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Rethinking Tamil Television News With Walter Lippmann Part – 1

One of the seminal contributions of Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) lies in pointing to the linkages between news and truth, censorship and propaganda, democracy and news. In this post, I would like to engage with the objective of rethinking Tamil Television news through the prism offered by Walter Lippmann in Public Opinion. I have repeatedly argued the need for cross media ownership laws in India on the basis of the  need to keep the vital linkages between news and truth, censorship and propaganda and democracy and news in the right perspective to redeem our media and society interfaces from the clutches of media organisations that have succeeded in integrating vertically diverse media businesses under one umbrella with an incredible ease. Thanks to the absence of cross media ownership laws in India and the growing interest of politicians and political parties to make a killing in the media scape, television viewers end up watching political propaganda as news, promos of films produced by the parent group as news, the most insignificant news as the news (because of the blackouts of the most significant news), lies and half truths as news, besides the propaganda and narcissistic programmes woven around the leaders of the parties and the films the family members produce and release ad nauseum.

It is now a common knowledge in the academia and the media industry that the most glaring example of the above is the Tamil Television landscape where the unregulated political ownership of television channels has caused the most bizzare versions of television news to emerge. Let me cite here two lengthy quotes from Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion to help us picture where Tamil Television news channels stand in terms of the cardinal linkages between news and truth and news and society. This task will be aided by a short analysis of what appeared as “news” on Tamil television scape on May 07 2011. How three channels with linkages of political ownership (SUN TV, Jaya TV and Kalaignar TV) and one Government of India channel, Podhigai (DD Tamil), dealt with news and truth on the day when the rest of Indian media were pitching Kanimozhi’s (the daughter of TN CM Karunanidhi, who has been summoned by CBI in the 2G scam case) appearance before the Patiala court as the most newsworthy item is explored alongside what Lippmann said in quite another political, media and temporal contexts.

In Public Opinion (1922), Walter Lippman said: …The hypothesis, which seems to me the most fertile, is that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished. The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act. Only at those points, where social conditions take recognizable and measurable shape, do the body of truth and the body of news coincide. That is a comparatively small part of the whole field of human interest. In this sector, and only in this sector, the tests of the news are sufficiently exact to make the charges of perversion or suppression more than a partisan judgment. There is no defense, no extenuation, no excuse whatever, for stating six times that Lenin is dead, when the only information the paper possesses is a report that he is dead from a source repeatedly shown to be unreliable. The news, in that instance, is not “Lenin Dead” but “Helsingfors Says Lenin is Dead.” And a newspaper can be asked to take the responsibility of not making Lenin more dead than the source of the news is reliable; if there is one subject on whof the source. …Therefore, on the whole, the quality of the news about modern society is an index of its social organization. The better the institutions, the more all interests concerned are formally represented, the more issues are disentangled, the more objective criteria are introduced, the more perfectly an affair can be presented as news. At its best the press is a servant and guardian of institutions; at its worst it is a means by which a few exploit social disorganization to their own ends.

(continued in Part II)

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