The Caravan

Executive (and) Editor

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AS IT BECAME CLEAR that Donald Trump had been ousted and Joe Biden was to be the next president of the United States, Anant Goenka tweeted,

I hope after Biden’s victory, American news media takes time to introspect its partisan ways. They must make a better effort at representing the views of the entire population, not just that of their respective loyal, echo-chambered community of readers.

This is apparently one of Goenka’s favourite themes. In a recent interview with the journalist Shoma Choudhury, Goenka—the executive director and heir apparent of the Express Group—spoke of the need for “a certain cause, a certain role that has to define why we are doing this, this profession.” He invoked the legacy of the Indian Express from the Emergency, when the paper defied the authoritarian Indira Gandhi, and spoke of a purpose defined by that dark period, a purpose greater than profit: to challenge tyranny, to defend free speech and democracy. But in the face of another government locking up dissidents at whim, Goenka did not invoke the same purpose for the profession today. Rather, he felt the present tragedy lay in the extreme polarisation of views in the country. The appropriate role of journalism now, Goenka said, was to “invest more time and effort in finding that common ground, that creates less polarisation, less of a divided society than kind of just talking to one or other extreme.”

“To the government’s credit,” Goenka went on, “I do think that they are understanding that there is media that is out to get them and there is media that is actually just doing its job. And I think that distinction has become clearer to government and to audiences both. The fact that some of the so-called anti-establishment, strongly anti-establishment news voices have never done a story on something the government does deserve credit for makes them lose the legitimacy of asking a tough question.”

Which means the Express’s stand during the Emergency counts for nothing, because it failed to report that the trains ran on time.

In the United States, despite the clout of news channels, newspapers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post still matter immensely in shaping the national debate. It is no longer possible to say this of any newspaper in India.

THIS YEAR HAS TRACED OUT the continuing evolution of an autocratic Indian state—as evidenced, for example, by the institutional responses to the mass communal violence in northeastern Delhi in February. The attacks, targeted mostly at Muslims, came as retaliation for non-violent protests against a discriminatory citizenship law, and were carried out with the complicity of the Delhi police and members of the Bharatiya Janata Party. By the end of the year, with the police filing chargesheets and cases moving through the courts, many peaceful protesters and people targeted in the violence find themselves perversely charged with having planned and executed the attacks themselves. These events have connected the legislative manipulation of the idea of Indian citizenship to a legal process that seeks to blame the victims of a crime for the violence done to them—a bellwether of how the institutions of Indian democracy are turning against the people they are meant to serve and protect.

This has taken place with little or no resistance from the institutions that are meant to check the tyranny of the executive in a constitutional democracy. Much has been written on the sidelining of the legislature and the co-option of the legal system, but the media’s abetment of this process is even starker.

Most criticism of the media has focussed on primetime television alone, but that approach does not register the full extent of the failure. The mainstream press has also abdicated its responsibility. There is any number of examples of this: Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times, to name only a few with the widest reach. But especially telling is how it is visible even in organisations such as the Indian Express, with a reputation for independent journalism that it takes pains to play up.

Under any serious scrutiny, the comparison Goenka raised with his advice to the US media is anything but flattering for the media here. Yes, there has been a sharp divide across much of the US media in the Trump years. But to tell the truth about the divisiveness and hatred that Trump fed on and fuelled is not to be partisan. This distinction was erased in Goenka’s sweeping condemnation of the US media at the very moment Trump was being swept from power in no small part because sections of the media did their job by holding him up to scrutiny. The Indian media, with its army of outlets batting for the present government, is less “partisan” only by its near-total unwillingness to stand up to Narendra Modi and his backers. In the United States, despite the clout of news channels, newspapers such as the or the still matter immensely in shaping the national debate. It

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