Media shapes national conversations, passions and concerns that define the urgencies of the moment and the augury of the future.

Like any domain, it is given to its own compulsions, preferences and necessities. The honesty of reportage is subject to the constitutional spirit that underwrites it, tenor of the dispensation towards such constitutional ethos,as well as the overall ‘liberality’ of governance. In a participative democracy like India, it potentially defines the ‘plot’ for the nation to pursue.

In the United States context, this constitutionality vests in the First Amendment which protects freedom of speech. As Hugo Black says, ‘The very reason for the First Amendment is to make the people of this country free to think, speak, write and worship as they wish, not as the Government commands’.

Such democratic constitutionality has been diminished by the current incumbent of the White House, with his illiberal instincts, boorish rants and polarising politics that have have compromised the overall quality of reportage on partisan lines – on so called social media too – thus fuzzing the issues that are real, relevant and important to weave into our lives.

Curation of news to suit partisan agendas by invoking the unimportant, downplaying the critical and obfuscating the unavoidable, destroys the edifice of the ‘plot’.

Unfortunately, India too seems to have lost the plot if the choice of ‘breaking news’ on media programs is anything to go by. The nation has perhaps never been subjected to a more alarming status, be it on the economy, managing the pandemic, healing the societal divides or even on matters pertaining to cartographical sovereignty. Yet, these burning issues of the most concerning order are incredulously placed on the backburner and news reports are full of ‘manufactured emotions’, distractions and electoral-considerations that does great disservice in defining the ‘plot’, as it were.

The Supreme Court recently commented that ‘it’s all about TRP’s’ – but it is perhaps more than just TRP’s, it’s about controlling the ‘plot’ by those with the monopoly-on-‘truth’ and the monopoly-on-what-should-be-urgent?

The proverbial ‘fourth estate’ abandons its sacred role in a democracy by deflecting and tricking the national consciousness away from the material, to the peripheral. This surrender dilutes its impact as the informant, watchdog and platform for the most significant issues.

Besides compulsions from vested interests, media is understandably driven by public demand for entertainment or even frivolous ‘news’ – but when this overpowers responsible reporting, then it is only the sensational, dramatised and biased opining that masquerades as national ‘news’. Today’s primetime ‘news’ is a sad reflection of this convenient retrogression as it is high on decibels, wasted passions and jingoism – that barely masks the shameful abandonment of what needs to occupy center-stage.

For months, a movie star’s regretful death has sucked the national emotions by expanding its storyline with personal struggles, accusations and bitterness of the, hitherto unrelated. Turned into a saga, it has creatively appropriated the distant realms of local state politics, Kashmiri Hindu exodus, Ayodhya, Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, the names of opposition leaders, mafia trails, drugs, personal taxes, Indian Army to even nationalism. The media conducts daily trials with the audience enthralled by the possibilities of the absurd.

Is nothing else is more important on the national front? In the face of the worst ever economic status since independence with collateral panic on jobs, rural distress, sheer survival left unbelievably unaddressed? That India is reporting the highest daily number of Covid cases globally, gasping for oxygen and running out of hospital beds, even as the authorities insist that the, ‘world is applauding India for its Covid management’-- is not even being questioned? The Chinese belligerence that has raised many concerns is dealt with contradictory or indecipherable semantics, is seemingly par for course?

Clearly the distractive ‘plot’ allows those in the seats of power to get away as the principal instrument of accountability in a democracy, a freed press, is dancing along and spinning the web of the relatively unimportant.

In this melee of ‘manufactured passions’, it is little surprising that the authorities feel confidently insensitive to suggest that there is no data on migrant deaths in the recent Covid mayhem, hence the question of compensation entitlements ‘does not arise’!

It is equally unsurprising that a governmental institution like the Delhi Police submitted a 17,000-page charge sheet that only named participants from one side of the argument!

The optics and obviousness of bias is not even relevant anymore. It is symptomatic of a larger malaise that is afflicting all institutions (along with media) that are responsible for public good, and a bit of honest navel-gazing into the conduct, perceptions and deflections by various institutions ought to send off the alarm bells?

To be fair to Donald Trump, he has remained accessible, answerable and publicly accountable to the American people through the media. The American media landscape has been bitterly divided but those on the ‘other’ side of the fence cannot be denied or muzzled from asking hard questions and getting answers however unsatisfactory.Dissent or questioning is not equated to being ‘anti-national’ – this is perhaps is the biggest regression of ours in recent times. Here those responsible are allowed to get away by the distractive plot, by competitive whataboutery, by the selective screening of extremist and often irrelevant utterances to discredit questioners or the ‘other’ side, or the rote ‘now’s not the time for petty politics’ argument – whether it is the Chinese intrusions, Covid mismanagement, Economic capitulation etc.

And when all else fails, voices of dissent are shown the ‘anti-national’ or traitor door.

Have we lost the ‘plot’? Should we not question at all as questioning is anti-national? Is it a binary logic a la George Bush, ‘either you are with us or with them’? Do we ignore hard data, telltale signs on ground of mass misery, and start believing that indeed, the most important ‘news’ is about some bitter actors in Mumbai?

We must introspect and question without taking a partisan line on the evolving ‘plot’. Is it organic, or plain convenient, or worse, manufactured so?

Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd), is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.