The myth of the "national" news channel

In case you haven’t heard — and you probably haven’t because our “national” news channels think celebrities, the 9/11 anniversary, and random Delhi/Mumbai happenings are more important than a flood that has devastated hundreds of villages — Large parts of coastal Odisha are suffering the effects of severe rains and extensive floods. The only reason I know of this is because all my friends and family are in Odisha and I keep getting updates over phone from them. The only other source of news about the ongoing flood situation in Odisha is the OTV channel and the website. People in whole villages are stranded on their rooftops, waiting for relief material from the government to arrive.

I am not here to complain about the floods. I want to point out something more general than that — the “national news channel” label and how it distorts more than just our information priorities.

Why exactly do the likes of CNN-IBN, Times Now, and NDTV call themselves “national” channels? All they ever seem to do is dance around the metros and sing about metropolitan concerns. Every broken branch and water-filled pothole in Delhi and Mumbai is flashed as ‘Breaking News’ while LARGE parts of India, especially the villages, remain absent from our TV screens (unless some gross “human rights violation” takes place which city-bred studio pundits can then pontificate on). Heck, when they are not doing politics (which is at least relevant), they would fill in the moments with garbage on celebrities and the occasional brainless sportstar caper, but far be it from them to spare a glance at the rest of the nation. Unless there is a scam (flavour of the season), anything outside of the metros seems undeserving of their attention.

Any citizen of India with half-a-brain should be able to tell that the matters that are served to us every weeknight as national concerns are anything but that. At best, they involve the political fates of a couple of hundred people and at worst, they are flimsy little bits of nothingness that have caught the personal fancy of a celebrity news anchor (editorial meetings my ass!). But such is the state of affairs that a large number of us have started equating the state of Delhi with the state of India.

One of the phone calls I have made in the past 24 hours has been to my friend Adi in Jagatsinghpur, Odisha. He is a school teacher who cycles 20 kilometres to a school in neighbouring Kendrapara everyday and back (that’s 40KM in total). He teaches kids spoken English. His village has been officially warned of possible flooding and he, along with his extended family (parents, younger brother and his wife and baby, and Adi himself) have moved all their stuff to the rooftop. They stay awake during nights for obvious reasons. Hundreds of neighbouring villages in the region are underwater by now and the coming 48 hours will decide what shape things will take.

Adi called me a few days ago, while his village was still being battered by rains, and asked me how I was. Puzzled, I asked him what he was talking about and he told me his TV was showing him images of Delhi under severe rains and that the voice-over was saying “aam janjeevan ast-vyast”. I laughed and told him not to believe the news channels as what passes for “severe rains” in Delhi would not even be called a drizzle in Odisha.

Adi took what the channels were saying at face value. It’s on TV, he thought, so it must be important. This, by the way, is also how most of us think, even if unconsciously. A news channel’s choice of topics is very likely to influence our own ideas about what is important and what is not. Day in and day out, TV convinces us that some things are more representative of “the nation’s mood” and that a studio anchor has his “finger on the pulse of the nation”. Horse shit! Adi, in spite of being under rains (REAL rains mind you, not Delhi drizzles) thought that the rains in Delhi must somehow be worse than the rains in remote old Jagatsinghpur. It did not occur to him that maybe TV exaggerates things, or lies, or is just plain stupid as far as prioritising information is concerned. It should have.

I am not asking the “national” channels to change. I know they can’t. I am only pointing out the mislabeling at work here. Central solutions suck in general. News channels are no exception. This applies more to limited media like TV (time limit) and newspapers (space limit). On the web, one is at least free to choose his news and go local if he/she wants to.

Our “national” news channels are national only in that they have their headquarters in the national capital and other national hubs. Odia channels show me news of Thailand more often than the national channels show me news of Odisha. Their view of the world is their business, but their view of India is indeed much in need of an update.