Media is in overhaul mode. And it could well end up as part of our daily tech buy instead of staying with the arts.
I see more and more people, young and old, reading newspapers on their cell phones. I observe an entire generation of young adults watching movies on their firestick. Drivers and maids, always on call, watch the latest releases on their cell phones where they were, till recently, taking calls or listening to songs. Are people really missing the movie theatres? Are they missing the touch and feel of newspapers, the smell of ink on newsprint? Honestly, I have no clue.
But the truth is I do. I miss the theatres out of sheer nostalgia for those memorable premieres and red-carpet events our films once had. On the other hand, my mornings feel better now that the newspapers are back at the door. Only I read them though. The rest of the family get their news on their phone. I do too, occasionally. But I hate the ads that snag me. They have this uncanny habit of knowing what I am looking for. Big Tech eavesdrops. AI is my alter ego. It knows what I need, what I want, what I like. It picks it up, like an inquisitive lover, from casual whispers, overheard conversations, what I read. What I don’t.
As I have spent a lifetime reading news on print, television news leaves me amused. It is neither news, nor informed opinion. It is a slanging match between good people who stand for bad politics. The result is boring and predictable. Pay cheques determine what they say. Not what they stand for. That is why they smile and take the abuse, defend the indefensible. Nobody is actually looking for the news out there; no one really bothers. It’s just time-pass for dummies. You choose the channel that best endorses your own point of view. It reassures you.
I am old fashioned. Print, for me, is credible, trustworthy. I rely on it, also because (in case you haven’t noticed) much of the news on television never makes it to the newspapers. That’s a good sign. Media and entertainment may be one industry. But that doesn’t mean readers like their news as entertainment. Yet curiously, those who watch movies and streaming shows love news-based stuff. That is why so many movies today start with the moniker, based on a true story. Based on a true story because the true story can’t be told. There are enough people around us who don’t want the truth revealed. Disclaimers therefore get longer and longer. More lawyers are hired to vet our shows and defend them than writers to write them. Outrage is emerging as our biggest industry.
Incidentally, in case you haven’t noticed, the language of news is also changing. Headlines are no longer solemn. They are catchier than Victoria’s Secrets. News is packaged in small, easily-consumed capsules so as not to test your patience. Longer stories are broken up into smaller, more readable size– peppered with data highlights. The meme generation is unlikely to linger over the grief or joy of others. They want to quickly move on. Brevity is thus on premium. I wait for a start-up offering news in 15-second soundbites, from one Kim’s missiles to another Kim’s divorce. Long reads are disappearing; the serious, detailed investigations, the kind of stories that once made the maximum impact. And got editors like me into trouble.
With the exit of the long read, style has disappeared. (In some cases, grammar too.) News is now packaged data. Language no longer matters. Nor flair, grace, the elegance of idiolects. Most newspapers read the same. The one you choose no longer defines who you are. I remember recommending to every rookie journalist that they read Norman Mailer’s The Rumble in the Jungle reportage on the Muhammad Ali, George Foreman fight for the world heavyweight boxing title in Kinshasa. It is often called “the greatest sporting event of the 20th century”. Mailer’s long form report, on the other hand, is one of the finest examples of journalism you are likely to read, even though the event can be capsuled in two simple words: Ali won.
I think that’s the important thing. To go beyond the story. For journalism is not only about stories. Yes, the stories survive as the first drafts of history. But few ever remember those who broke them. Eventually, we are all hacks. But, once in a while, we somehow manage to be remembered for the courage we show, the magic we bring to our write, the passion with which we pursue a story, risking everything. That is what still keeps journalism alive in the age of tech.
Film makers are luckier. People still watch Chaplin in The Great Dictator. Or recall, half a century later, the lazy summer afternoons laced with adultery in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata. I remember the impact Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful made on me when I watched it. I adore Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat and find his films political fables of our time. Film makers don’t have to record history. They just capture its quirks.
Years back I used to draw the front-page pocket cartoon for The Telegraph. Perhaps I should return to it someday. Or become a stand-up comic. But then, in today’s India, both are as risky as journalism. As is making movies and streaming shows. Or smoking a joint after a hard day’s work. It’s a lot easier mining crypto. Or becoming a billionaire in the midst of a raging pandemic. Yes, we are living in strange times indeed. It takes a billionaire to defeat Vishwanathan Anand at chess—and that too, cheating.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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