Once upon a time, say ten years ago, elections, in a newspaper office, were like weddings. The build-up began months ago. There was much discussion on who would go where, much argument over the issues that would define the election, much rivalry over the prize constituencies where the fight was expected to be the most interesting or the most glamorous, much jostling to accompany star candidates on the campaign trail. Modern-minded editors would slip in opinion polls, but purely as a gimmick, as the chutney to the more substantive fare provided by their reporters. No self-respecting journalist accepted pollsters as the repository of all election wisdom.
The atmosphere in the newsroom would become more and more charged as polling day neared, and would remain so for days after all the results had been declared with heated debates on who — which paper, which reporter — had got it right and who hadn’t. Getting it right implied an understanding of the country’s political process, the mainstay of all papers. Elections were the best education for reporters in that all-important sphere of life: politics.
With one of two voters giving the polls a miss in Delhi this week (the figures are worse in fancier parts), newspaper bosses, especially of mainstream English-language dailies, are patting themselves on the back for getting it right once again. Their dull, unimaginative, perfunctory coverage of the “mini-general election” must have been more than enough for their apolitical middle-class readers.
Old habits die hard, so the real general election will also see such desultory coverage in newspapers — and television will still have a walkover. Politics is more about understanding than a spectacle, but so complete is TV’s dominance in India today that the only noticeable excitement in newspapers this time round was over the exit polls conducted by the news channels. The chutney has become the main dish. After such abject surrender, can print be taken seriously again' Certainly not.
Get the gremlins
You know what kind of journalist other journalists hate most' The kind who points out howlers made by others. So no names for these recent examples: “The new swimming pool is rapidly taking shape since the contractors have thrown in the bulk of their workers”, and this nominee for the worst set of mixed metaphors: “At the moment people are market hopping. They are pumping one up and then jumping ship to the next one. It is a game of pass-the-parcel where the loser is the one left holding the baby when the liquidity bubble bursts.”
But The Times of India is determined to ensure that it never gets credited with such bloomers. It has decreed that every typo will earn its news chiefs a fine of Rs 30. Errors of syntax may command a higher rate. Since whatever TOI thinks today, the rest of the industry does tomorrow, this may soon become a practice in all newspapers. And readers certainly won’t complain.
But there are times when you can’t blame the writer or the sub or the news editor. In cases such as this, we like to blame “the gremlins”: “So many microorgasms fall into ponds that they’re practically self-sustaining.”
Stars and scribes
Nandita Das has been one, Konkona Sen Sharma will be one soon. Not only such “different” faces, even buxom stars like Raveena Tandon and Amisha Patel are proud to be so. There are others too, all portraying the role of a journalist. Suddenly, journalism is the career of choice for heroines (but not heroes) in popular cinema. Yet another proof of Hindi films’ close touch with reality. In life too, journalism is seen as a career suitable more for women. The ratio of men to women applying for jobs in the media is, roughly, 1:6.
For the stars there is a bonus. As Amisha Patel put it, “It is an opportunity to get into the skin of a journalist and try to decipher her thought process. I hope my role will help me understand them better.”