The Media is the Massage

It was Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian intellectual and philosopher, who coined the famous catchphrase “The medium is the message.” He observed that “societies have always been shaped by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.” McLuhan avers that the consequences of the media are so pervasive in every aspect of life that they touch and alter every part of human existence. I confess I was not even aware that McLuhan was the co-author of a book “The Medium is the Massage” when I conceived the title for this blog. So it is rather apt that I emphasise in this blog the central argument of McLuhan that each medium has a different impact on the human senses, confining my discussion to the print and electronic media (what I would loosely term as “information media”) in India.
The era of the print media in India, spanning most of the twentieth century, was characterised largely by reporting drawing on agency reports. Investigative reporting was given a fillip by newspapers like the Indian Express, which documented the plight of women sold into sexual slavery, the cement for trust scandal in Maharashtra and the origins and consequences of communal riots in different parts of the country. However, the reader participated at most vicariously in most of these rather sombre accounts of the polity and society. They agitated some who sought to change the status quo but were largely “water off the duck’s back” as far as the silent majority of middle class readers were concerned. I do not, of course, refer here to blatantly inflammatory writings (which surfaced increasingly towards the close of the 1980s) in newspapers and journals espousing extreme religious views, which had the potential (often through misleading or false reporting) to inflame public passions.
The explosion of the television revolution in Indian homes and the exponential increase in electronic broadcast channels has had a phenomenal quantitative and qualitative impact on viewers. It cuts across barriers of gender and age in the ordinary household, unlike the daily newspaper, which was largely the staple fare of the head of the house (usually male). Again, this medium could be consumed around the clock, in contrast to its print predecessor, which lost its novelty by mid-morning. Post the 1982 Asiad, televisions entered almost every living room (and subsequently bedrooms) in India. I can’t help thinking, a little cynically, that the government of the day saw this as a medium to influence the masses (after all, Orwellian 1984 was fast approaching!). However, the early fascination was for soap operas (long denied to the starved Indian public) and religious epics. The latter probably spawned a rush of religiosity, reflected in subsequent electoral mandates to parties with specific sectarian appeals. Soap operas and family dramas stoked the aspirations of millions of viewers, with coiffured ‘bahus’ (even when rising from bed) and magnificent houses on display. In an economy and society with limited opportunities for upward mobility, one could at least dream of, in not actually attain, the Olympian heights of material success. The “massage” of the masses could well and truly be said to have begun.
The next wave of “media massage” was ushered in by the advent of 24-hour television news channels. Starting with English and Hindi, they expanded to every major regional language spoken in India. As their reach extended throughout the country with the spread of cable networks and, subsequently, direct to home (DTH) television services, news channels metamorphosed from purveying to shaping and influencing public opinion. When information is hammered relentlessly hour after hour on the consciousness of the viewer, the resulting “analysis fatigue” leads to a willingness to accept the presented version as the unvarnished truth. The dictum “No news is good news” was stood on its head and “Good news is no news” became the accepted norm. News channels, in their quest for “grabbing eyeballs”, started feeding on the anxieties of their viewers. I had personal experience of this more than a decade ago as a senior administrator in Maharashtra. A well-known Hindi news channel flashed a late night report of an earthquake in an area, when we were aware that the locals had reported some noises emanating from the ground and the local administration had already taken precautionary measures. The next two hours saw panic-stricken calls from the state government in Mumbai and verification calls from other journalists. The concerned news channel did not even clarify that their report had been exaggerated. I also remember vividly a prominent murder case in Mumbai where one news channel pronounced a guilty verdict on a friend of the deceased within hours of the murder, without even waiting for the police to complete their investigation and arrest the actual accused. In this case, too, there was no retraction or apology from the channel for having falsely maligned an innocent person. Today, we have channels which, under the guise of rapid news, will report every case of murder, dacoity, etc. Not only that, the pernicious practice of painting persons, including bureaucrats, as guilty solely on the grounds that they are questioned by investigative agencies has caused untold anguish and represents a violation of their rights as citizens. The public, attuned to the “bad news” of low moral and ethical values, is only too ready to lap up salacious details of any occurrence, with truth often being the first casualty.
Spirituality and astrology are two other areas where the Indian television viewer seeks refuge from the pressures of modern life. Adrift from her traditional caste and village moorings, the viewer absorbs messages from a wide variety of gurus and godmen, cutting across religious and caste lines. Anxieties about the future are also cleverly exploited by the legion of astrologers who have set up shop on different channels. One well-known astrologer on a regional religious channel predicted apocalypse two years back. The world continues on its merry ways, but the astrologer (alas!) has vanished from the channel. A wide variety of mantras, observances, medicines, amulets and stones are offered as solace to the hordes of seekers of jobs, marriage alliances, good health and progeny. What is noticeable is the intricate mesh of spiritual and temporal-commercial interests. After a few cursory suggestions, the viewer is provided with mobile numbers and websites to fix appointments and obtain remedies on payment basis. I am not passing value judgments on these practices on television channels, merely observing that the “massage” has moved from catering to aspirations to stoking insecurities to providing a quick fix to all the myriad problems that beset us in our daily existence.
What concerns me about the “media massage” phenomenon is the growing lack of discrimination of the television viewer. The lack of critical reflection on what one reads has already been one of the consequences of the sub-Rs. 100 book industry, with its “use and throw” philosophy. When this extends to a far more pervasive medium like 24-hour channels, the brainwashing of the individual can be far more thorough and comprehensive. Consumerism has already taken a firm hold on viewers, with infinite products displayed on channels dedicated to sale of a wide variety of products. Greed, rather than need, dictates buying impulses, in the mad rush to keep up with the Patels/Sharmas, et al. Superstitious behaviour is being given a fillip by programmes on supernatural events and dire predictions on events likely to occur in the near future as well as measures to ward off evil effects. There is also the concern that politics and history can be doctored to inundate the viewer with sectarian views aimed at creating collective insecurity and reinforcing separate community identities. With the phenomenon of paid news in the print media in relation to election campaigns, who is to say that poll predictions will not be doctored to meet the interests of different political parties? However, one remains optimistic given the number of dissenting and discordant voices which prevail on the media, as well as the competition among channels espousing different points of view. Finally, the enigmatic Indian voter, like the moving finger “writes and, having writ, moves on…” Thanks be for the eternally argumentative Indian and our noisy, occasionally exasperating democracy!!

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2 Responses to The Media is the Massage

  1. a s ratnam says:

    your ‘passage’ on media’massage’ is welcome. Ravinar of mediacrooks is doing good service to media watchers.
    A warning to viewers not to be influenced by paid/partial media.
    survival of democracy depends on judicious reporting and cautious consuming of NEWS.

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