Changing times

The free press is the mother of all liberties, and our progress under liberty.
Adlai Stevenson

Mumbai: Stevenson should have known. He knew the power of the press. It is by now well established that he lost the US presidential election (not once, but twice) because of his irrepressible wit which the Fourth Estate failed to savour. And after seeing the political failure of such a man, American politicians seem to have, despite occasional lapses, taken seriously the advice preferred by Senator Thomas Corwin to James Garfield: "Never make people laugh. If you would succeed in life, you must be solemn; solemn as an ass. All great monuments are built on solemn assess."

Whatever flaws the American press might have (remember the latest euphemistic term, 'embedded journalism'), it adhered to at least one principle (not forgetting the recent shameful happenings in The New York Times): never sell editorial space — at least not blatantly. And we, Indians, have managed to do that, too.

Stevenson knew the power of the press, and he later became careful in not antagonising the media. So do most politicians in India. So, how does one ensure s/he will get a good press? Earlier it was a bit difficult; now it is quite simple. The Times of India, a leading English newspaper in the country, has devised a strategy: marketing editorial space in the newspapers the Times group publishes. It's simple. If you are a politician who is finding hard to defend the corruption charges against you, a corporate chieftain who wants to settle scores with your business rivals, or a Bollywood starlet who wants to remain in the limelight, all you have to do is to pay money and feature in the news columns or other editorial space.

Now, Senator Thomas Corwin is wrong. You don't have to be solemn as an ass to build great monuments; you can, instead, make the common reading public a much bigger ass and rule till kingdom come. All thanks to the new-found concept of selling editorial space, and in the vanguard is the "leader who guards the reader."

It took some time for the truth to come out of the closet. In fact, trivialisation of news came first. And before that came the technological advancement. With the advent of new technology, the press too underwent a sea change. From hand-composing and flatbed printing, the industry moved to the linotype and rotary press. By the late eighties, photo offset laser-printing machines replaced them. And in the sophisticated nineties, one could find anyone between a sub-editor and the printer redundant, as the press room computer would do the work of a proof-reader, layout artist, visualiser, plate-maker, bromide and camera operator... all at one keystroke.