Monday, 18 May 2009

Verdict 2009 and the Media

Why was Verdict 2009 such a surprise for most people? Till the exit polls results came in, all the newspapers and television channels were predicting a completely fractured mandate. The Third Front, practically everyone asserted, was going to form the government. Newspapers and channels were anointing prime ministers – Mayawati, Jayalalitha, Deve Gowda.

And then came the exit poll results, which showed the UPA getting a clear edge over the NDA. The Third Front was hardly in the picture. The results were described as a surprise.

But should it have been a huge surprise? Especially for the media, which is supposed to be able to read the pulse of the nation?

This takes me back to Verdict 2004. The defeat of the NDA was also completely unexpected. Nobody, but nobody, believed that. Not even the Congress.

Now that probably shows that party leaderships are not in touch with the grassroots. That is a problem of the political parties which they need to address themselves. But should that also be true of the press? Shouldn’t the media, which is supposed to go out into the field and get a sense of what’s happening on the ground, be so divorced from reality? How could it not get a sense of such an overwhelming sentiment – the desire for a stable government?

This shows, quite clearly, that journalism is no longer about arduous legwork, about going out into the field, talking to people and sitting down and connecting the dots. Sure, every paper had sent people out, done features on key constituencies, factors at work in particular areas etc. In some cases, their prediction was also right. Some papers did predict the defeat of Ram Vilas Paswan and P Chidambaram (he almost lost, but won in a recount). But they all missed the larger trend that was clearly shaping up.

My guess is they looked at the parties forming the Third Front, took their party positions in the last Lok Sabha and decided that they would get the same number of seats. Nobody obviously thought that they could fare much worse. Just as in 2004, they preferred to go along with the whole hype created by BJP strategists in Delhi.

I think this is happening because it was only during elections that journalists really hit the roads to the interiors. Or that Delhi-based journalists were in most cases catapulted into the field during this period. But the mood of a nation is build up over months. If the press had really been doing stories from the grassroots (urban or rural), I doubt if they would have missed this trend.

Or it could be (and that is a far more distinct possibility) the people out in the field did get a sense of what was going to happen, but the editors, sitting in their ivory towers, blinkers firmly on, and hobnobbing with the political biggies in Delhi, didn’t take what they reported seriously.

This lack of field reporting also showed up in the obsession of election coverage with what L K Advani said about Manmohan Singh, what Manmohan Singh said about Advani, what Priyanka Gandhi wore and what she felt about Rahul’s marital and political prospects, what Sonia Gandhi said about Advani and Manmohan. Surely there were other things these leaders (barring Priyanka whom I don’t consider a leader) said in their speeches. Did we ever get a sense of that? No.

And then there were stories about which Third Front leader met which Fourth Front leader, why this UPA leader nod at that NDA leader. I have never come across such drivel masquerading as election coverage. And then television channels have the nerve to tell us this was an issue-less election!!! If it was issueless, Verdict 2009 wouldn’t have been what it was. If it was issueless, it was because the media reported it so.

Verdict 2009 only reinforces what Verdict 2004 showed – that the media isn’t doing its job properly.

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