Television news channels spent all of Wednesday whooping with joy at the Supreme Court handing over the Sushant Singh Rajput death case to the CBI, besides congratulating themselves for the stellar role they have played in obtaining this verdict.
It has been an award-winning performance by many of them — for nearly a month, they have conducted a media trial, openly chosen sides, maligned individuals, the Mumbai Police and Maharashtra government, and done everything in their power to achieve a CBI inquiry.
This direct interference in ‘let the law take its course’ is deeply troubling since their ‘victory’ will only embolden TV channels, and take them down a path that leads them further astray from the fundamental values of journalism. Equally worrying is the reality that these TV adalats clearly appeal to viewers.
Open debates, close arguments
Is there a way to wean audiences off the studio kangaroo trials and win back those who rejected TV news? Can we do something to engage with audiences without forsaking genuine journalism for jousting sessions?
Well, watching the coverage of the Democratic Convention on Fox News and CNN International did offer some simple alternatives. Here are six little ways in which we could begin to save TV news from itself.
First, we need new energy: channels such as NDTV 24×7, India Today, or CNN News18, when they are not trying to play catch up with Times Now or Republic TV, look stuffy and stale, with a musty-fusty smell to them like old bread. We need anchors who are brimming with zest and enthusiasm.
That’s where Fox News scores. It appears bright, bustling, busy — its anchors look like they just emerged from a beauty salon. By the way, most of the female anchors are blonde and white, which doesn’t say much for diversity.
A new language
Then, we need a new language: make it crisp, clever and crackling. While CNN chose to broadcast the daily convention proceedings live almost throughout, Fox News would break away to the studio for some incisive analysis of the “telethon”. There were smart lines, jokes and laughter: For instance, here are two of the channel’s best known commentators: “(Michele Obama) did a heck of a job — she diced and sliced up Donald Trump,’’ said Chris Wallace. “A boring hit on Trump launched from Biden’s basement bunker,’’ said Sean Hannity of the first night.
Fox was far more watchable than CNN which looked and sounded like it was attending a funeral — of the Trump administration, most likely. Very well intentioned and for many viewers, its heart is in the right place, but like ‘well-meaning’ anchors on our channels, they didn’t grab you — so much of the informed arguments simply droned on and on.
Sharp, witty comments, strong on facts work much better on TV – watch Wolf Blitzer on CNN question a guest. Take a leaf out of CNN’s Reliable Sources anchor Brian Stelter. He is feisty, direct and more bouncy than a ball, voices strong opinions, and never has more than three people on a panel at a time.
Panels: keep them small
That’s the next thing and it’s a strict no-no: panels that number a soccer team along with the substitutes on debates that last for an hour. That’s the Republic TV, Times Now way – it’s plain dumb to stare at silent faces for so long.
Some channels feature four panellists, but even that may be too many. At any given time, two panellists with opposing views plus the anchor will do: India Today and CNN News18 favour that model. Also, restrict these face-offs to 10 minutes; then get another set of panelists, on another subject and do the same. This keeps things tight and viewer interest high with the variety.
Do not interrupt
Another requirement: the anchor does not interrupt, and does not allow the panellists to interrupt each other either. On our news channels, the anchor does both, in fact, encourages them. And no abusing either – absolutely not. On Fox News and CNN, the anchors know their place in the debate — they remain silent when the panellists speak. Laura Ingraham caught herself editorialising and stopped: “I am acting like a guest on my own show,” she apologised (Fox News). Have you ever heard our anchors say such a thing?
Time to get rid of the long-winded instruments too: banish the wordy monologues to the basement. The likes of Ravish Kumar (NDTV India), Sudhir Chaudhary (Zee News) and Rajat Sharma (India TV) lecture us – that’s not TV, and it’s very poor TV on a daily basis. Ravish has often scored because he is so good at it, but they must all learn from Fareed Zakaria whose GPS is a solitary take but it’s only once a week.
Anchors beware: keep your opinion to a bare minimum and don’t have strong biases—there’s enough of that already. Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, co-anchors of the Fox convention show, make a quick observation and then rotate the strike to panelists such as Chris Wallace, Brit Hume, Dana Perino or Juan Williams — and the latter speak for no longer than a few minutes, if that.
Need ‘aatmanirbhar’ anchors
Oh, and one more out-of-the-box, quirky idea that may appeal to viewers. This is the season of vocal for local. So where is the aatmanirbhar on our news channels? The male anchors emulate their foreign counterparts wearing jackets and ties or they appear in shirtsleeves; the females, barring a few, wear jackets too. Huh? Why can’t they be like Deepak Chaurasia and wear bandh galas, or kurtas? Saris? At least they would brighten up the proceedings.
So there we go: a few modest ways towards reclaiming TV news. And dare we add, pursue real news, not mock trials?
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