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US media: Crisis of confidencenews
23 July 2005

For Americans, a journalist is as trustworthy as a used car salesman, says Sreenath Sreenivasan, dean of students, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. An exclusive interview with Venkatachari Jagannathan.

Sreenath SrinivasanSreenath Sreenivasan, dean of students the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, New York, and the founder of the South Asian Journalists Association (Saja), does not mince words. He says: "The American public trusts journalists as they would a used car salesman." Two world famous Indian journalists who have graduated from the illustrious school he presently heads are former union minister Arun Shourie and N Ram, editor, The Hindu.

Incidentally reputed journalist N Ram, editor, The Hindu, is an alumnus of the prestigious Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

According to the media pundit, the US media is now facing a series of crises - a crisis of quality, confidence and credibility. Simultaneously, he points out, journalists in other parts of the world have lost faith in the American media. Sreenivasan says that American newspaper circulations as well as television channel viewership have come down drastically, especially after the Iraq war and the 'embedded reporting' it brought into every American drawing room.

"There is a sort of unwritten censorship. Papers do not want to be seen to be on the wrong side of the powers that be. Even when the White House declared to the world: `Either you are with us or against us,' the media failed in its duty of hard questioning. It is the duty of the government to manage the media while the latter's job is to be vigilant," he says.

The reason for toeing the official line, perhaps, is ownership. "Most American media is owned by listed corporates, for whom the bottomline is more important. Today the American journalism is dull," he says. The singular focus on the bottomline has, in turn, impacted full time journalists.

"There have been instances where permanent journalists were asked to quit and hired back at a lower pay. The journalist job market is now at its worst in the past four decades," he feels. In addition, journalistic jobs have also begun to be outsourced. Conditions will improve, he predicts, but it could take quite some time.

A history graduate from St Stephen's College, New Delhi, Sreenivasan has a Master of Science degree in Journalism from Columbia. After working in Indian publications like The Sunday Observer, New Generation and Business Today, he migrated to the US. He was recently in Chennai and spoke at length about the American media scenario. He thinks the Indian language media has a good potential market in the US, and some are already taking advantage of it.

Excerpts from an interview:

What prompted you to form the South Asian Journalists' Association?
For most US citizens, the world does not extend beyond their town. The media focuses mainly on local issues. That is why on September 10, 2001, a major American magazine decided to close down its Islamabad bureau; just a day before the attack on the World Trade Centre!

Most Americans think 'Asian' means East Asians - Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese. Even the average journalist's knowledge of Asia and Asians is limited. They don't know the difference between Hindu and Hindi, and use these words interchangeably. As a result, media reporting here may seem to be biased against India and other Asian countries. This 'bias' is actually a result of ignorance. It is this ignorance that Saja is trying to address. We try to present the South Asian perspective and get more coverage for the region. The other mandate is to bring second generation Indians into journalism.

It is said a strong or firebrand editor is a nostalgic myth. Your view.
This is partly true. There are very few editors now who command that kind of respect and power. Everyone agrees that nowadays, American journalism is dull. Earlier, in newspaper offices, people were divided into two categories - suits (non-editorial executives) and non-suits (editorial staff). Today, too many editors and journalists fall under the suit category, and look only at the bottomline.

When the media focuses on the bottomline and tries not to rub the government the wrong way, how as a journalism teacher do you inspire enthusiasm and confidence among your students?
As a teacher I can have higher standards and infuse fire into the students. But corporate outfits don't have that. The media companies are publicly held, with shareholders and a board of directors.

What kind of students join journalism courses today? Do they have any sort of idealism?
Students are idealistic; they want to change the world with their writing. That is what keeps a journalist going. There are a lot of left-leaning journalists still. Earlier, conservatives didn't get into this profession, but now more and more conservatives are coming into the media. Today's young journalists are less cynical, which actually is good. Journalism needs people with ideas, not cynics.

The image of the American media has been hit. How does that affect enrolment in your college, especially when good journalism schools are being set up in other countries?
We don't find any impact on admissions. Issuing of visas is the big problem now. However, I must say that there is a big fall in the number of students who come from Arab countries, as they have set up their own journalism schools.

It is said that first generation Indians find it difficult to get a media or reporting job in the US. Your comments.
Earlier, there were lots of journalism jobs for first generation Indians. But now opportunities have fallen. When there is a shortage of jobs, one has to justify the decision of hiring a foreigner. However, there are good growth opportunities for Indians in the ethnic media.

How is the market for freelancers in the US?
In the US, freelancing is big and large newspapers pay decent sums. They also offer what is called the 'kill fee' - a payment for not publishing a commissioned article.

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US media: Crisis of confidence