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Can the U.S. Press, as India's, Become a Lapdog of Populist Authoritarian Rulers?
Despite America's strong press traditions, there are disturbing parallels between the state of the media in these two liberal democracies
At the Mercatus Center-Freedom House panel on The New Authoritarian Toolkit, PEN International’s Salil Tripathi, a writer and human rights activist, discussed the remarkable speed with which the Indian press had been transformed under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist. It used to be a loud and obnoxious watchdog of the ruling regime— “truly a fourth estate,” as Tripathi put it. Now it is a loud and obnoxious lapdog—or godi media, in local parlance.
How and why did this happen? And are there parallels with the U.S.?
The Indian Media Now
India’s media landscape is extensive. The country has 178 television news channels, 17,000 newspapers and 100,000 magazines not to mention countless online publications in dozens of languages. Yet now India ranks 142 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom rankings issued by Reporters Without Borders, Tripathi noted. The Indian government has never been shy about cracking down on journalists for all kinds of reasons from sedition to defamation. The Modi government, however, has taken such crackdowns to a whole new level. Consider just a few incidents during its second term:
Earlier this year, it raided the offices of NewsClick, a small and independent media portal, for an alleged money-laundering scheme pertaining to foreign funding. Its real crime? It was covering farmer protests against Modi’s agricultural reform proposals too zealously.
Last year, Modi’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting blocked Media One, a South Indian TV station with five million viewers, from airing anything for two days because its coverage of a Hindu mob’s attacks on a Muslim neighborhood in New Delhi was, as per the order’s own words, too “critical toward Delhi Police and the RSS.” The RSS is the Hindu paramilitary volunteer wing of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
It interrupted the satellite transmission of ABP, a Hindi news channel, until an anchor who questioned the prime minister’s initiatives to help poor farmers resigned. Another ABP anchor was likewise pulled off the air after he criticized Modi’s record on public safety.
Then there is the plight of Rana Ayyub that The UnPopulist covered recently. She’s the fearless Muslim journalist who is facing a slew of lawsuits not just by the Modi government but private Hindu nationalist groups on all kinds of trumped up charges that have nothing to do with her reporting. She might eventually prevail, but, as Tripathi noted, the point of such exercises is to make “the process the punishment.”
This little sampling does not include the journalists who have been threatened or killed by Hindu outfits. Nor does it cover the regime’s efforts to drive out of business webzines that subsist on contributions by overseas readers by effectively banning foreign contributions to non-governmental organizations engaged in “political activity,” strangling one of the few remaining bastions of independence.
But the remarkable thing is that only a small subset of the Indian press seems upset by all this. The vast majority seems quite unperturbed.
The Indian Media Then
This is in stark contrast to 1975 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution and imposed what is darkly referred to as “the Emergency.” Some newspapers caved out of fear, some out of opportunism. But a healthy portion of the Indian press was incensed. Indeed, after Gandhi restored the power supply of newspapers that she had cut off for several days as she arrested opposition leaders and prominent journalists, the Indian Express, one of the country’s premier national dailies, issued a front-page apology for being out of circulation and left a blank space for an editorial to protest Gandhi’s regime of censorship. Many other newspapers followed suit.
“Today, they [the media] are asked to jump [by the Modi government] and they say, sir, how high should we jump,” Tripathi noted.
But even that doesn’t fully capture the situation. Because to jump at someone else’s bidding implies a will of your own that you are ignoring. However, for far too many media outfits in India, Modi’s will is co-extensive with their own. They see themselves as an arm of the government. There are still holdouts and dissenters hanging on under tremendous pressure of course. But too much of the Indian press has voluntarily and willingly become Modi’s Pravda. (Pravda, for post-Cold War millennials, was the official newspaper of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.)
This is clear from the coverage of many major stories since Modi assumed office in 2014. Tripathi, for example, noted how prominent Indian journalists started parroting pro-nationalist lines from Bollywood movies on social media in support of the Modi government’s 2019 retaliatory military strike against Pakistan. Many draped their profile pictures in the tri-color Indian flag to express solidarity with the government’s mission. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Consider the Indian press’ reaction when Modi revoked a long-standing law that had granted Kashmir, a majority-Muslim state in the north that borders Pakistan, governing autonomy and put it under central rule, dispatched the military to quell local protests, banished the media and suspended the internet. Did the press denounce these massive restrictions on its ability to do its job? Did it issue howls of protest in near unison as it did in the wake of the Emergency? No. Instead, M.K. Anand, the managing director of Times Network, sent his editors this stunning directive: “We are India’s leading broadcasters. It is important that we stay firmly with the national government at this juncture instead of focusing on finding faults.” Nor was he alone.
This is the kind of statement I heard from Chinese journalists when I visited that country a decade ago. They had a hard time comprehending why the press would be an adversary—instead of a partner—of the government in its efforts to “build a stable society,” as I recall one of them saying. But India has had nearly 75 years of liberal democracy under its belt and its press has played a vital role in exposing public corruption and holding rulers accountable in the past. Why is it now abandoning its adversarial role?
Weak Press Freedoms
One possible explanation is that India’s press freedoms never rested on a firm foundation, so were easy to topple. The First Amendment to the US Constitution says Congress shall make no laws prohibiting or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. Courts have made accommodations mostly when other rights are in tension with this one. It’s different in India. Article 19 of Indian constitution gives all citizens the right to free speech and expression but then a subsequent amendment also grants the state the right to pass laws that impose “reasonable restrictions” for a whole slew of reasons ranging from defamation to developing friendly relations with foreign states. The notion that the freedom of speech should be overridden only when other rights are implicated or there is a “compelling state interest” at stake strikes most Indians as fanciful.
But that still doesn’t fully explain the Indian media’s submissive attitude toward the current powers that be. The very fact that the Indian constitution both recognized the right to free speech and stipulated conditions under which it could be overridden shows that it expected persistent tension between the press and the state—not the advent of godi media that would happily serve the rulers.
The more plausible explanation is that the Indian media has always depended on ads by the government and political parties to an extent that “would be unthinkable in many developed nations,” The Independent, a Britain-based newspaper noted. This has always given the sitting regime a powerful lever to control the industry. But, again, things have gotten far worse under Modi.
In his first two years in office, he doubled the amount that various government departments spent for publicity purposes. Moreover, he did this when other sources of ad revenues were declining. This meant that outfits whose business model avoided government advertising became far less viable and the ones that survived were much more in the BJP’s pocket.
This has led to all but the extinction of what used to be referred to in India as an “unmanageable” editor, notes Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor* of The Caravan, one of the few magazines in India still dedicated to honest, long-form investigative journalism. In a brilliant and subtle feature, “Executive (and) Editor,” (that I can’t recommend enough), Bal recounts how Modi officials, in the hours before announcing a lockdown in response to the coronavirus, held a videoconference with top media executives and asked them to “work on the suggestions of the prime minister to publish inspiring and positive stories.” It made similar requests when Modi pulled his demonetization stunt in his first term and one fine evening, totally out of the blue, went on national TV and outlawed over 85 percent of the national currency to cure the alleged plague of “black money.”
But one would think that having to acquiesce to such requests would be somewhat embarrassing to India’s media titans, one would see some signs of resistance, some effort at subversion. They would feel some shame at being mocked as Modi’s godi media. (This term, incidentally, was coined by Ravish Kumar, an anchor for NDTV, a prominent TV channel and fierce critic of the regime that has managed to survive despite a fierce campaign to brand it “unpatriotic” and “anti-national” by Modi in part because of ad revenues from states controlled by opposition parties.)
Abdication in the Name of Introspection
Instead, India’s Big Media is not simply complying but fundamentally rethinking its social role along the lines of its Chinese counterparts. Consider the recent comments of Anant Goenka, the heir apparent of the Express group that produces The Indian Express: In an interview, Goenka blamed not Modi’s blatantly Islamophobic rhetoric and policies for feeding the forces of divisiveness, polarization and extremism in the country, notes Bal, the author of the Caravan piece, but his own industry’s conduct. Goenka excoriated the “so-called anti-establishment” news voices that “have never done a story on something the government does deserve credit for” and went so far as to say that such behavior ought to cost journalists their “legitimacy” when “asking tough questions.” More astonishingly, this scion of a newspaper that so fiercely and proudly resisted government interference during the Emergency, now gave Modi “credit” for “understanding that there is media that is out to get his administration and there is media that is actually just doing its job.”
What message does this send the editors and journalists in Goenka’s employ except that their first job is to serve the ruling regime, not holding its feet to the fire? But Bal notes that it isn’t just the lure of profits or the fear of government retaliation that is driving the Indian Media-Government-Complex under Modi. There is a third, and perhaps more important, reason.
Many of the major corporate media houses in India, Bal notes, are in the hands of business castes that are actually sympathetic to Modi’s Hindu nationalism. No caste is a monolith and there are plenty of critics of Modi’s Hindutva ideology among all castes, including the business ones. (I know because my first marriage was into a business caste.) But they do tend to be more dogmatic Hindus and so the prime minister’s ideology emotionally resonates with many of them in a way that the secularism of the Congress Party (that governed Independent India for all but a few years until Modi came along) never did. So during the time of Congress rule, when the publishers capitulated or kowtowed to it, they were to some extent going against their grain. “But with the current regime, things go beyond this paradigm,” Akshaya Mukul, author of Geeta Press and the Making of Hindu India, told Bal. “For many Marwari [business caste] owners, profit and conviction have come together, it is a win-win situation.” It is hard to imagine that had a good portion of the Indian press been in the hands of Muslims or lower castes, it would have become such a willing foot-soldier for Modi.
The current breed of media executives doesn’t feel like a sellout when it toes Modi’s line. To the contrary, it feels like its doing its duty; honoring its own religious and nationalistic commitments. In fact, these executives take Modi’s scathing critiques of media bias to heart. It is not a coincidence, for example, that Goenka’s slams against the anti-establishment posture of his industry came after an interview Modi gave about Kashmir in which he rattled off an entire list of stories of his accomplishments that The Indian Express had failed to cover and a list of stories about the opposition’s failures it should have covered. In fact, media bosses are more afraid of being called “sickularist” by their fellow Hindus than “godi media” by their detractors. The state of the Indian media, laments Bal, is the “product of complicity and not simply coercion.”
Fair and Balanced?
Long-standing traditions can’t be snuffed out overnight of course. So even at The Indian Express there are quite a few old fashioned liberal intellectuals still among the newspaper’s roster of columnists. But the paper has also started extending its platform, notes Bal, to right-wing figures in the name of “representing the views of the entire population,” as Goenka put it, not merely their own “echo chamber” and then allowing them to offer bizarre narratives without subjecting them to so much as a laugh test.
One such columnist, Ram Madhav, compared Modi’s lockdown of Kashmir to Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War. He then claimed that just as European liberals stood by Lincoln then, Members of the European Parliament were standing by Modi’s Kashmir policy now, even as “Indian liberals fulminate and brand them as right-wingers.”
The two situations are morally opposite of course but to suggest that they have comparable international import is a transparent act of nationalist self-aggrandizement. But who were these European MPs that Indian liberals were so unfairly accusing? As per the BBC: “More than a third of the delegation were from openly far-right parties in Europe, which are regarded as anti-Muslim. Among them were two MEPs for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and six from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France.”
In other words, The Indian Express allowed a government acolyte to excoriate the Indian media not for getting a story wrong, but actually setting the record straight.
Other media institutions have distorted their journalistic norms and standards in different ways. Republic TV, India’s more established and better-trafficked version of One America News Network, the Trump mouthpiece, goes to unbelievable lengths to find any possible dirt on opposition figures. According to one story that the Republic TV bureau chief publicly exposed after he resigned, the proprietor of the channel harassed a reporter so badly that he had a heart attack in his office. The reporter’s offense? He failed to get the frail and mentally feeble father-in-law of Shashi Tharoor, a Congress MP, to say that Tharoor was responsible for the death of his daughter who had died in mysterious circumstances.
Compromises can come in many forms. Some institutions distort their coverage of events to suit those in power or overlook issues that do not speak well of them— predetermined ends that can only be achieved by violating basic norms of reporting. Others insidiously subvert processes to let the government and its representatives or supporters pass off lies as truth, often under the pretext of freedom of speech or of striving to allow all sides to be heard.
The upshot is normative and cognitive confusion, an Orwellian transvaluation of values where the good has become bad and the bad has become good. The Indian polity’s capacity for moral reasoning has rapidly eroded, increasing the appeal of a populist demagogue like Modi who confidently proclaims his false moral certitudes.
Parallels with America
One might think that America’s strong free speech protections and lack of government funding would help its journalism industry hang on to its adversarial role. Those things certainly help but the fact is that a business model that contemptuously jettisons journalistic standards to advance its ideological interests arrived in America decades ago with the advent of rightwing radio and it has only grown since then. Rush Limbaugh was not a lapdog when it came to sticking up for his side’s partisan interests; he was a pit-bull. If he or the many rightwing copycats he spawned had a beef with Republicans, it was only that they were too fair-minded and did not stick it to the liberals enough. Whether their formula totally displaces traditional standards remains to be seen but there is little doubt that it has made massive inroads.
It paved the ground for Fox News whose original (and laudable) purpose was to give conservative causes the fair shake that they weren’t receiving from the establishment media. Initially, the network served its mission without assaulting professional journalistic standards. Then it yielded to crazy conspiracy theorists like Glenn Beck. Today its highest-rating star is Tucker Carlson whose show can only be described as a cynical festival of lies. One of Carlson’s most impressive falsehoods— that he himself characterized as “the best thing we’ve ever done”—in a really long list is a recent series— not just a segment—portraying the January 6 riot as a false flag operation.
But the real reason to be worried about the rightwing press is not just that it is injecting a fire hose of disinformation and lies into the public discourse beyond the capacity of the profession to counter, as Jonathan Rauch’s book The Constitution of Knowledge superbly unpacks. It is actually determined to tear down the journalistic marketplace of ideas and replace it with a lapdog media that serves its interests. Trump does not have Modi’s intellect and discipline to go beyond crude and bombastic attacks on the media. But there are plenty of smart conservative intellectuals willing to supply the detailed critiques that Trump can’t. There is an entire cottage industry of media watchers on the right that is dedicated to scanning the nooks and crannies of MSM for signs of bias. They have already succeeded in seriously eroding the credibility not just of this or that outfit but the institution of journalism.
This presents a really daunting challenge for the mainstream media at a very fraught juncture: It has to reform itself, cure its biases and rid itself of its genuine shortcomings in the face of a rightwing machine whose business model depends on never taking “yes” for an answer. And it has to do so without losing its moral self-confidence and going full “Goenka.” It has to admit responsible right-wing voices—from an increasingly shallower pool—into its pages and then subject their output to reasonable scrutiny even as the rightwing screams “double standard” at even minimal editorial oversight, as is happening in India.
Not yielding enough won’t rebuild public trust and yielding too much will mean turning into godi media. It’s going to be a tough balancing act. But failure will be disastrous for the country’s liberal political traditions that depend on a media that is independent and trusted.
*The original sentence mistakenly identified Hartosh Singh Bal as the former political editor of Caravan. The error is regretted.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2021.
Former President Donald J. Trump holds hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India as they take a surprise walk together Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, around the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, at Modi’s re-election victory rally. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)