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Death of Indian media is fake news. But scary, some greedy owners fall for a silly con

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Journalists don’t need to wallow in shame as none of them have been caught in the Cobrapost sting.

We, the journalists, are looking really bad. The larger public, the janata, is being persuaded to think we are all on the take. The politician is having a mighty laugh. The Righteous Commentariat is hawking the canard that we aren’t just crooks, but criminally bigoted too. And we are nursing a guilty conscience, forgetting the first lesson of our trade: Checking our facts.

Sting videos always look bloody awful. Even a normal conversation on hidden camera can make you look foolish, especially if it catches you doing something silly. But this camera brings pictures that make some people look much worse than if they were merely caught picking their noses, or scratching in odd places. Some of these are the most powerful people in Indian media. None, I repeat none, of them is a journalist.

Shekhar Gupta, chairman and editor-in-chief of ThePrint

So that is the first important fact. There is no need for journalists to wallow in shame or commit the moral equivalent of jauhar or mass-sati. Surely, where the Chinese walls between editorial and revenue are breached, a fightback is called for.

The second important fact: Barring one mega owner, and salesmen in some organisations, none has either offered to sell editorial for money or to sell time/space for a communally-loaded campaign for cash, if routed through their top industrialist friends. Never mind that the tycoons named here, running the largest and most valued listed public companies, would be furious at having been named as likely conduits for converting black money into white. You might wish to ask “Kumar”, Adani or Ambani if they would do that. Having seen the picture from both sides, I wouldn’t worry too much about what sales people say or promise. You do not want to see your salesmen at work just as even committed meat-eaters would rather not watch a butcher slaughtering an animal.

Third: The media’s influence is way more than its financial size or power. India’s richest news media company has a turnover of just over 1 billion in dollar terms (or Rs 6,700 crore). Most others do not even cross the four-figure in crores. Compare them with Reliance’s Rs 4.3 lakh crore or Aditya Birla Group’s Rs 2.9 lakh crore or even DLF’s Rs 7,663 crore. If we are willing to sell out, these tycoons can buy us with their pocket change. It is scary if our richest owners are so blinded by greed that they can’t even spot a ‘Bunty Aur Babli’ type con. Do people who dress and talk like that, with no website, no antecedents, no electronic footprints, deal in hundreds of crores? Don’t you, or an executive assistant, Google the oddball “Acharya Atal” before your meeting? You’re lucky, he didn’t sell you the Taj Mahal. Any journalist with the bullshit-detector switched on in her head would have caught it.

Fourth, people don’t get these nuances. When they see the big guys so jelly-kneed, they see us all as sold. And when some of us will genuinely face pressure and intimidation and threats, we will face scepticism from them: Tell me another! This sting will make it worse. That’s why it is important to sift facts from fiction, self-serving propaganda and self-flagellation.

Fifth, bias for an ideology or a political party, particularly where owners have become politicians is at least transparent. I’d submit that by and large mainstream media in most languages has maintained its sanity. Splashing ourselves in the colours and odours of what Arun Shourie calls North Korean (I prefer commando-comic) channels is stupid. We must raise the right questions on this exposé, but not let it destroy the credibility of the entire institution. If anything, this reminds us of the incredible value the uncompromised ones (and there are many organisations, and thousands of journalists) bring to our lives and liberties. A few self-inflicted hammer blows do not mean the institutional pillar is broken.

Sixth, it’s a dangerously ridiculous—although fashionable—notion that the mainstream media (or just MSM) is broken, and social media is the panacea. Most of the biggest stories to embarrass the Narendra Modi government have been broken and pursued by the MSM, including that story on the prime minister’s infamous suit. It was broken by a paper owned by the media house whose top management comes out looking the most silly, made sillier by their subsequent explanations. On the other hand, 99 per cent of all fake news emanates from the social media.

Seventh, it’s a dangerous fallacy that the sting shows that the advertisement-based model is broken, so let’s find something else: Audience or foundation-funded. It is wonderful if organisations come up through new methods of funding. They increase competition, enrich and diversify the debate, employ and train more journalists. But to believe these can replace market-based journalism is lazy. As is believing that crowd or foundation-funded journalism is necessarily non-partisan. The Guardian is sustained by philanthropy. You may like the side it is on. But is it non-partisan?

Philanthropy is a fine addition to the mix given how digitalisation has lowered entry barriers. But freedom is platform agnostic. It is pompous for one platform, or group to claim moral superiority. If we insist on being holier than cow, the cows will win.

Eighth, none is happier at the latest turn of events than the political class. Samajwadi Party’s Ghanshyam Tiwari on Twitter joyously echoed Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s unfortunate line, that news-media has become a threat to democracy. The BJP-RSS, the establishment, I am sure, are applauding in agreement. And the Congress? Watch Rahul Gandhi’s videos mocking journalists. Why are you so scared? Wait till we return to power and restore your freedoms. Do we want to outsource our freedoms to one party or the other?

Ninth, Are ‘stings’ like these ‘investigative’ journalism? With no prior disclosure or transparency, no institutional affiliation or accountability? Some newsrooms like stings and some don’t (ThePrint included). All the famous exposés overseas, including Wikileaks and Cambridge Analytica, revealed illegal activity that had already taken place, or the stings recorded with secret cameras a deal between a match-fixer and a cricketer. In many jurisdictions a “wired-up” journalist pretending to be a fixer or arms agent and merely checking out if the other guy will be tempted or not will be prosecuted for criminal entrapment. Debate if this is journalism. Particularly when you publish without giving the other side its say.

And finally, many of us carry scars and personal chips with our employers. Let’s not download them on all journalism. Also, be honest. Are all employers bumbling, thieving idiots? I worked for exactly 37 years (1977-2014) at two big media organisations. Was I ever asked to sell news for anything? I would have loved to tell tales about how I was, but defied heroically. I was denied that opportunity by two wonderful employers. One of them also taught us early in our lives a great mantra: Look at easy money very, very carefully. I hope he continues to do so.

So, nice obituary of Indian journalism, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, but premature yet. If people tell you we are dead, it is fake news. And no, we haven’t become a threat to Indian democracy. You are watching the wrong channels.

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  1. In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy.The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” Judge Hugo Black [New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)]

  2. This whole article is screaming Richard Nixon


    It’s good that wolves like this wear sheep’s clothing and then expect the public to act like puppets.

  3. Shekhar, are there really any journalists who would actually wallow in shame or commit the moral equivalent of jauhar or mass-sati? We, the citizens, would really like to know these extinct species.

    None of the people caught in the sting is a journalist. And this is precisely the point. It is the owners and the salespersons, who decide what to print, what stories to carry and not the journalists. Journalists are the add-ons, not the main stuff. Why would anybody talk to them?

    If you do not want to see your salesmen at work, do not talk about moral and ethics either. You cannot have it your way, every way.

    Your richest owners are so blinded by greed that they cannot see the con, they meet them on a daily basis. You are yourself saying it.

    99 percent of all fake news emanates from the social media. Request you to please quote your source.

    “One of them also taught us early in our lives a great mantra: Look at easy money very, very carefully. I hope he continues to do so.” His progeny is surely not continuing, speak for yourself.

  4. कॉर्पोरेट मीडिया नेक्सस का सबसे बड़ा दल्ला शेखर गुप्ता जिसने रतन टाटा से लेकर कोटक महिंद्रा और पेटीएम के विजय शेखर से लेकर किरण शाह मजूमदार से पैसा लिया और इन्ही घरानो की दलाली तभी सिर्फ सेलेरी से इसने करोड़ों नहीं कमाए बल्कि दल्लागिरी से कमाने हैं. इसलिए खुद के महान होने का ढिंढोरा पीट रहा है और बाकि हर तरह का जर्नलिस्म जीरो सिर्फ इसके स्टाइल का जर्नलिस्म ही महान. कितना आत्ममुघ्द दल्ला है भाई. जिंदगी गुजर गयी लेकिन अभी हीरोगिरी टॉप पर है इसे लगता है ये ज्ञान देगा और दुनिया इसके कदमो मैं होगी. चल शेखर उठ काल लगा किसी बड़े अमीर घराने को और पैसा मांग जर्नलिस्म के नाम पर और देख पैसे उठा और कभी जिनसे पैसा लिया उनके लिए क्या करना है पता है न?
    शेखर गुप्ता का जवाब – मालूम है शाबजी. आपकी तरफ तो वैसे बी हम देखेगा बी नई. अजय शेखर गुप्ता वो पेटीएम वाले का स्टिंग हुआ तो हमने स्टिंग जैसी विधा और उस पत्रकार का ही कैरेक्टर ख़राब किया देख लो शाब हमारे आर्टिकल मैं. हम वफादार डॉगी है बिस्कुट देने वाले के सामने पूँछ हिलाता है उसको न भोंकता न काटता है.
    अच्छा चलता हूँ शाबजी बस पैसा देते रहना और कोई लायजनिंग करनी हो तो बोलना शाब.

  5. The TOI is the parent company of The Print so it is understandable for it to launch a feeble defensive of a,media that is over eager to adopt a hindutva agenda, journalistic ethics cannot be in the hands of a VP of Finance or Sales.

  6. It is indeed serious that the writer fails to see the danger. Though journalists were not caught in camera in this case, we know that owners and the advt department influence/arm-twist the journalists even over the head of the Editor. I have seen even a reputed editor saying that there is no wall between the advertisement department and the editorial as before though there is a (an undefined) Lakshman Rekha.

  7. Your opinions are not sacrosanct though they deserve respect. The ninth ‘fact’ in your article requires serious debate. Why don’t you debate it with Siddharth Vardarajan?
    The statement of Mr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta was clearly an anguished one. Even so, I do think a good part of Indian journalism has sold itself to the devil. We expect persons of your eminence to rescue this noble profession form the clutches of horned honchos and restore public confidence in media persons.

  8. Shekhar, you say you don’t like stings. What about, for example, the Judeo tapes on IE when you were the chief editor?

  9. A feeble defense and a flimsy apology. Journalists need not pretend to be pious for we all know they vie with each other for a slot that pays its perks. Don’t the owners determine their wages? What gives owners the confidence they exuded in the sting operation? Bribery usually operates at subtle levels. Mr. Shekhar Gupta has insights to see these very clearly.

  10. The article is a hilarious attempt from a journalist whose colleagues speak about his days as reporter of defence ministry with great denigration and who is among the first who deserves to be called by the term coined by General VK Singh. He belongs to the generation which got its farm houses et al by helping media owners destroy the institution. Now he can pontificate & earn brownie points from people unaware of his past.

  11. Mr shekhar Gupta is absolutely right as of the logic given by the central government pertaining to the rise in to the petroleum products across pan India concealing the main cause , the several hikes in exice duties till the year 2016. Mr Gupta ,why do think that the media houses resort to the fake news only for monitory gains .you very conveniently omitted the main reason behind the fake news targeting the main opposition parties and that is proximity to the ruling party does the magic into flourish the other business of the owner of these very particular media houses. Mr sekhar Gupta general public of the Indian sovergein are wiser than most of the cats in print media who drink the milk with folded eyes.

  12. Thanks to the same investigative journalism.. we now know that how money hungry the media is.. how they can stoop so low and divide people for their own good.. how media conviniently chooses the news to broadcast and leaves the others. You should be proud of what the cobrapost did and not sulk. The Truth is.. most of the media is run by politicians.. i.e Republic – bjp politician Chandra shekhar and Arnab – we don’t trust the media anymore. #sold_out. Period

  13. Yeh Shekhar Gupta ne hee likha hai na? Have heard about how a lot of his columns over the years have been ghostwritten by his underlings, or more charitably, been drastically rewritten by them. If you think these are his own words, please don’t.

  14. Very shameful defence. Bangaru Laxman should have hired you. He would not have died such ignominious death. Barkha, Vir and cohorts too were equally shameless when caught in Radia tapes.

  15. This article is just bullshit, no takers for this argument. Almost 99% TV channels, newspapers work for govt in power. Today the fourth estate is almost dead in India. Before 2019 elections, the people of India should fight to set right dirty media which is totally slave of ruling party. Today the TV channels creating hatred, dividing the society on religious lines, every debate about Hindu-Muslim and this is being organised by ruling party. Fourth estate one of the pillars of democracy in India is almost dead.

  16. Good try Shekhar, didnt cut ice and it won’t. Honestly we don’t need such stings to tell us the truth. Just switch on any channel and we know most are lapdogs of their masters and others are too scared to bite.. Hence, have stopped watching news

  17. Shekhar ji not done. Please be true to your profession . Politicians are there to disturb us..

  18. Shekhar, you are well-versed in the theoretical aspects of media relations. But you choose to neglect some of the core aspects of media freedom which have been seriously compromised under Modi government. Take it from someone who used to work as a “shill” for Indian IT companies. I can tell the difference between real journalism and a “planted story”, no matter how cleverly disguised. I have plenty of experience with Indian corporations. I have lost count of the number of times I lied through all my teeth in drafting those press releases.

    I am really ashamed of my past and have changed my profession because I can no longer support intellectual dishonesty. But somehow with the Modi government’s shenanigans, I often feel as if my past has come back to haunt the whole country. There are great parallels in the way I used to tell white lies for my companies and how Modi’s PR machinery is working overtime to obfuscate facts. The very foundation of their unprecedented victory in 2014 was based on blatant lies, the promised “acche din”. It’s not a matter of surprise that they have distanced themselves from that slogan now because that’s what corporations do when their products fail to deliver the intended promise.

    1- The Prime Minister has not given a press conference in his entire 4-year term. if he’s doing a great job, what is he afraid of ?

    2- When the going was good for them, Modi’s cabinet was unanswerable to the broader media. There was a climate of fear not very long ago for any small time journalist criticizing the government. Ravish Kumar, one of the few journalists left with integrity was hounded by death threats because of the way he poses uncomfortable questions.

    Now that the climate has turned against them because of a series of election losses, the media houses feel free to cover the foibles of Modi government once again. It is really sad if the victory or defeat of Modi government in upcoming elections should decide your discourse in covering them.

    3- The Prime Minister lies from his pulpit on hundreds of trivial facts that any 5th grader can easily debunk with a Google search.
    –> For example, that bit on Nehru failing to meet Bhagat Singh in prison. This canard has been debunked already.
    –> Modi government being solely responsible for 100% electricifcation of rural India. As a matter of fact, it was already 95.4% at the time Manmohan Singh resigned his post, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess who did the heavy-lifting in all these decades.
    –> Mudra scheme is not even old wine in new bottle. They just switched labels because it happens to be a continuation of previous government’s schemes.

    Why does Modi have a need to lie so much and invent figures that do not exist? Why isn’t any media house calling him out on these blatant lies? I mean calling Modi out by name.

    In the aftermath of Karnataka fiasco, Amit Shah was openly breaking all civilized norms by boasting how he would be able to influence newly elected Congress MLAs to ditch their voters and switch sides. He did get away with those machinations in Goa and the North-Eastern states in the past. Here’s a man openly flouting the Constitution and all forms of propriety and the media houses fail in their duty to expose him in real time. He should be arrested or at least disciplined by the BJP for these dishonest tactics for which a lot of video evidence is available. He
    should be banned from electioneering as a strong message to all those who thing horse trading is ethical in politics.

    Finally, Shekhar, I have complete faith in you when you say that most journalists still have their moral fiber intact and would not allow inducements or bribe in writing those editorials. But they have every right to be afraid of death threats.

    All Indian journalists and media persons should meet the Prime Minister together and seek his assurance and a verbal commitment that the journalists should not have to fear for their lives in doing their jobs. If Modi is a man of honour, he would rein in those destabilizing forces that threaten the integrity of journalism in India.

  19. Great journalism should uncover wrongdoing that is hidden, being deliberately suppressed. Putting a wad of currency notes in front of someone in a fake transaction is sleazy. Trapping a media moghul without even placing a plate of peanuts before him draws my grudging admiration for sheet chutzpah. Someone with such marketing skills should be selling time shares on Mars …

  20. Shekhar you are right in principle, but unfortunately wrong on some aspects. I’d say around 75% or more are compromised journalists, by not following fundamental principles, and being on the take. It takes little more than a bottle of booze to buy out many. Others take cash, or benefits in kind. Everyone has a price. You just have to find out what that is. Or their prejudices, which mostly filter into their work. Heck, you know very well that journalists also get hired for their own political or ideological leanings and connections.

    And then, if you want more than what a journalist can offer? Simply buy ad space and get the outlet to do your bidding. We used to negotiate this stuff with the sales guys, and they would make it happen. That’s how govts keep the media happy and you know it. It is why several states give wide leeway to expenditures on journalists, provide dirt cheap or free housing, pensions and so much more. How much of that benevolence is rejected by the press? They actively lobby govts for all these facilities. I’ve seen it all. And you are wrong.

  21. Shekhar Gupta sir, your theoretical knowledge is good but you seem to follow the Gandhian principles of see no evil and hence, there is no evil. You are absolutely wrong when you see journalists and editors are not corrupt. There are many in the national & regional media who are corrupted by political ideology or financial inducements. Many indulge in blackmail of the common lay man. Can you tell me of one single institute that the lay man can approach to complain against a journalist or an editor (newspaper or broadcaster)? Do you have any idea of how many cases of sting operations with live recorded video and audio have come out on social media and mainstream media where these journalists are blackmailing the lay man? The middle class citizens are already tired that the judicial system does not work. The last thing they can find energy for is to lodge cases against newspapers or broadcasters who are paying their anchors, editors & journalists in lakhs per month and who can afford the legal fees but can finish off the complainant through the social & mainstream media with the help of their colleagues in other establishment. THIS ARTICLE IS FRANKLY BULLSHIT. Your media is bothered about violence against SC/ST/minorities and promptly reports them but neither your media gets angry nor the police takes action when doctors are assaulted. Gather your statistics in assaults on doctors in India in past 4 months, how many are modern medicine doctors & how many are AYUSH. But somehow, the doctor asking for money for the work he is doing has become a sin according to you people but not the blackmail done by your industry. Compare the status of doctors in India to those in any other country of this world. Just imagine what would happen if any other world leader said the things that Modi said in London about Indian modern medicine doctors.

  22. What about vir sanghvi and barkha dutt in nira radia tapes. These days journalist has been B team of political parties and some are behaving shamelessly party spokesperson. Prime time TV channels debate

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