by Charles Assisi
It doesn’t give me pleasure to say this. I suspect I understand why you view journalists and contemporary journalism with suspicion. All of the anger you vent on social media against my fraternity isn’t misplaced. Things have come to this because my tribe misused the power vested in them. May I add that you are part of the problem as well? I’ll come to all of that in a bit. Before that though, allow me to share the content of two conversations last week that compelled me to reflect and write this note to you.
The first was with the spokesperson of a company which I’d written about. I had spoken to all of the protagonists in the ecosystem and eventually wrote what in journalistic parlance is called a “balanced piece”. As is standard practice, after it was published, I called the gentleman to ask what he thought of it. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to,” he told me nonchalantly. I snapped and said I don’t write to please him or the company he represents. I write to convey a story to the reader.
That said, I probed him some more. He said he thought it was a negative piece. It took me a while to figure out that his CEO and he thought the piece wasn’t cheering for them because they had raised a few million dollars in funding. They didn’t think it pertinent for the reader to be told they continue to make losses and will for a while to come. And that it is entirely possible the venture may fail as well, as is the case with many start-ups. The only journalism they are used to is one that accepts all of what they say at face value.
Because the piece had gone into print, he said nothing could be done about it. But in the online edition of the story, the least I can do to make amends, he said, is have the CEO’s images changed to reflect him in a flattering light. Not just that, I should rewrite or delete a few lines they think inappropriate. I bit my tongue hard to hold the F word back. Then both of us made a few polite noises instead and hung up.
In hindsight, the nonchalance was unsurprising. He, after all, only understands what we derogatorily call access journalism. It means that if a journalist wants to speak with one of the big shots, they have to parrot the lines that are mouthed to them. Else, the next time around they seek comment on an issue, access will be denied.
Numerous instances exist. Business journalists in Mumbai are familiar with a tycoon of impeccable pedigree obsessed with his looks and starlets. Every image and word of his has to be vetted by his coterie. Breach the boundary and the pipe that leads to him is choked.
Then there are these infrastructure magnates with ruthless ambition. They don’t speak to the media. Their team does. They decide what to talk of, what not to, and what supporting documents ought to be planted. If as much as a peep is uttered against these conglomerates, the tap that supplies documents is turned off.
Most recently, there was the case of this businessman who declined to talk to a prominent business magazine unless they put him on the cover. They meekly acceded—never mind their stated position of aspiring to excellence. Into this vitriol, add some institutions and digital media outlets that blatantly solicit money from people to feature them in a positive light.
Now add the junket culture here, so emblematic of business journalism. This means companies sponsor a journalist’s visit to their facilities or conference at some fancy location where they are wined, dined and put up at the finest places. They come back home with fancy gifts—and if the company is a particularly generous one, foreign exchange in dollars to cover their daily expenses at a foreign city. In return, the unwritten rule is the journalist will write what resembles a paean.
That the culture exists is one thing. What makes it worse still is that editors at mainstream publications dangle these invitations as incentives for their star performers. Which is why, oftentimes, a political journalist is sent to cover a technology conference in San Francisco. What coherent story can possibly emerge out of a visit like that? What can you expect from journalism of this kind but mindless platitudes?
How can I forget those days in the mid-1990s when every day a few companies made announcements to go public? These were inevitably made at press conferences. At the end of these conferences, journalists would be handed envelopes that contained gift vouchers in various denominations. It could be redeemed for merchandise at pretty much any large department store. Ingenious public relations (PR) professionals soon thought up a scam. They’d pay cash to buy these vouchers from journalists at a marginal discount to their printed value. It was a win-win for both. The journalist wanted cash in hand more than the voucher. The PR firm on its part would pass the vouchers at full value to its next client. It was a never-ending cycle of vicious profiteering.
In the 20-odd years that I’ve been in journalism, I thought I had seen pretty much everything—and some more. Last weekend though, I figured I have some more seeing to do. I was conducting a writing workshop in Bengaluru for a PR firm. At one of the breaks we had, a young executive asked me why it is that journalists treat PR professionals like scum. I hemmed and hawed and tried to mumble something about how that is not the case. By way of example, I was told of an ugly trend that shut me up.
Soon after an interaction a PR professional has facilitated is done with, the journalist walks out of the room and leaves instructions with them to transcribe the interview. When the transcript is delivered, the journalist may choose to add a few bells and whistles to it. If it is particularly well written though, it goes into print ad verbatim. For the PR professional, what it means is they can add lines they think their client ought to have said; or delete lines they think their client ought not to have said. But that’s what they’re paid to do—make their clients look good. Journalists are trained to interrogate. If they fail, ought they not be treated like scum, the young lady asked me! Damned right she was.
How do you distinguish between what comprises news and what is paid journalism? A few pointers:
• Every age comes with a bubble. We now live in a bubble that celebrates entrepreneurship. Much of this celebration is on digital storytelling platforms. They write breathlessly on start-ups and the funds they raise. Venture capital and private equity firms are spoken of as demi-gods. Print and television are trying to play catch-up by adding pages or programming to cover entrepreneurship. But all bubbles burst. Remember the stock market crash in the early 1990s? Or the dot-com bust in the early 2000s? All of it was preceded by euphoria of this kind. The protagonists who live in this bubble think it is a right to be spoken of in a positive light. Why else do you think the gentleman I spoke of earlier had the gumption to tell me he didn’t like what I wrote because it was not what he wanted it to be? So be wary. Very wary.
• Read multiple publications. Each one has various versions of the same story. This is because to maximize revenues, media houses have gotten into the private equity business as well. How can you possibly expect an objective report on a company the media firm has invested in?
• If an organization or individual is being praised to the skies, practise discretion. Ask why. Is access journalism or the junket culture being practised?
• If the story you are reading presents the perspective of only the protagonist, ask why again. Why aren’t there other voices in the story that disagree with the protagonist?
• If numbers are being presented to make a case, ask what these numbers are being compared with. Are there precedents or parallels that put things into perspective?
All this said, at the end of the day, you are to blame because you don’t have the spunk to pay for content. You think newspapers, magazines and television channels ought to be delivered either cheap or free. And because you believe in that, media houses turn to sources of advertising for revenues. That is also why media houses cannot offend those who provide their bread and butter. It’s called conflict of interest. But I know this is an argument that isn’t going to compel you to open your wallet up and pay more beginning tomorrow. You’ve been spoilt rotten. So stop whining. You only get what you deserve.
A pissed-off journalist.
Charles Assisi is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel Publishing (www.foundingfuel.com). He tweets on @c_assisi.