Economic with truth

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi, Hardnews

The times they are really a-changin'. Who would have expected Economic Times (ET) from The Times group stable moralising on how business journalists should conduct themselves? Weren't these guys the ones who rewrote the rules of journalism in India by erasing the line that separated editorial from marketing and cocked a snook at all those who practiced it the old-fashioned way? TOI swore by marketing and allowed its managers to lead their editors by their nose. Surely, it did not happen without the approval of their venerable owners.

Long before they floated their amoral and unethical concepts like "Times treatise" and other marketing instruments that compromised the integrity of editorial space, they did everything that the ET article is criticising now. They unashamedly celebrated crooks and bandicoots of the stock market and gave them legitimacy. Harshad Mehtas and many others were celebrated by the pink dailies of which ET was a pioneer. Their reporters drew so close to many of these hucksters that there was no objectivity in the reports that were carried.

Absence of editorial objection to such reporting clearly meant that it had the sanction of owners and managers to this kind of writing. Readers did not have a clue whether the articles, carried in the business pages, were sponsored or an outcome of journalistic enterprise. What was truly distressing was how this perversity was replicated by other newspapers and magazines and subsequently by the channels. The compelling explanation was: "if the market leader The Times of India can do it why can't we". All those journalists and editors who tried to oppose this view were cast aside. Powerful editors - some fancied themselves as powerful as the prime minister - were also made to fall in line.

Some of the conduct of TOI and ET merited closer scrutiny by market regulators, but the government could never gather courage to do that.

The ET article, from this standpoint, is quite interesting. Titled Thought CEOs were friends, but they lied, the article reports on how comedian anchor Jon Stewart in his The Daily Show in USA, eviscerated a CNBC anchor, Jim Kramer, for giving wrong advice to his viewers on Bears Stearn and many other stocks. Stewart told a rattled Kramer that his channel forgot whose side it was on. Stewart uses Carly Simon's song to tell Kramer that "This song ain't about you", but about channels and newspapers that play the market by using programming and employees to wrongfully create an impression of well-being about companies and economy.

Stewart is bang on target. Media is used to  prevent people from reading the fine print about the past of many of these companies to balloon their valuations way beyond their worth. What we really see is incest. Media outlets and corporate houses feeding each other's interests. Compounding this crime is the way the government is backing business houses at the expense of the common man in the post-liberalised world.

The ET article further says, "There is one lesson to take from the shaming of the financial press, it is that CEOs can't be your friends. Whatever personal relations one has, however friendly the interactions and alluring the access, as far as work goes there is a basic distance and objectivity - neither too hostile nor friendly - that must be maintained. A basic lesson of journalism, but so easily forgotten by the biggest in the business". Well said, ET!

Daniel Sinker, a journalism professor in Columbia College, Chicago, commented in Huffington Post, after the face-off, that Stewart's anger was directed against "the role the modern media has created for itself: the role of cheerleader instead of watchdog, of favoring surface over depth, of respecting authority instead of questioning it". The US under George W Bush could get away with Iraq war and all the madness that followed after that as the media just stopped asking tough questions.

Such a problem is more acute in many other countries. Indian media, due to its corporate ownership, refuses to pursue old-fashioned Hardnews journalism which would upset the status quo. What is also nightmarish is that all those contrarian voices that questioned organised corporate corruption and government apathy or complicity would get smothered due to this global slowdown. This will happen at a time when media oversight over the conduct of the government has become more critical.