Book Review: Myth of ‘Free Media’ and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era

April 26, 2020 1:20 AM

The West’s adversarial journalism tradition designed to be watchdog of the government’s abuse of power would need some reformation in the midst of new media tools.

Migrant workers and their families during the lockdown in New Delhi. The central government blamed ‘panic created by fake news’ behind the mass movement of migrant workers after the lockdown was announced(bloomberg)Migrant workers and their families during the lockdown in New Delhi. The central government blamed ‘panic created by fake news’ behind the mass movement of migrant workers after the lockdown was announced (Bloomberg Image)

By Amitabh Ranjan

Amid a surfeit of reports that we get to read each day in the time of the global pandemic, here are three that you may have come across in their chronological order, not that the chronology itself is of any significance: Air India airlifts 647 Indians and seven Maldivians over two days on January 31 and February 1 from Wuhan, the ground zero of Covid-19. In February, Cambodia allows MS Westerdam with 1,445 passengers and 802 crew onboard to dock in Sihanoukville after the ship is turned away from at least five ports. In March, Cuba allows MS Braemar to dock at the port of Mariel after the ship is refused permission to make landfall by countries in the Caribbean because five passengers onboard the ship were found to be virus-positive.

Carried as routine reports, the media failed to look at the larger and humane side of the stories. Amid the pandemic and resultant fear, these were extraordinary gestures of international solidarity and a respect for right to life of every human being.

All these made for excellent human-interest stories. These were about the authorities going beyond their call of duty. While you got to read something about these on digital platforms, why didn’t the mainstream media devote more column space or airtime to these stories?

Is it because Cuba, which otherwise has an excellent record of providing medical care for the needy across the world, has been a constant irritant for the US in its own backyard? Is it because Cambodia (part of Indo-China) still reminds the West of its own excesses and pricks its guilty conscience? Is it because the West is yet to acknowledge an India, part of the Two-Thirds world (to borrow from the author’s lexicon to replace Third World), coming of age in emergency handling at a time when the developed nations seem to have little clue?

Instances similar to these and questions thereto have close resemblance to some of the references curated by Kalinga Seneviratne in his book Myth of ‘Free Media’ and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era, putting under the scanner the so-called ‘free media’ and also questioning the relevance of adversarial media function in the Asian socio-political ecosystem.

A veteran journalist and a teacher, Seneviratne writes with a rare insight which comes from years of journalistic pursuits across geographies and media platforms. For him, the post-truth era has been there all along. It was there long before it became part of the media lexicon in more recent times, post-Donald Trump and post-Brexit.

The media function theories—based on libertarian, authoritarian and social responsibility—that students have been taught for the past half-a-century are all focused on individual human right, the right to communicate. But it is political in nature. They do not adequately cover vast populations due to institutionalised cultural barriers. For example, communication problems of migrant communities to the West or those of the people in the vast hinterlands in Asian countries are seldom addressed. The global media today is driven by biases, ideological leanings, geo-politics, business interests. And, as a result, it works to spread half-truths, disinformation and alternative facts.

So, truth is a casualty. Instead, you get to read something which masquerades as truth, for there are more overriding considerations in the current media ecosystem. It depends on which part of the world you are from, which part of the world you are in, which ideology you adhere to, or more bluntly, whose brief you carry, and more importantly, who owns your business.

US academics Noam Chomsky, Robert McChesney and Edward Herman have been arguing for more than two decades that the ‘Fourth Estate’ model of the media is dead and what we have is a ‘Propaganda Model’ that “manufactures consent” for conglomerates which own the media to serve their economic and political interests. The Libertarian Media Function theory worked as long as media companies only owned media, but now they are entertainment companies, film studios, sports franchises, even oil companies and arm manufacturers.

So, if the Fourth Estate theory of the media as watchdog has been undermined with the expansion of neoliberal economic models into the media arena, where is the alternative? The media, which for long has been the resource of the citizenry to oppose the decisions of the government that would have harmful effect on the people, was no longer playing that role. We must, therefore, explore a Fifth Estate.

The social media riding on the Internet has been providing platforms that could be utilised to democratise and humanise media. “Yet, just when the doors are opening for a freer media, it could be bolted again by the challenge posed to Web-neutrality by the Trump administration and the hysteria on fake news promoted by authoritative governments.”

The West’s adversarial journalism tradition designed to be watchdog of the government’s abuse of power would need some reformation in the midst of new media tools. The need of the hour is to both evolve a viable economic model of media ownership and reorientation of interpretative journalism where reportage is more human-centric.

It is in this context that the author also has a prescription for Asian journalists. He reminds them that mindful journalism drawing from the Buddhist philosophical tradition could be adopted to craft a journalistic model that focuses on healthcare, education, housing and fair administration for the people. These are not commodities for sale but rights to be granted without discrimination.

For instance, journalists in this part of the world must realise that while Asians are building systems of cooperation and peaceful coexistence, the Western media keeps the focus on conflicts, mainly imagined and potential ones than real, in South China Sea, Indian Ocean and the Korean Peninsula. While China is offering money to build ports, railways, bridges, highways, the USA calling it the ‘pivot to Asia’ is offering missile defences, gunboats and fighter jets to the Asian nations. “Thus, the contrast in how Asia and the West see the region is starkly evident today. Asia needs to learn the lessons of the Arab Spring and should not allow the foreign media and the social media managers to turn a peaceful Asia into an arena of conflict like the Middle East.”

Quite a few proof-readings errors are there in terms of word usage, subject-verb agreement and punctuations. Certainly, more rigour was expected from the publisher for editing a manuscript of this calibre. Nevertheless, the work is a must read for the simple reason that in an oligarchic media market, it will make you a discernible consumer. For journalism teachers, media persons in the field and those who want to be there, it could serve as a constant guide.

Book details :

Myth of ‘Free Media’ and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era
Kalinga Seneviratne Sage
Rs1,150, Pp 348

A former journalist, Amitabh Ranjan teaches at Patna Women’s College

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