Media’s silence on Cobrapost ‘sting’: A fresh blow to credibility
As anticipated, mainstream media blacked out any ‘news’ of the purported sting operation conducted by Cobrapost on ‘content for cash’. Unexpectedly, the news didn’t trend on social media either
The only way the mainstream media can justify their silence on Cobrapost’s purported sting operation codenamed “Operation 136” is by pointing out that no money was actually paid or received and no report or programmme that media outlets offered to promote in lieu of payments was either published or broadcast. Indeed, some outlets can well claim that they knew all along that this was a hoax and had no intention of following through. At least one of them has reacted by claiming that it had turned down the proposal.
For the benefit of readers who may not have seen the two-hour long video, the ‘sting’ operation secretly recorded conversations with marketing and media executives, owners and managers, who agreed to defame political leaders and parties, carry communal and polarising content, dilute criticism of the ruling party, promote soft Hindutva through programmes on mythology and religion and even offered to do ‘character assassination’ of opposition leaders as well as ministers in the Modi ministry. All for promised payments that ranged from ₹6 to ₹50 crore. The temptation was clearly hard to resist.
Those who work in the industry have of course known the ‘worst kept secret’ for a fairly long time. And discerning viewers and readers have suspected this for at least as long. It may not, therefore, have come as a complete surprise to an industry which no longer survives on advertisement revenue but on ‘events’ to promote varying interests, thinly disguised advertorials and paid news.
The industry can scarcely ignore the message conveyed by the ‘sting’. If media moguls are so willing to compromise principles and public interest for ‘returns’ , ‘revenue’ and ‘rewards’, they have only themselves to blame if the industry and the profession are compared to the oldest profession in the world
The purported sting operation strikes yet another blow at the fast eroding credibility of the Indian media. Barring big and older media houses, media outlets seldom make money. And people invest in the media in this country to gain some leverage with business and the government, to influence public opinion etc. But even investors like the richest Indian expect the media to earn as much revenue as the outlet can possibly generate. But while the Indian media have been busy promoting the interests and the agenda of the wealthy and the powerful, the ‘sting’ now shows them to be just as willing to promote divisive, communal and defamatory content.
The importance of the Cobrapost ‘sting’ therefore lies in the mirror that it shows to the fourth estate, in the knowledge that media owners and executives are willing to meet complete strangers, howsoever dubious, and discuss shady deals as long as the payment is attractive enough. If they can welcome an undercover reporter masquerading as ‘Acharya Atal’ (their antennae should have gone up and they should have done a thorough background check first), they would surely be even more obliging to do the bidding of far better known politicians, more formidable and more established if the reward is commensurate to the risk.
One must concede that the media have been guilty for a long time of accepting advertisements from dubious sources making equally dubious claims. Fake universities, fly-by-night chit fund operators, Ayurvedic products claiming to cure cancer, astrologers promising to solve all earthly problems etc, have all found it easy to buy legitimacy through advertising in established media. Politicians and political parties too have been exploiting the weakness by demanding content that damages their rivals and promotes them. While editorial content can land the editor and the publisher in prison, there is much less accountability when it comes to advertisements and revenue.
The industry can scarcely ignore the message conveyed by the ‘sting’. If media moguls are so willing to compromise principles and public interest for ‘returns’ , ‘revenue’ and ‘rewards’, they have only themselves to blame if the industry and the profession are compared to the oldest profession in the world.