Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Manufacturing Consent in the Media: A Column in Karnataka Today

There is a new magazine in the market, called Karnataka Today, started by someone I know. They publish from Mangalore, with a market concentration in the Middle East. They remain a little old school and don't have a website yet.
Below is a piece I wrote on the glorification of crime in media, trials by media, etc in the context of the Sheena Bora murder case. Published November 2015.


There is a new Stieg Larsson book in the market. Well, rather a book written by another author that follows the characters from his gripping Millennium series; Larsson is long dead. The stories of an eccentric- to say the least - girl with a large dragon tattoo and her donning of a detective’s role, often reluctantly, took the reading population by storm a decade ago, catapulting into the English speaking world the Swedish fascination with crime fiction. Unlike in the manner of certain other books that had the advantage of clever PR packaging to push sales, the Millennium books had the merit that justifies astronomical marketing numbers. Devoid of ‘literary’ ambitions – not its mandate - in the tradition of crime writing, the trilogy was generously peppered with sex, violence, intrigue and drastic twists that make books of this genre unputdownable. In the pre-social media days that we of a certain generation all have a great nostalgia for, these books made every bestseller list, by word of mouth alone, helped certainly though by some well-placed reviews.

Be it these well-written books or the cheap weekly/fortnightly/monthly magazines and tabloids that are peddled at corner snack stores in bus stands and railway stations or the sleek videos of the Islamic State or prime time TV shows that recreate famous crime stories, crime has always been a hot seller in media. There seems to be something carnal, a little primeval about crime that seems to appeal to the suppressed Lucifer in all of us. Crime, reading it, watching its replays, consuming it is something we all could privately enjoy, and do, but would never admit to in polite society, doing so would be bourgeoisie.

Funnily enough, that is exactly what comes into the fore at times. It is as if we cannot help ourselves from fiddling our fingers in private glee and talking of it endlessly, always endlessly in the age of the internet, in hushed whispers and loud rants. Take the most recent Sheena Bora murder case. For the sheer fact that it involved an ‘educated’, ‘rich’ and hence, above all commonplace faults, family, the case caught media attention. And what attention it was! I have not watched TV seriously for the last ten years now, let alone TV news channels. I am not on Facebook. A clipping or two I catch on the internet, the rest of my news comes from a staid old newspaper and a careful selection of often changing bookmarked sites. I figure that if something is really that important, then I will get to hear of it. And I do. In hindsight, it seems miraculous how I managed to reel off all the names of the people involved, all the developments in the Sheena Bora case while bringing up to speed a friend on the issue. He had laughed about how easily I narrated the incident breathlessly. It had helped that that very morning I had read a critique on the media circus that has ensued in the days following the arrest of Indrani Mukherjea. But his comment had made me think of how inescapable the media is.

Let’s talk of the manufactured consent theory in mass media here. I love that theory. I believe that it can explain pretty much the entire universe as we know it. Leaving aside its larger applications, the propaganda model explains how propaganda and systemic biases apply in mass media. Simply put, it looks at how the mass media, owned increasingly as for-profit, business models by large industrial houses work to shove a certain opinion into the minds of its consumers and ‘manufacture’ their consent towards various policies. It is an intricate system of manipulation where the ‘news’ is structured in such a way that it begins to fulfill the role of propaganda. The public support for invasion of countries to look for unconfirmed weapons of mass destruction springs from such manufactured consent, a task possible only through relentless drumming in of opinions favourable for such consent.

But to go back to the murder case, it caught the fancy of the prime time news consuming public for the juicy details that began to emerge, some true, some manufactured. At the heart of it was also the fact that it was a woman who was allegedly the murderer. The idea that a woman could be that diabolical, that a mother could be that calculating and cruel was an idea that seemed to shake a nation’s view of what a woman, a mother should be like. What happened to “Indian values”, the mass media seemed to wonder. The misplaced notion of there being a set of Indian values that are sacrosanct, that have withstood every societal change and every turn of a century borders on the preposterous. What is even more ridiculous is the idea that women cannot be, should not be capable of such cruelty.

What was wrong in most of the reporting of the case was the manner in which Indrani Mukherjea was being portrayed as an ambitious, scheming woman who used marriage and men to step up the social ladder. Let us get this straight, again. There is nothing wrong in a woman marrying twice, or thrice, whatever the case may be. There is nothing wrong in a woman being ambitious, in a woman scheming and manipulating her way to the top. These things don’t make her a very nice human being, sure, but being a social climber is not a crime. Murdering someone is a crime, and if found guilty, she should be punished. She should not be punished, like it began to emerge in those heady days, for being ambitious.

Some cases like hers seem to go viral, like the strange videos that sometimes go viral on social media and get viewed millions of times, though no one is sure why. The Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj double murder case and then the December 2012 rape case in New Delhi come to mind again. Both these gripped a nation and the lives of the women involved became the entertainment that media set out to make of these stories.

What is most disturbing is the way these cases become yet another means to pronounce judgement on the moral character of the women involved and to make it a cautionary tale for all females who think of veering from what the faceless patriarchs of society dictate as accepted norm for them. Don’t go out at night. In fact, don’t go out at all. Don’t go out with a male who is not a father/brother/husband/son. Call your rapist brother, maybe he will stop. Don’t eat chowmein, or cook it, chowmein leads to rape.

What is even more disturbing is the fact that every single mass media is in the business of manufacturing consent. Every single TV channel or newspaper toes a certain line. And even for the most discerning consumer it gets increasingly harder to separate the fast blurring lines between the truth-truth, the truth-entertainment, the half truth-TRP baits and the false-truths. Perhaps the only sane way out lies in alternative media, in obscure websites and less-read magazines. They, for the most part at least, posit a world view that may be heavily skewed, but at least present one side of the truth. For every political leaning there are appropriate avenues to gather news from that angle.

It is hard work though. Trying to gather a fair view of any issue by sifting through dozens of websites and blogs and op-eds is a luxury not many of us can afford. Neither, often, can the alternative media themselves. With crushing market forces at play, they turn mainstream. And thus dies fairness and truth a thousand merciless deaths.

No comments: