Tuesday, 5 July, 2022
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Media-bashing as a political strategy works for Modi. The opposition could use it too

The first step to countering the negative media narrative against the opposition must be to question the media itself.

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On TV news debates, BJP spokespersons shout and scream, interrupt others all the time, don’t let others speak. If they can’t win on points, they win on noise and sheer bullying, and the anchor lets them win. A top TV anchor once told me why they do this: “Amit Shah has a team that watches every show and decides whether the BJP ‘won’ or ‘lost’.” Losing is obviously not an option.

On channels and shows where the BJP’s ‘victory’ in debates is not guaranteed in advance, where their spokesperson may not be allowed to win through noise, they don’t send their spokesperson.

Similarly, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party have not been sending their spokesperson on TV news debates since 23 May because they feel these debates are not going to achieve anything other than opposition-bashing. It’s taken them long to learn this lesson, and sooner or later, all opposition parties will follow suit. What kind of a person walks into a trap?

Any opposition leader you meet will blame the media for the state of the opposition. The complaint has some merit, though it is also an excuse for the opposition’s own shortcomings. Rarely has there been a politician who hasn’t complained about the media. We live in an age where everyone complains about the media all the time anyway.

There is little doubt that Indian TV news since 2014 has been largely a vehicle to make the BJP and the Modi government look good and the opposition and liberals look bad on a daily basis. It is not agenda journalism, it is not journalism at all, but sheer propaganda. On a day when there’s some big news that demands asking tough questions of the government, these channels will do debates on Hindu-Muslim issues, for instance. Ravish Kumar has aptly called them “Godi” or lapdog media — the government and ruling party being their guardians, or margdarshaks, as the BJP might say.

Also read: ‘Hindi medium-type’ Ravish Kumar proves truth matters. But does it have to be so lonely?

One step further

Refusing to appear on debates designed for opposition-bashing is a mere survival strategy. Opposition parties must go one step further and actively campaign against ‘Godi’ media. If our democracy thrives on checks and balances, the media should also be asked tough questions.

Media-bashing has time and again proved to be politically rewarding for politicians and parties. Narendra Modi’s rise to power was made possible partly through media-bashing, these Lutyens’ liberals who sit and decide the national agenda, you know. PM Narendra Modi and the BJP still do it. During 2019 the Lok Sabha elections, the Prime Minister lashed out against The Indian Express (and Khan Market liberals) in an interview to The Indian Express itself. Like Modi, Arvind Kejriwal also benefited from generous media coverage, and yet he has often attacked the media and accused it of bias.

Media-bashing is a tried-and-tested formula for political success. It is a bad idea for democracy and journalism alike. But we are already in a deeply polarised political reality where the opposition being nice to the media is not going to be reciprocated.

In an ideal world, all politicians should be engaging with all media, trying to sell them their spin. But if the media has decided it’s not going to be a level playing field, the opposition can’t just sit at home. It will have to go to the other extreme and actively project the media as an establishment it is fighting against, a political opponent, an extension of the ruling party. This is a strategy that has paid rich dividends for Modi and Trump and countless others, and it will work for the opposition too.

The idea is simple. The media creates a narrative. If that narrative doesn’t suit you, shoot the messenger. This might help convince the public, or at least the opposition’s supporters, that the opposition is not wrong, it is the media that is biased. Offence is the best form of defence.

Also read: Modi and Rahul Gandhi were friends in 2019 Lok Sabha polls – whenever the enemy was media

Politicians have the upper hand

In the United States, Donald Trump was hardly the first politician to ‘run against media’. Attack The Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media is a 2006 book by Craig Crawford that reads like a tame description of this phenomenon in a Trumpian world. Crawford says the idea of “running against the media” began in the US in 1988 when George W. Bush, then vice-president, gave a TV interview to a liberal TV anchor at a time when Bush was in serious political trouble. To the interviewer’s surprise, Bush started attacking him, getting personal. The strategy was suggested to him by his adviser Roger Ailes, a man who would go on to become the founding CEO of Fox News in 1996.

Crawford writes that Republican politicians are not the only ones who have used media-bashing as a political strategy for controlling their narrative. He writes: “Since the 1988 presidential campaign, Democrats and Republicans learned to perfect the techniques of media manipulation. Bill Clinton survived a personal scandal by vilifying the messenger-the reporters who uncovered his sexual affair while in office. Bush’s son, George W. Bush, took the nation to war in Iraq with little public debate, thanks in part to a muzzled press.”

When politicians attack the media, Crawford writes, they “undermine the role of a journalist to stand in the shoes of average citizens who cannot get personal interviews with political leaders and ask the questions those leaders prefer not to answer.”

Attacking the media works better for politicians than attacking anyone else because, Crawford writes, “when the news media is attacked, it was the news media itself that relayed the images and words of its own demise.”

The American press dethroned Richard Nixon with the Watergate scandal and made the US change its mind on the Vietnam war. But today, the press in the US, the land of the free where the ruling party can’t get editors fired, is unable to make a dent in Donald Trump’s ratings. This has happened not least because the political class has been winning the war against the media by attacking it. This is true of Trump in the US and of Modi in India.

Also read: What economic slowdown, Zee News & India TV are busy giving tips on surviving nuclear attacks

Questioning the questioner 

“The media are under certain constraints. In their heart, they know what is happening. They come to me, saying we can’t do much… hawa badal gayi hai (the situation has changed),” Rahul Gandhi said in 2017. This charitable reading of the media is not working for the opposition.

Rahul Gandhi was, however, on the right track when he shamed Deepak Chaurasia for allegedly doing a scripted interview of PM Modi in which he asked soft-ball questions, before doing an unscripted interview of Rahul Gandhi in which he asked tough questions.

Views are personal.

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  1. In the next article the author will say that Amit Shah has a large team who read all the news articles and comments on them below. The Author assumes that only media is supposed to set the agenda or narrative. He is pained to see such power being taken away. This is not a logical unbiased article but open crying of the Author who hates Modi to his core.

  2. Among all the journalists of India, I have a special liking for Shivam. None other than Shivam can come up with idea after idea after idea on how to remove Modi from power and install anybody else in the PM’s chair. His modus operandi is like this: Read a book, any book. Pick some idea from the book. Use the idea to teach the opposition how to defeat Modi. Today, it is “media-bashing” idea. 4 days back, it was “Queen Sonia” idea. 10 days back, … you get the idea. My suggestion to Shivam is this: why not read Ramayana and Mahabharata. Perhaps a right-wing idea from a right-wing book can help defeat a right-wing Prime Minister. Good idea?

  3. One must say that Shivam provides great entertainment these days. He seems to be somehow surviving by writing anything these days. Its elementary Shivam- there are enough entities in the media on the both sides- for and against the government. Large part of Media is now owned by corporate houses as well. But that does not stop low cost independent (read rabidly anti Modi) channels to flourish (think The Wire, ThePrint or Tiranga TV). You can also crowdfund a channel if you can attract people to your ideas. So it is fair game for everyone though the amount of anti Modi rant and insults one hears is unbelievable for the older days in 1970s to 90s. Modi is wining as he voters who vote believe that he delivers and evidence does suggest that he indeed delivers. Nothing stops Rahul or Mayawati or Mamata to do better than Modi and win voter’s confidence. Also note that once Modi finishes three core agenda items of BJP-Art 370, Ram Mandir and UCC, there is hardly anything left for the usual minority appeasement politics in the country. Opposition will have to reinvent politics from next years, as Modi’s performance will be his own opposition in 2024 rather than any opposition party!

  4. This writer is very funny , when I want to get entertained , I read his articles
    He is so biased that his articles sound funny,

  5. All we hear and see day in day out is Government propaganda on TV. What a shame! Don’t these journalists have a spine or any self respect? Why do they crawl so much before power?

    The difference between the way TV anchors act and the way they portray themselves is nauseating. You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

  6. Why is Shivam Vij quoting an unnamed TV anchor on Amit Shah allegedly having a team monitoring TV debates? Is he not a journalist himself to ferret out the truth? Or is it that this secret monitoring team is complete hogwash, but writing about it makes nice copy? So he hiding behind anonymity.

    • Shivam Vij talked to the TV jANCHOR, and ferreted out the truth. He didn’t name the TV anchor to protect his source of information, to do so being his duty as a professional journalist.

  7. It seems Shiam is so desperate to see any party other than BJP to rise back that all his energies and time are spent researching and suggesting (logical or otherwise Primarily Latter) how they can come up or pull BJP down.
    Can he explain if they are so incompetent to rise on their own or make themselves relevant – why does he want them to gain power (and then show their incompetence in managing the affairs of state). He seldom comesup with (again rationale) short comings of current establishment and just simply opposes all decisions taken by them.
    THis is not journalism but CRIBBING.

  8. Vij sir, from ur personal views here, we can mk out 2 things…
    1. U r doing Opposition Media bashing…hahaha
    2. U think BJP is not liberal…and they target so-called liberals.
    Isn’t this all started by u guys who call urself liberals and went on demonizing who opposed ur views?

  9. Oh, Modi-bashing has been on for a long time now, did you get hit on your head or something? BTW, how has Modi-bashing worked for you Shivam?

  10. Not easy to be an Opposition politician or a journalist in India today. There is a power gradient working against both. Within that constraint, no need for the former to attack the latter. 2. The whole world does not exist in a TV studio. This would be a good time for the opposition to move into the field, not consider its participation in a TV debate the end of its politics. Opposition figures should be reaching industrial belts where humongous job losses are taking place, mobilise public opinion. 3. It is running away from the battle field to boycott debates. Do your homework, discount the fact that the anchors are not neutral umpires, in the lesser time that you get, make your points effectively. In fact, hings are not going well on many fronts. Not an easy brief to defend for the spokespersons, no matter how much moral support or covering fire they may be afforded by the host. 4. Finally, trust the judgment of the public. It can still tell if the roti is burnt.

    • Fully agree with whatever you are saying. There is a loss of 4.823 crore jobs and 10.273 crore people are unemployed. Especially Muslims , Kashmiris are affected full time. Opposition should unite under charismatic Priyankaji and under the guidance of matron Soniaji should work in fields instead of trying to reform paid media

    • Yeah, and he has been given a free run by The Print to dish out his nonsense everyday…This is sad! He should join Congress and make strategy for them. Why is he pretending to be a journalist writing propaganda here….

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