharpure said...

The problem is that the shoulders of these celebrity journalists are always burdened with a large number of 'truths' they are entrusted with. whtever they say gathers an eerie aura of finality. This, I find extremely irritating as well as dangerous. Media offers little space for the reader to think for himself. there's too much of manipulative spoon feeding, based on the assumption that readers are dumb, passive masses. and the celebrity culture has a lot to do with this trend..

Mohan Sinha said...

Hi Joe,
I think what you really need to address in your blog is the uneasiness (I would refrain from calling it fear, just yet) that prevails among students at the Mass Communication institutes, and also among those who are thinking of taking up journalism as a career, because of the recession in the market.
It is by now fairly obvious that the economic downturn is not just in the financial or information technology sectors. With publications and TV channels either selling out or on the verge of shutting shop, the picture doesn’t look very rosy.
I know of at least three TV channels that are on their last legs and at least two newspapers that are facing a severe resource crunch and definitely look to go the same way. One very well known Delhi-based TV channel has just told its staff that their salaries will be slashed and a lot of ‘floaters’ would be sacked.
In these times, these kids need to be counselled to give them a better perspective of the prevailing situation so that they do not panic.
I feel for those who want to take up journalism as a career. They must be really wondering what the future hold for them. I think this might be the right time for those who are interested in journalism, to join long term mass communication courses. Your comments?

Here’s an interesting article that appeared in the NYT, which I think all your students should read.

Joe Pinto said...

Glassbeads -- We are all in danger of falling in love with our voices or written words, aren't we? Being a poet and journalist yourself, you know how you have to be constantly on guard.

Gauri -- I agree. Good old-fashioned reporters are an endangered species and the "interpretative" celebrity journalists are making it even worse.