Five years after the end of the American Civil War, war veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd – played by Tom Hanks, moves on horseback from town to town, carrying newspapers and reading the news from distant lands, news of presidents and queens, wars and catastrophe, strange events before people in remote settlements who are cut off from the world. There is much more to this in News Of The World — Hanks’ new film, but being a newspaper woman for the last 30 years now, the film resonated deeply in me, filling me with renewed wonder at how news is gathered from the four corners of the world and delivered to a public always inquisitive for more. From the printing press to the wireless, the radio and television, every development has had its part in the dissemination of news, with social networks taking it to a whole new level.
But is speedier news always a good thing? Is it good for our nerves to know there were three earthquakes in Sumatra, the Equador and Iceland in the last 24 hours? Why should we be in a hurry to know that Kim Jong-un had assassinated his half brother or that one more politician was embroiled in a mega scam? They say to be informed is to be empowered. But is one capable of doing a single sensible thing about glaciers melting, dictators torturing citizens or more homeless people living in tents in downtown Los Angeles? As a reader or purveyor of news, the common man cannot save the Uyghurs in China or the Rohingyas in Myanmar or Black Americans incarcerated by the police, mainly White, for the flimsiest of reasons. When you read of oppression and cruelty and injustice and you know you cannot make a difference, it corrodes the soul and in our blood appears the dark stain of cynicism.
“What seems barbaric and almost a bloodsport is when eminent men and women are herded into a studio and are shouted and insulted into silence, when we should have benefitted from their expertise.”
Though naysayers are pronouncing that the hey deys of both print and television are over, it is interesting to view how the two differ in the presenting of news. The newspaper talks to us quietly, like a friend who wants to give the bad news but in a good way. Television goes for the jugular... showing tanks rolling towards protestors, flies on the emaciated faces of starving children in Africa, goons taking over Capitol Hill. In newspapers, we have people working while wearing the cloak of invisibility. Some merit a byline, others make do with staff reporter or correspondent. I think you can work better when you get the ego out of the way. In television, because it is a highly visible medium, news presenters are more than eager to put the stamp of their personality — to the extent that some put themselves and their flamboyant showmanship over and above the issue at hand. What seems barbaric and almost a bloodsport is when eminent men and women are herded into a studio and are shouted and insulted into silence, when we should have benefitted from their expertise. Breaking news has become something of a joke, especially when all channels are saying the same thing at the same time and the public has ceased to be surprised any longer.
The newspaper and television industries are today bravely coping with the challenges of social media and how it conveys and interprets the news. Besides reading the news, citizens are posting news of events on their social media walls or on Twitter. They are also talking to each other. Such amazing technological platforming is indeed the stuff of sci-fi. But here’s a spoiler. Think of the excitement factor. All who post are shouting out – I was there! I saw it happen! But to digest news you have to step back, be objective, get a perspective. When everyone is in contact with everyone else, the scene can get fragmented and confusing. And as we all know, there is always mischief at hand. Who do you then trust?
Let’s go back to the past. In India, the newspaper industry... not that it was an industry but a crusade of sorts, played a sterling role in wresting freedom from the Raj. We tend to visualise thousands of ordinary Indians filling the streets and jails in a heroic bid for freedom. But we tend to forget humble revolutionaries toiling all night in small printing presses at the risk of imprisonment and torture. They are the ones who marshalled the facts, chronicled the injustices and sowed the wind that reaped the whirlwind. As far back as in 1780, James Hickey’s Bengal Gazette lampooned the British Raj, with Hickey being constantly sued, much to his wicked delight. During the Sepoy Mutiny, certain small newspapers warned that the British were dividing Indians along communal lines. That was enough for the powers-to-be to suppress newspapers across the country. The Sedition clause that exists to this day dates back to the censorship laws of the 1800s. The Vernacular Press Act of 1878 was used to suppress the reporting of the horrors of the Bengal famine. The press soldiered on during those darkest days, defying gag orders, holding truth high aloft. By 1910, 1000 newspapers were prosecuted across India.
A couple of years ago, an elderly gentleman came to our office. Would we help him locate his uncle’s photograph taken at a meeting in 1952? We took him to our upstairs library. For three days the gentleman came and sat for hours, delicately turning the yellowed pages with loving care. Then, there appeared before him, resurrected, his beloved uncle in that well-remembered photograph. He switched on his phone and clicked the image. Our newspapers are the repositories of a million histories. They have always given us a sense of ourselves and our times.
Indrani Raimedhi is an author, journalist and columnist.