“Surely, you must be joking, Mr President?”

The outgoing Indian head of state, Avul Pakir Jainulbdeen Abdul Kalam, has been a darling of the media. His hair, his “repeat-after-me” routine, his air and submarine rides, his telegenic effervescence, and not least the relatively easier access journalists have had to his little hut on top of Raisina Hill have endeared the cameras, in particular, to the People’s President.

It’s now the turn of Kalam to return the favour. In an interaction with editors and journalists of the newsagency Press Trust of India, the missile technologist has sought to convey that journalism is no rocket science by suggesting that the rapidly vanishing pocket cartoon be put back on the front pages of our newspapers.

“On the first page, when you see a cartoon, it puts a smile on your face. The rest of the news is about things like rape, theft and killing. The man or the child or the woman is happy to see the cartoon. You must bring back the cartoon on the first page,” Kalam said.

“A man or a woman should smile in the morning. Don’t make him or her unhappy.”

No one will grudge the Commander-in-Chief batting for the “Man from Matunga” epitomised by R.K. Laxman‘s pocket cartoon. At least we don’t. But notice that Kalam’s accent is not on the hard-hitting barbs of political cartoonists like Unny (The Indian Express) or Keshav (The Hindu) that takes the pants out of those making a monkey of us, but on the juvenile jokes that so many illustrators have been reduced to churning out at the behest of weak-kneed editors and publishers.

No one will find fault, either, with some of the other eminently logical and reasonable points he makes. That the media should not think that the world begins and ends at the geographical borders of Delhi, that more stories should be reported from the rural areas, that politics is not the be-all and end-all of journalism, that there should be greater accuracy. Etcetera.

But it is Kalam’s key point—made at other gatherings too in the past to the usual starry-eyed applause—that somehow the media is intentionally, deliberately, obsessively, subversively negative, and that it has to play the role of a rocket booster in making the reader feel good every morning that makes you wonder if what he is advocating isn’t a wee bit naive if not downright dangerous.

Something that could propel the rest of the media in the same, unfortunate direction of some newspapers that have made the gung-ho, India Shining, India Rising story their editorial policy, turned their publications into advertising tipsheets, and squandered the mandate and power to make a difference that their reach brings.

The PTI story of the interaction with the President quotes Kalam as saying success stories and positive news should be highlighted and that the media should act as a a motivator for people, particularly those hailing from rural areas.

“When atrocities, problems or misgovernance are reported, efforts also may be made in larger public interest to provide positive direction for improvement,” he said.

Sure, the President isn’t saying we should ignore death, disease, despair, corruption, crime, ineffiency and incompetence. But he is also saying that we should consciously make an effort at making the reader feel nice and good and happy.

Surely, that’s entertainment, not journalism?

And surely, that’s the job of advertising, not journalism?

No editor wants to turn his paper into a boring, “bad news” paper. No journalist ignores happy, unusual things—if and when they happen. And, truth to tell, the evidence of newspapers and journalists deliberately ignoring “good news” is thin, if not non-existent.

Indeed, on current evidence, can anybody argue that our papers are getting hopelessly frivolous?

Given such a situation, should we all be consciously, purposefully splattering sweetness, and an all-is-well-with-the-world view on our front pages every night just so that the reader wakes up nice and early and manages a smile, howsoever artificial, ephemeral and manufactured it may be?

Surely, the President of India knows better?

As it is the embrace of market-friendly, feel-good news has turned some of India’s biggest newspapers into an effete bubble in which venal politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, businessmen and other crooks and criminals eating into the vitals of our country safely, happily and incestuously cohabit.

Should the rest take Kalam’s advice seriously and turn their publications newspapers into entertainment? And at what cost to our democracy?

If anything, Kalam should be directly his barb at the party of the second part—namely, the politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, businessmen and other crooks and criminals eating into the vitals of our country. He should be exhorting them to do their job properly.

Then, maybe then, the media will have no incentive to highlight their graft and sleaze, their inefficiency and incompetence. And then, maybe then, there is a case for spreading some cheer. Till such time, Mr President—repeat after us—the Indian media is doing fine, thank you.

If anything, we must be doing more of what we are doing, not less.

Also read: ‘Why is Indian media so negative?’

Cross-posted on sans serif