Journalism in times of lockdown: Re-living the journey from the highway
Ground reports from highways, hospitals, bytes of people manning mortuary and driving ambulances and of families stoically walking through the night to reach home are stuff of sensational reporting
Two things have always marked good journalism, a genuine curiosity about life and a restlessness to be constantly on the move, to be the first on ground zero. Good reporting is like a pilgrimage, an offering made with humility to the people.
While journalism has taken a beating during the past several years, the lockdown in the wake of the pandemic has thrown up some vintage reporting by both the young and the older ones. But two battle scarred veterans have stood out. Ravish Kumar and Barkha Dutt.
The former the Managing Editor of the Hindi channel NDTV India and the latter now the owner-anchor of the news channel Mojo on YouTube. Ravish prefers to speak in colloquial Hindi. He describes himself as an incomplete poet, two-thirds a blogger and one quarter writer. Barkha does her programming largely in English. Both are excellent narrators and display a stubborn refusal to compromise with the truth.
What’s more, unlike many of their peers they are not averse to go to the ground and sweat it out. Both of them are not studio-bound, whipping up disinformation and passion as some of the other anchors are doing.
On the contrary, they have been taking long, risky and dusty drives and treks into small towns and rural India to report from the ground. It is all there on the Net and they are worth watching. I have known Barkha since she wore a school uniform, a spunky girl with a booming laugh and an air of defiance. In the first 21 years of her career she shot to fame with her reports from war zones, from fields in rural India, from foreign capitals and speaking to army jawans patrolling the borders.
She put together a much watched weekly studio discussion called ‘We the People’ on prime time NDTV where she worked. Then she moved out. Ravish is of course a Magasaysay awardee and Barkha a Padmashri. Between the arrival and spread of COVID-19, she has stepped out of the studio and become one with the job- less, penniless, unorganised migrants and their families.
She is talking of children pulled out of schools, of bro- ken-down healthcare and food delivery systems and exposing gaps with the advantage of online classes and children of a lesser god who stare at a bleaker future. On a month-long trip into the heartland, she is filing brilliant reports about the dispossessed as they walk on the deserted highways, hungry and thirsty, or sit huddled in air- less hovels, where governments have quarantined and stigmatised them in the eyes of their fellow villagers. We see Barkha shrugging off her own privileged upbringing.
From a journalist who studied at the Columbia School and was at ease interviewing US Presidents and First Ladies, she has begun a new chapter of her career as a grassroot journalist telling stories of the common Indian. As she chats in simple Hindustani with men, women and children who speak no English, she has also come face to face with the deep scars communalism has left on the lives of majority of the minority community.
She is no longer talking to the Muslim elite but those who stand at the bottom of the social pyramid, subject to vicious communal propaganda and driven into ghettos everywhere, from Srinagar to Siwan. Magsaysay awardee Ravish is different. He has fiercely penetrating and watchful eyes that crease with a smile when he wisecracks. A reporter who anchors his own show, he also writes a very readable blog in Hindi (naisadak.org).
He had a popular Twitter presence but after trolls took to posting death threats to him and his family, he closed his Twitter account but has continued with his anchoring and writing his blog which is reproduced in the Hindi daily, Jansatta.
He uses idiomatic and colloquial Hindi to build bridges across a dozen states of the Hindi belt that dominates India’s democratic discourse in Parliament and out on the streets. His past work is full of reports on migrants in mega cities, living in hovels and dreaming of a better life, watching films on their cheap Chinese mobile handsets, surrounded by portraits of gods.
He recently began a programme by saying, “Main Ravish Kumar, Gair Rajnitik Prime time mein bore ho gaya hoon.” (I Raveesh Kumar am getting bored with the apolitical prime time). He waves at the empty studio and shows his gloved hands before pointing out how for India human ‘touch’ is a vital communicator and socialising is the soul of community living. And now suddenly all that has been put off limits by “Social Distancing”.
He hastens to say that it is for people’s own good, but adds wryly, “Mahamari ke sath Moorkhata bhi viral ho rahi hai”... ( Stupidity has also gone viral like the pandemic). He brings to the table a healthy disrespect for the politically correct. He dares to show us empty streets where dogs and human beings are together lapping up milk spilled on the road. He talks of how those who kept the nation going, who lost their land and forests to help build its dams and roads and corporate towers, and who voted for the present government in large numbers have been duped.
Both Raveesh and Barkha deserve fulsome praise for reporting without dogma or cynicism. Their focus remains what the Latin phrase calls Silva rerum: the forest of things. They’ve seen and travelled through dirt and grime and violence. Their journey is truly the song of the road. Truly a ‘Pather Panchali’.