Saturday, July 05, 2008

The crime merchants

Source: The Hindu


If crime and real-life violence are easy ways of increasing the consumer base for news channels today, it is because the demand is there, with new viewers bringing in different expectations. Why this obsession with morbidity?

We now have the statistics to quantify just how much of an overkill the Aarushi-Hemraj double murder case saw from the media. A study by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) says that six channels beamed news and special programmes on the double murder for 39.30 hours out of a total 92 hours prime time — from 19:00 hrs to 23:00 hrs — between May 16 and June 7.

That’s 42 per cent of prime time over 23 days. The following channels — DD News, Zee News, Aaj Tak, Star News, NDTV 24x7 and CNN-IBN — telecast 234 news reports and 62 special programmes during the period. While Zee News topped the list with a coverage of close to 11 hours with 48 reports and 21 special programmes, DD News’ coverage of the crime was at the bottom with 24 reports running into just 41 minutes over the 23 days under review. Thank the Lord for small mercies.

When crime pays

What are the ways in which to live off a crime story? Here is a random but authentic sampling.

  • Times Now tracking her calls from cell phone call records leaked to them. Run numbers and times on the screen of who called Aarushi when, whom she called when.
  • NDTV showing a video of the dead girl doing normal things when she was alive.
  • Zee News informing us that this is the day when the CBI’s remand over Krishna ended. So? So nothing, just reminding you, that’s the news.
  • India TV conducting a monologue on a TV tower. Intoning, “Yeh mobile tower sab jaanta hai. Sector 25 ka tower. Sector 19, 20, 21 ke range mein hai.” This is the mobile tower that knows it all. Show it rising above the rooftops and say, Who was where? What was their location? This tower knows it all.
  • Headlines Today’s long feature on unsolved murders which enables them to dwell on each one, and fill a half hour slot.
  • Cyrus Broacha being funny on CNN IBN: “The CBI is looking for a khukri. Why look for a khukri when you already have a Talwar?”
  • Aaj Tak showing two presenters going around a flat which they said was exactly similar to the Talwars’ and was in the same complex. They show us the location of Arushi’s room and her parent’s room and Hemraj’s room. There is a model lying on the bed in Aarushi’s “room” placed exactly like it reportedly was, and there are blood stains on the door. (They kept saying this was reconstructed from CBI information) Then build a case for the fact that there was no way her parents could not have heard noises, despite the AC. Ergo, the Talwars’ testimony is fishy.
  • India TV’s amateur sleuthing: Krishna is lying when he says he flushed the khukri down the toilet. But look, we’ll show you how 10 minutes of repeated flushing does not flush a khukri! So a potty was there for 10 minutes on the TV screen, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, flushing away.
  • The judgment is announced in the Bijal date rape case. Headlines Today reconstructs the case with alacrity, using music and taglines like “Love Destroyed”. The anchor has an unhurried conversation with the victim’s sister. Then it goes off into Date Rape as an issue and live off that for several minutes.
  • News 24, Breaking News: No evidence against Rajesh! No evidence against Nupur! Wow. That really is breaking news, isn’t it?

    Did we become crime junkies overnight? Or are we seeing the multiplier effect of a trend that has been for some time in the making?

    Commercial compulsions

    Selling crime (and through it morbidity) are the route to widening the consumer base for news. Hindi newspapers emphasised crime when they were catering to first-time subscribers and trying to create readers in places where there had been none. Back in 2003, sitting in the office of the Hindustan in Patna, I got my first lesson in the importance of crime news and criminals. Said the resident editor: “Gangsters have become MLAs. Every political leader, every criminal wants to be covered in the Hindustan.” And the chief executive of the paper said that they worked hard to figure out what new readers in small towns and villages wanted to read about: “Crime news they want of whole State. Political news they do not want. Crime is on top of everybody’s concern, crime has to be there.”

    It takes demand to create supply. Crime would not trigger the media imagination the way it does without a society which hankers for such coverage. So what is it about middle class TV consumers the world over which makes crime coverage so irresistible to them? One answer is that it affects their lives. It has immediacy. As the owner of News 24 said in an interview a couple of years ago, to a man in Bahraich, it’s far more important that a local criminal has been caught than the talk about government formation in Bihar.

    That’s one part of the argument. The other is that with the steady influx of new news consumers into the viewer universe, there are constant shifts in a country like India in what people want to see on a news channel. A Star News executive commenting on news trends in 2007 said that the last few years had seen more new viewers added, many of whom have non-traditional preferences. A new news consumer is inevitably a less sophisticated news consumer, more attracted to neighbourhood crime and bizarreness than matters of State.

    Channels responded by adding reality show content news. The Star executive said, in 2007, news became more encompassing than ever before. “Thus, it was no coincidence that the year of experimentation was also the year that saw genre expansion.” (On Get that: when news stretches to encompass the bizarre and freakish, it is called genre expansion. Such expansion has now taken India TV to the top of the ratings chart.

    Changing definitions

    Statistics illustrate the broader trend of shifts in the content of news. The Centre for Media Studies in Delhi did a study which showed that the time spent on political news in the year 2007 has come down by more than 50 per cent. Political news coverage by Hindi news channels dipped from 23.1 per cent in 2005 to 10.09 per cent in 2007.

    But sports, entertainment, crime and human interest news coverage almost doubled from 27.9 per cent in 2005 to 53.1 per cent in 2007. At the same time, agriculture, education, health and environment-related news have not seen any net change; their coverage has been as insignificant in 2007 as earlier. Corruption, TV executives report, is no longer of interest to their audiences.

    Another important catalyst has been competition itself. With each new channel that breaks into the market, the distribution costs rise because DTH bouquets and cable operators increase their carriage fees. This now runs into a few crores per channel. When competition increases and distribution costs increase you balance your budget by cutting on news gathering costs. India TV recently spent a good 15 to 20 minutes showing how a magician had made a prostrate girl rise into the air without visible support.

    Think of what it would have cost to substitute that time period with hard news from several locations, and you will know why we see the news we do.

    The assault on young minds

    Photo: G.R.N. Somashekar

    Growing up with the TV: When children are the audience, channels need to be discriminating.

    Television is called The Other Parent because of the amount of time children spend in its company. In a book titled The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on our Children, Stanford professor James P. Steyer argues that the lack of social responsibility in many media companies as they cater to stockholders over children has meant that children are exposed to sex, coarseness, violence, and commercialism long before they are ready to understand them.

    In the Aarushi murder case, middle and upper middle class children too were sufficiently exposed to the crime’s coverage for the following to be noticed:

  • Children who reported a new fear of servants in the house.
  • Children who developed a fear of what their own parents could do to them.
  • Older children who were disturbed at the loss of privacy suffered by a dead teenager.

    Steyer suggests the following are essential for parents to do:

  • Putting kids on a media diet
  • Finding alternative activities for them besides television and the Internet.
  • Discovering what they think about the commercials, programmes and music they encounter on a daily basis.
  • Organising advocacy groups, contacting government leaders, and boycotting media outlets that target children with inappropriate content.

    Our news channels would argue that they do not target children. But the majority of Indian homes are one-room homes where children watch what adults watch. Parents will need to make more of an effort to understand what children absorb from the media they consume.

  • Can you keep a secret?

    Source: The Hindu


    If you are living life in victim mode, some essential reading to get you going on a positive, fulfilling path.

    The Secret, Rhonda Byrne, Beyond Words Publishing, Simon and Schuster,

    Rs. 550. ISBN 9781582701707

    Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,

    David Burns, Avon Books, Rs 246.

    ISBN: 9780380810338

    One unquestionable axiom of contemporary existence is that life is noisy. There is pressure all around us. Television, the print media and the Internet dictate our opinions, thought processes and general lifestyles. The morning commute sets the tone for our emotional state through the day. Relationships that we enter into in all good faith and with lots of good intent, make us envy Robinson Crusoe. The stock market’s capriciousness defeats our belief in rational processes. Add to this, our own ambitions and aspirations to achieve the kind of success that all those high-energy motivational speakers tell us is within our easy reach, and you have a potentially deadly recipe for early burnout. Little wonder then that most urban professionals feel they lead treadmill-lives, not knowing why their cheese keeps on moving and unsure if when they finally get to it, it will turn out to be stale and smelly.

    Forgive me if I’m depressing you on a perfectly pleasant Sunday morning. I am ordinarily a reasonably positive person, and am only trying to portray the experience of a state of existence described by psychologists as “the victim mode”. Individuals in this state see themselves as victims of an unpredictable environment and therefore retreat into a state of what Martin Seligman, an American psychologist, described as “learned helplessness”. To them, it appears that they have little control over their lives. As it did to an Australian lady in 2004. Rhonda Byrne’s life appeared to have fallen apart. She had overworked herself into a state of exhaustion, was traumatised by the death of her father and her personal relationships were in turmoil. Around this time, her daughter gave her a book called The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles, published in 1910. Reading it, Rhonda had something of an epiphany and discovered what she calls “The Secret”. Her search of The Secret’s origins led her to living masters and practitioners of The Secret and with their help and support, she made a documentary film, “The Secret”, which took the United States by storm, resulting, as such unqualified successes usually do, in an entire industry surrounding it ( ). And in 2006, the book version of The Secret made its best-selling appearance.

    New life to an old idea

    So, what then is Rhonda Byrne’s Secret? It is based on what has been described as a Universal Law — The Law of Attraction, an idea that has been around for millennia. Based on the principle that “Like Attracts Like”, it spawned what can be referred to as the Positive Thinking Movement that prevailed over the latter part of the 20th century. In 2004, it received a fresh shot in the arm with the publication of a whole series of books like Ask, And It Is Given, The Law of Attraction: The Basics of the Teachings of Abraham etc by Esther and Jerry Hicks. Byrne’s video, book and seminars, as well as a much-publicised interview on the Oprah Winfrey show, have brought the concept bang into the mainstream of American, and in recent times Indian, popular thought.

    The Law of Attraction basically postulates that human beings are rather like thought magnets. In other words whatever thoughts we think, we tend to attract similar thoughts to us. So if we think negative thoughts, we are encouraging the Universe to send negative thoughts our way. But if we think positively, we attract positive energy. Some quantum physicists have described the law as functioning by displacing energy and magnetic fields in as yet incompletely understood ways. In The Secret, Byrne, along with the several other gurus who are also credited with the book’s authorship (including, among others, Jack Canfield, the creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series) describes the three steps involved in making the law work for you. The first of these is that you should Ask or command the Universe for whatever you want. This should be stated in a positive way, otherwise you would attract something negative to you. The next step is to truly Believe that what you have asked for is already yours and behave as if you have already got it. Visualise it clearly and experience the sense of fulfilment that you expect from it. The final step is to Receive it. You can receive it only when you are prepared to and allow yourself to receive it. You need to recognise that it’s coming your way and embrace it.

    This, in a nutshell, is The Secret. If you want to understand this better and with examples and clear descriptions of each step of the process, I would recommend you invest Rs. 550 and read it. Handsomely produced, The Secret, even though a tad cheesy in places and sometimes a bit evangelical in its approach, serves to communicate the essentials of the Law of Attraction very effectively and can be inspiring to someone who is feeling victimised by life. I have found that some of the people I have recommended the book to have responded positively to it. Whether or not all their questions have been answered, I do not know. Whether they are really thought magnets, I cannot tell. Whether the Universe has conspired to make their dreams come true, I have little idea, even though this seems to stretch my rational mind somewhat. But I do know that they have felt better for having read it and have given themselves a jumpstart towards greater positivity in their lives. For those who require more pragmatic processes to get themselves out of their state of Learned Helplessness, I have also recommended, with some success Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns.

    A different approach

    The new mood therapy that Burns describes in his best selling classic is based on the principles of Cognitive Therapy, developed by an American psychiatrist called Aaron T. Beck. Where The Secret approaches the issue of positive thinking from an emotional-spiritual perspective, Feeling Good looks at it from the end of thought or cognition. Based on the understanding that negative thoughts result in negative feelings rather than the other way round, the book helps the reader to understand how these negative thoughts form automatically in one’s mind, thereby leading one in the direction of negative feelings and eventually negative actions. Burns goes into exhaustive detail and discusses a number of techniques that one can use to identify one’s negative thought processes and correct them by replacing negative automatic thoughts with more positive and healthy ones. Unlike The Secret, Feeling Good is not a curl-up sort of book. It demands more time, more application of thought, and some paper and pencils if you are going to get the best out of it.

    Probably the most important insight that both these books provide is that to make your life better, you have to want to make it better. You are the master of your destiny and it is only when you get your act together, will you be able to overcome life’s speed breakers, even if you are not the one that put them there in the first place. I would suggest that if you feel you have hit a bit of a roadblock and are feeling victimised and helpless, you might consider reading both the books. Then perhaps The Secret of Feeling Good will be yours for life.

    The H4 wives club

    Source: The Hindu


    Portraits of desi damsels in various degrees of visa distress in the U.S.

    F, L, H, J... No, I haven’t forgotten the alphabet. These are merely the different letters that govern the lives and times of most desis in the U.S. That’s the coveted Green-Card-less desis. If you ar e a student, you have to contend with the J and F visas, while professionals battle it out in the H and L arenas. And since fixing marriages is a national sport (read obsession), the most familiar category up for discussion and debate on desi wives is the H4 visa status.

    First, a little lesson in U.S. immigration. While the H4 visa allows spouses legal residence in the country, it does not permit them to work. So that’s pretty much a sure-fire route to turning the blushing bride into the bored and restless. Sure, you could study further but if you have already slogged through a Masters degree of your parent’s choosing, or worked in India, chances are that you are thinking, What! Not Again!

    So while these MA (hons) BA (hons) three years work experience at the Times of India/O&M/P&G wives are cooling their heels at home, the novelty of marriage and living in a new place invariably rubs off and things become increasingly mundane. Add a mind-numbing routine of cooking and cleaning to the recipe and you are ready for an excruciating taste of ennui. So what are these bored wives to do?

    The boredom manifests itself in interesting ways. Let’s go through a little sampling shall we? There are: the desi-party-throwing wives, the shop-till-I-drop wives, the my-husband-got-me-a-job-where-he-works wives and finally the I-am-no-longer-in-the-H4-wives-club –and-let-me-take-up-any-pause-in-conversation-to-reiterate-that wives.

    Enthusiastic bunch

    The desi-party-throwing wives are usually the most enthusiastic. You would have to be, to invite over 40 people to your home, entertain and feed them and then clean up afterwards. They are also a storehouse of information. I mean, how many people do you know who can tell you when Dussehra, Diwali, Chaat puja fall and when to perform Shri Maha Lakshmi Homam? They know all the best catering deals in town. They’ll throw a party as frequently as the falling dollar makes the news.

    They’ll invite all their friends, acquaintances and their acquaintance’s acquaintances. Everyone at the party will be desi. The women will dress in their most garish shaadi-ka-jodha, complete with maang-tikka, while the men will wear their jazziest kurta or Hawaiian shirt. (which is fast becoming some kind of desi style statement, right up there with the white shoes) These wives compete with each other to host over-the-top Karvachauth or Diwali parties or ones where unsuspecting hosts are subject to torturous party games.

    Then there are the shop-till-I-drop wives. They have probably hit all the malls in the entire continent. They live, breathe and eat shopping. They drop off their husbands to work and begin their retail therapy for six straight hours. Having scourged all the sale racks (desis are cheap, cheap, cheap remember? stories/2008060850070300.htm) in all the big stores, they form bands of two or four and head out for the outlet malls.

    They switch off their mobiles and shop with the single minded dedication and focus of an ant saving its winter hordes. Why they hoard 10 sets of crockery, frosty pink (!) glass horses and more shoes and handbags than they can count is beyond me. But they are always the ones to hit on for information on sales and steals. You might also see them rummaging through someone else’s cast-offs at garage sales.

    Good economic sense

    The my-husband-got-me-a-job-where-he-works wives are probably the epitome of sati-savitris. She’ll hang on to every word that drops from her beloved’s mouth. Even if she has a degree in Political Science and a desire to pursue it further, she follows her husband’s advice and takes up a Computer course at the local community college. That helps hubby dearest place her in the company where he works and where he can bump up a favour with the guy in HR who did the same thing for his wife. No problems of different work and commute timings. It all works out to good economical gains.

    She takes every opportunity to tell you how absolutely wonderful her husband is. She will vociferously defend pati-parmeshwar’s taste for Budweiser and Black Sabbath even if all she drinks is the occasional diet coke and her musical taste never went beyond the Titanic sound track.

    And finally there are the I-am-no-longer-in-the-H4-wives-club –and-let-me-take-up-any-pause-in-conversation-to-reiterate-that wives. These wives see being in the H4 wives club as comparable to having the bubonic plague (or maybe even the bird flu). They go to great lengths to enrol themselves in some academic programme merely so that they can change their visa status.

    Ask them a simple “How are you?” and be prepared for a three-hour-long saga of how the prized J or F visa has been obtained, how they got their status revised and how they gleefully discarded their H4 visa. In reality, of course, changing status is really more hassle than it’s worth and you effectively remain a dependent. They will talk pitifully of other H4 wives and reiterate once again how the prized J or F visa has been obtained, how they got their status revised and how they gleefully discarded their H4 visa.

    So some important questions remain. Does boredom lead to regression? Why on earth would someone buy pink (pink I tell you!) frosty glass horses? Does she really listen to his heavy metal music collection? Can you throttle someone in mid sentence? While these musings may not encompass all the H4 wives, it does give you a fair picture of the desi damsel in visa distress.

    To school without fear

    Source: The Hindu


    The fear of having to live up to unrealistic expectations, the threat of disapproval and the menace of corporal punishment – when will our children be free of these nightmares?

    Photo: K. Ananthan

    Immediate results, long-term damage: Corporal punishment brings more problems than solutions.

    Would you believe that there could be a school where the students’ minds are free of fear? Some would deem it to be an utopian ideal, akin to a nation without boundaries or a home without a wall. Even today, the word school continues to evoke f ear in children and the school bell at the end of the day signals freedom.

    On the other hand, teachers today are increasingly afraid of being victimised by laws that protect the children. From what do children need protection? From the menace of corporal punishment. Would one believe that corporal punishment continues to be a burning issue in this day and age? One only has to read the daily newspaper to know that it does. Remember nine-year-old Sudali in Tirunelveli? She lost her eyesight after the teacher threw a tumbler at her for being inattentive.

    I remember Rajagopal, whom I taught in the early 1980s. He would land up at my place on Sunday mornings under the pretext of some burning doubt. All he needed was a friendly gesture, a smiling word of reassurance and the doubt was gone. It took me a few weeks to discover that Rajagopal’s father would beat him with a geyser pipe if his marks dropped. That explained the terror and permanent mistiness in his eyes; the “I am not good enough” slouch of his heavy shoulders and his ungainly gait.

    In fear of disapproval

    Rajagopal represents hundreds of students who live with the fear of disapproval and punishment if they do not measure up to expected “standards” of behaviour and performance. The encyclopaedia terms corporal punishment as the deliberate infliction of pain and suffering intended to punish a person or change his/ her behaviour. Reams of paper have been filled with scores of incidents of corporal punishment in our schools, all with the intention of making the erring child a model student, or goading the student to higher levels of attainment!

    By no stretch of imagination would anyone advocate the unconditional use of emotional or physical violence to improve a student’s behaviour or performance. Laws and school rules prohibit it and public opinion condemns it. Ask adults whether they subscribe to the view that children should be spanked, caned, pinched, humiliated or be abused with derogatory words, none would agree to be seen as protagonists of any form of corporal punishment. Yet, as a society, we have been unable to do away with this loathsome practice.

    To become real, change of rule and law has to coincide with a change of heart. In a literal sense, educators and parents have to believe that students’ potential can improve without corporal punishment.

    Let’s address this paradox first. “Learning and Fear” are antithetical in nature and purpose. For learning to happen, fear or corporal punishment is totally out of place. “The mind is like a parachute, it works when it is open”, that is, learning happens when the mind is inquiring, questioning and feeling free, without fear, to explore and to know. The philosopher J. Krishnamurthy says in his lectures on “The Problem of Fear”: “And there is no intelligence if there is any form of conflict and conflict must exist as long as there is fear.”

    Siddharth vividly relives the pain of his school days: the fear of failure in Maths, severe rebukes at home and ridicule in class. “Your marks are so low that you won’t be able to do even dhobi accounts when you grow up,” the sarcastic voice of Mrs. Koshy and the sniggers and giggles of classmates made Siddharth drop Maths all together. Much later in life he realised he could do Maths quite so well.

    A fear of subjects, of examinations, of punishment, of failure, of letting down parents, of being forsaken by friends — there are so many known and unknown, conscious and subconscious fears that students pick up during their school days. My brother Ram, who finally made it to IIT, would run a high temperature before every exam. Ram, like many others, was a victim of some kind of irrational exam phobia.

    Well, almost everyone realises that the harm caused by corporal punishment far outweighs the “behaviour modification” it can bring. Yet, it seems that both parents and teachers adopt it by the force of habit.

    Fear of unpleasant consequences is used to make the child do what the teacher or the parent wants. The mother tells a toddler: “If you don’t finish your food, the demon will take you away.” Later it is: “If you don’t come first in class, I will send you away to boarding school”; “If you don’t complete your homework the vice principal will beat you.” Threats and ultimatums evoke irrational fears but the magic, at first, actually seems to work. The job gets done and the trick gets repeated.

    Losing control

    But something else also happens! The magic soon wanes and the threats no longer produce their desired effect. Navin tells Prabhu: “….it won’t pain too much. VP will give you four or five beatings on your knuckles but, believe me, the pain will last for exactly four minutes…think about how long you will take to do your English essay?” Pain thresholds grow in step with the teacher’s weariness at her loss of control. Panic seizes the helpless teacher, who also has results to deliver and promises to keep. Then, in frustration, limits are crossed and the inevitable happens. Another corporal crime shakes the nation.

    There are no shortcuts to lasting solutions. Positive strategies exist and they are more powerful and permanent in the results they bring. Take the case of Modern High where class rules are formed every year after discussion with students. Incentives for adhering to rules are decided and the whole system works on rewards rather than on punishments. Not becoming eligible for a reward is as bad as being punished, but there is no negative energy. Students are treated as adults and even punishments are self-imposed, often after self-reflection and negotiation.

    One day, a bunch of over-enthusiastic boys broke two new chairs in Class IV. The teacher sent the boys to an empty room to reflect over the matter. They soon came back with an action plan; each would contribute towards replacing the chairs. They even wanted to share their thoughts and feelings about the incident with their classmates.

    Children are largely capable of being able to reason the pros and cons of a situation if trained. Rather than numb their senses by instilling fear, it is wiser to develop their thinking skills, judgement and values. It calls for some more time and effort but the effects are indeed lasting. Why not work towards lasting solutions instead of making ourselves ring masters who crack the whip in barbaric tradition or dead habit?

    Oftentimes, it is a pressure-filled school or home environment that turns nervous, irate or frustrated adults into tyrants who inflict pain and sorrow. Vijayan has not spoken to anyone for over a year. He is unable to forgive himself for having struck his eight-year-old son so hard that he died, and all because Parthiban had failed in the final exams. Parents try to achieve their unrealised dreams and aspirations through their children and want quick and high returns for their time, costs and effort in schooling their children.

    Different pressures

    Teachers in overcrowded classrooms with unrealistic work schedules are under great pressure to make their students perform. Sridhar cannot explain why he banged Urmila’s head against the wall when she did not complete her homework. How was he going to achieve a cent per cent pass rate in Accountancy? Had Sridhar’s fear manifested in a violent outburst that led to Urmila fainting?

    Both parents and teachers need to realise and accept that it is unrealistic to expect their wards to automatically perform well in school or to be perfect pictures of obedience and co-operation, with no mood swings or idiosyncrasies. Nor is it sensible to template children and expect adherence to a common code of behaviour. Every child has a stamp of uniqueness and individuality that needs to be respected and cherished.

    If parents accepted their children with their strengths and their weaknesses, set realistic goals for their advancement, worked scientifically and systematically towards goals through “adult-adult” negotiations rather than “strict parent-disobedient child” transactions; and if schools promised to provide wholesome learning experiences in nurturing and joy-filled classrooms instead of promising to produce 100 per cent pass results, there will be sea change.

    We can then have schools where there is no “fear in the air” and students with nostalgia-filled memories of childhood where there were no threats, and no tears of punishment.

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