The Moral Obligation of India’s Media
By Manu Joseph
NEW DELHI — The philosophical owner of India’s most profitable newspaper used to tell his senior editors that his publication was like a temple. The objective of a temple, he said, was to use the entertainment of rituals and the frivolity of festivals to lead people into the sanctum sanctorum, where more serious matter resided. The outer sections of his newspaper — the dramatic news, the sports pages and the colorful supplements about beautiful ladies and men in red pants — lured readers inside to serious news, and finally to the sacred editorial page. Most people do not make it so far, but the point is that some do.
But why do Indian readers need to be lured toward seriousness in the first place? Is it not the moral obligation of the fortunate among them to be interested in the extraordinary problems of the many? How can mainstream Indian journalism have the heart to be celebratory and frivolous, and not as grave, conscientious and despondent as, say, socialists? These questions form a portion of a new book on India, “An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions,” by two economists, Jean Drèze, an Indian citizen of Belgian origin, and Amartya Sen, who was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 1998.
“An Uncertain Glory” argues that India has not done enough for its poor; that this is morally and economically unacceptable; that India must spend much more on lifting its millions from poverty; and that the hypothesis that such massive spending will impede growth is the delusion of a self-centered middle class. The authors also write that the Indian news media, especially the mainstream English-language publications whose consumers are largely the privileged and the fortunate, is not as interested as it should be in the nation’s bewildering social issues.
“The vigor of the Indian media is not in doubt, but its inadequacies are large when it comes to the reach, coverage and focus of news, opinions, perspectives — and entertainment,” the authors write. Their use of the dash before “and entertainment” is a gentle academic reprimand to editors who consider films and cricket worthy of coverage in a nation where people are starving.
This is not a new line of criticism. Being engaging is not considered a virtue in the journalism of an impoverished nation. Yet it is the overt and covert objective of all communicators, which journalists are and academics often are not.
“There are many complex biases that can be detected,” the authors of “An Uncertain Glory” write of the news media, “but what is remarkably obvious is a serious lack of interest in the lives of the Indian poor, judging from the balance of news selection and political analyses in the Indian media.” Read the rest in The New York Times.