Tharoor-Pushkar Soap and Tabloidization of the Media: Vineetha Mokkil

This is a guest post by VINEETHA MOKKIL.

The Shashi Tharoor-Sunanda Pushkar tango has unleashed many demons. They woke up the country’s finance minister and party colleagues from a willful sleep. They are set to end Lalit Modi’s glitzy reign as IPL chief. The Tharoor-Pushkar coupling also let loose a spectre of another kind. It infected the electronic and print media with an epidemic of tabloidisation of unprecedented proportions. As soon as the first whiff of the story permeated the air, the strain of tabloid journalism that has been seeping into the Indian media scenario for over the last 15 years found the perfect setting to multiply and mutate and infect dailies, magazines and television channels across the board.

Newspapers and television channels which claim to occupy higher ground than lowly tabloids played out the entire episode like a soap opera. Headlines went overboard with the ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ game. (Sample these: ‘Tharoor Unleashes Attractive Weapon,’ ‘Minister’s External Affair,’ ‘Got A Girl, Named Sue’). Sensationalism reigned supreme as columnists and hyper-ventilating television anchors marched in, flying high the flag of yellow journalism. Biased, personal opinion was paraded as fact. Unnamed sources came crawling out of the woodwork, spilling secrets of all sorts about the lead players.
Last Sunday, a prominent socialite claimed she had inside information about Sunanda’s cosmetic surgeries, her haircut, her wardrobe. She revealed them in her weekly newspaper column, informing readers that ‘sources’ had supplied her with these  ‘facts.’ A lengthy profile (with the blurb describing it as The Eye-Popping Life Story of Sunanda Pushkar in true tabloid tradition) in a leading English news-magazine ripped apart Pushkar’s personal and professional lives like a mad bull on a rampage. The piece, like many others of its ilk, was propped up by nothing but quotes from unnamed sources and peppered with sexist remarks which would put a Right-wing prude to shame (‘Not surprisingly, Sunanda was leaving not just her friends behind but her husband too;’ she was ‘chasing the glittering mirage with vampire-like thirst – hyper networking and coursing business deals,’ her ‘peroxide hair streaks, heavy make-up, razzle dazzle, seductive couture, false eyelashes….’ (Italics mine).

Sensationalism, sexism, brazen disregard for facts – the spectre of tabloidisation leered at us in all its glory as the story unravelled. Both Sunanda and Tharoor are in the public glare and the media has every reason to investigate their roles in the IPL scandal. But neither truth nor public interest is served by saying goodbye to the fundamental norms of journalistic practice and passing off salacious half-truths and subjective judgement for fact.

Paid news, front page ads which elbow out news stories, flip headlines, personality-driven pieces which read like PR-handouts, odes to Bollywood stars and corporate honchos, brazen disregard for objectivity and accuracy – we are used to the taste of tabloid journalism by now. Fluff sells, sensational news grabs eyeballs – yes, we know. In a cut throat market place where television channels compete with each other to dilute hard news and keep viewers hooked to a steady diet of trivia, newspapers and magazines are on overdrive when it comes to increasing the tabloid quotient on their pages. The Tharoor-Sunanda story arrived on the scene like the apogee of this mission. Media houses of all shapes and sizes let the fig leaf fall. Their naked greed and single-minded devotion to the market was on display for all to see.

Did the garnish of sensationalism, sexism and titillation up circulation figures? Did it grab eyeballs and raise TRPs to the skies? There are more critical questions hovering overhead: how much longer will they take the viewer/reader for a complete imbecile? How many more waves of tabloid frenzy will wash over us before viewers lose the last shred of confidence in televisions news, before readers line their trash bins with broadsheets without bothering to wade through ultra-lite, trivia-ridden pages?

Vineetha Mokkil is a journalist based in Delhi.

13 thoughts on “Tharoor-Pushkar Soap and Tabloidization of the Media: Vineetha Mokkil”

  1. …. what is implied is that as opposed to “tablodization”, there is something called “serious” journalism; a journalism that is committed to exploring “truth”; and such journalism depends on the high-cardinal principle called “objectivity”…….

    well… can anyone explain what what this non-sensational journalism means? where does this “non- sensational” journalism appear? May be in the orthodox Edit of the Hindu news daily… or may be it has appeared in some past..

    anyway, past is a foreign country……….

    what is presented here as media critique in the context of first phase of IPL controversy, is only regular repeat of what generally goes in all popular understandings as “degeneration of times”…

    from some elitist cynical position, all reportage belongs to page-3 kind of representations. It is problematic…

    This stereotypical ways of assessment of media, repeated often and on ( I think P.Sainath is more “objective” in at leat presenting facts) is perhaps only good for lab journals of Mass communication programme.

    Even the mass com students do not take it seriously… I think it is much more sincere in considering journalism as any another profession… just like a BPO job…

    The article is also in one way derisive of viewers and readers of TV and news papers.

    see the kind of vocabulary used in assesing the contents: “trivia”, “ultra-lite”, “trash-bins”, “frenzy”….

    Such flimsy understandings of the media never bothers to present what is alternative to this… (hope it is not “development communication of KHEDA type!!)….

    is such bemoaning over the loss of “value”- a critique of media? I hope it is NOT.

    More serious inquiries of “tablodization of life world” would produce more insights into changing structures of feeling than such cynical world views as in the article…

    perhaps cannot we see tablodization itself as a critique of a caste/community/state-capitalist-elite ordered disciplining of what was “substantive” & what was “Real”….

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    1. Mr Prasad,
      Perhaps you and your ilk, who celebrate the brave new world (‘the past is a foreign country’ as you say), might like to look at the New York Times or Guardian for starters. And the BBC?
      You are of course entitled to your opinion but what surprises is the bile that seems to flow with your resentful prose. Resentment from a powerless person against a powerful one is understandable but not its obverse. To my mind you seem to represent all that has gone wrong with the media mind in this god forsaken country.
      But then, to each his/her own…

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    2. Let’s glibly write off journalistic integrity and objectivity, equate journalism to a bpo job, swear allegiance to the corporate world and bully editorial departments to blindly follow the dictates of marketing heads.
      That, Mr Prasad, is the best alternative to all our woes.

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  2. the most depressing thing about the whole affair is the amount of time and space its occupying in the parliament. yes, if transparency has been found wanting, there should be an inquiry into IPL’s financial transactions…but that is the IT dept.’s job. the past few weeks, have seen the members of all the major political parties issuing their verdict on the tournament and strangely enough on the T20 format of the game. surely, there are far more serious and pressing concerns that ought to occupy the realm of public debate..dantewada folks..remember??

    a senior political leader of the CPI (M) recently stated in a T.V show that party believes the game is not a true test of a cricketers skill, a blasphemy of the gentlemen’s game and thus should be banned…seriously!!

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  3. Anyone who has read Tharoor regularly on Hindu or watched him in his UN perch would know the man is the supreme careerist. Every word he says, writes is designed solely with his career advancement in his mind.

    Powerful people like Tharoor, Chidambaram and others of their ilk are hated by plenty of people for the right reasons , and also for the wrong reasons too.

    They are accused of real crimes and also of imaginary crimes.

    I wouldn’t mind if they were brought down for such wrong reasons. Their crimes are real enough.

    ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason/ To do the right thing for the wrong reason.’

    And finally New York Times, Guardian, BBC are not examples of serious Journalism. NYT is guilty of greasing the way for Iraq war for those fictitious weapons of mass destruction. And now it is greasing the way for another major war against Iran.

    Same with Guardian and BBC. These are beloved by certain stripe of left liberals. But they are no better. Refer the writings on Medialens website for more on Guardian and BBC.

    If we need sources for serious journalism, we don’t need to look at any mainstream corporate outlet. There are plenty of credible,honest voices on Left wing, both Indian and Foreign. We only need to seek them out.

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  4. Vineetha resents tabloidization, Prasad resents Vineetha’s “elitist cynical position” in doing so and her vocabulary. Nigam resents Prasad’s resentful prose for the bile flowing in it…Will Nigam elucidate a bit more on “Resentment from a powerless person against a powerful one is understandable but not its obverse” in this context?

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    1. If you understand the terms powerful and powerless, then the statement is self-explanatory, but if you dont, then I can’t help you.

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  5. “You and your ilk”

    Mr. Aditya Nigam, in my native tongue, Malayalam this can be roughly translated into “Neeyum, Ninte aalakarum/Kootarum”…

    Immediately I am given a communitarian identity.. as if I was representing some community interests. What kind of presumption is this, Mr. Nigam?

    Nigam also further states that it is resentment of the “powerful against” the “powerless”. Again, I guess he was presuming I am representing media industry or journalists community…

    If power is specific to the locale, what power do I have here in this domain? To publish or not publish my response is the prerogative of the administrators of the site.. anyways, I should thank for approving my response for publishing…

    The media industry accuse the academic industry for “jargonizing”; a term of abuse showered on academics by the journalists. The academics and those media persons sympathetic to academics, in turn accuse media of “tablodization”… This has been going on for a while.

    Why should everyone internalize the terms on which the two powerful industries vying for their share of authority over discourse clash. It is merely, a clash of professions for remaking the world order in their own way….

    I am not saying the article published here on “tablodization” is same… it is written by a journalist..

    I repeat the question I asked, what is non-sensational news? what are the norms prescribed for what constitutes “real” news? What is the apt narrative to describe an event and its processes…

    Any news break involving elite members of the society will later be resented by elite club itself as “tabloidization”..

    Take this IPL scam. What different narrative was possible to probe into this sleazy events unfolding day after day? Should the media skip the events and write orthodox edits on the how the “institutions should be accountable and transparent”. I think even Lalit modi or Prafful Patel will appreciate the edits.

    IPL is scam involving big money… it is alleged that big-wigs are involved in this… It became an issue with Modi’s twitter… then things began to unfold. Yes, the media – TV as well as print- may have sensationalized the content. The whole story was sensational by nature. Should the media self-regulate and report nothing on the scam.

    In case of Satyam scam also the media went on making the news “sensational” in many ways. True that it is the same media which had iconized Satyam chief, R.Raju and IPL commissioner, Modi.

    Now if we read newspapers today, you can see some kind of “catharsis” happening…a pity for the fallen heroes… it takes its narratives.. then the real issues of the scam will eventually fade away in growing sympathies for the valiant..

    One possible narrative angle of such catharsis is accusing the media for being “sensational”, “tabloidizing”, so on and so forth…

    I think the article published here, in my view, is preempting such a narrative.

    It is not a media critique by any standards….

    Let me reiterate that the accusation of “tablodization” is regular thing.

    What is the alternative?

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  6. Jit,
    This is a strange response, garbled and incoherent. But nonetheless, you hit the nail on the head – after all so many things in the world are unintended consequences.
    You say:
    “Powerful people like Tharoor, Chidambaram and others of their ilk are hated by plenty of people for the right reasons, and also for the wrong reasons too.” And so you are happy if they are brought down for the wrong reasons as well.

    Sure, you are entitled to your happiness. What you miss or do not understand, rather, refuse to understand, is that this post was not about Tharoor; it was about media ethics. And it was about media ethics in the context of the representation of Sunanda Pushkar NOT Tharoor. You are perfectly within your rights to pull down anybody in any cynical way, including representing women in sexist and vile ways (see Shoma Chaudhury’s superb piece in Tehelka’s current issue). This certainly sits well with your Leftism that you display on your sleeve. (To quote you: “If we need sources for serious journalism, we don’t need to look at any mainstream corporate outlet. There are plenty of credible, honest voices on Left wing, both Indian and Foreign.” How this sits with your cheering the corporate media is for you to explain to yourself and not my business!).

    For someone who does not display the slightest intelligence in discerning what a simple journalistic article is all about, and for someone who cynically celebrates the infantilism of the media, the following statement from you is truly remarkable:

    “And finally New York Times, Guardian, BBC are not examples of serious Journalism. NYT is guilty of greasing the way for Iraq war for those fictitious weapons of mass destruction. And now it is greasing the way for another major war against Iran.”

    New York Times, Guardian and BBC are not examples of serious journalism but the raving semi-literates of the Indian corporate media are? Because they are pulling down really powerful people? (really – Chidambaram, too? You must be joking!).
    It is once again a tribute to your intelligence that you can read my reference to these newspapers and to BBC as a claim that they are ‘pure’, ‘anti-imperialist’ (that is, not greasing the way for another war on Iran etc). To say that these newspapers by and large – despite their corporate nature – adhere to certain jounalistic norms is not to say that they are perfect, anti-imperialist, socialist, leftist and all that you dream of. It is rather to underline that it is not so much a tribute to these newspaers alone but to the critical judgement of their readers who demand a certain standard of their media (as opposed to imbecilic defense of any nonsense dished out by them, as your ilk do) that this reference is aimed at.
    The point really is that some of these newspapers and channels may give a particular slant to their stories and reportages but they do abide by certain basic norms – not passing off advertisements as news and editorials; not passing off their unverified opinions as facts etc.
    For someone who wears his Leftism on his sleeve, you are clearly more perturbed about a small piece criticizing unethical Indian journalism than about news itself becoming a paid corporate matter. Such Leftism is really what we need!

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  7. It is you who can’t read properly, not me. Where on earth you get this idea that I am upset with Mokkil because she wrote this article ? It is you who must be joking when you say I am cheering for the corporate media.

    I am fully aware the Indian corporate media is full of infantile semi literate types. And I know Mokkil is right in everything she says. I know this article is about media and not Tharoor. I am only making an additional point that Tharoor is an elite who was brought down because of conflicts within the establishment and I am not sorry for him.

    But it appears one cannot make any comments here unless one explicitly says he is 100% in agreement with you.

    I am not saying they are bringing down Chidambaram. Did you or can you even read properly what I wrote ? But if something happens tomorrow and Chidambaram is brought down then I am not going to shed any tears for him. Can you understand what I am saying ? Neither am I saying semi literates of media are equal to , or better than NYT, BBC.

    And you show your utter utter ignorance of NYT when you say they don’t pass off advertisements as news and editorials and not passing off their unverified opinions as facts etc.

    strange response, garbled and incoherent, cynical, For someone who does not display the slightest intelligence , someone who cynically celebrates the infantilism of the media, imbecilic defense of any nonsense dished out by them, as your ilk do, ….

    This is quite a horrific response to what I wrote.

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  8. An excerpt from a speech delivered by Ambedkar 67 years ago, in 1943, on the 101st birth anniversary of Ranade may be worth recollecting.
    The full text is here:
    http://tinyurl.com/39m7qfe

    Journalism in India was once a profession. It has now become a trade. It has no more moral function than the manufacture of soap. It does not regard itself as the responsible adviser of the Public. To give the news uncoloured by any motive, to present a certain view of public policy which it believes to be for the good of the community, to correct and chastise without fear all those, no matter how high, who have chosen a wrong or a barren path, is not regarded by journalism in India its first or foremost duty. To accept a hero and worship him has become its principal duty. Under it, news gives place to sensation, reasoned opinion to unreasoning passion, appeal to the minds of responsible people to appeal to the emotions of the irresponsible. Lord Salisbury spoke of the Northcliffe journalism as written by office-boys for office-boys. Indian journalism is all that plus something more. It is written by drum-boys to glorify their heroes. Never has the interest of country been sacrificed so senselessly for the propagation of hero-worship. Never has hero-worship become so blind as we see it in India today. There are, I am glad to say, honourable exceptions. But they are too few, and their voice is never heard.

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