In media res

Published: Thursday 15 July 2004

-- Crisis/Media: Sarai Reader 4 The Sarai Programme Centre for the Study of Developing Societies Delhi 2004

Soon after the new United Progressive Alliance government took over, the sensex at the National Stock Exchange plummeted. The country's print and electronic media shared the market's paranoia. It was a crisis -- or so the media projected. The fears of Cassandras who predicted a flight of capital from the country were, however, soon put at rest. But the episode had another significance: it showed -- for the umpteenth time -- that the media today does not just respond to crises; it is a hegemon that dictates what should be regarded as a crisis. Seen in this light, Crisis/Media, the fourth publication of the Sarai Reader series, is a very welcome effort.

The media's response to a range of global issues -- war, terrorism and state terrorism, threats to freedom of expression and technologies of surveillance -- are critically scrutinised here.

What emerges is the media's voracious appetite for the episodic, the spectacular and the ahistorical: the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsing, wars, riots and sometimes famines. This prompts the reader's editors to ask: have current forms of media practice lost the ability to articulate questions of conflict and contention, other than in terms of crises? Going by the volume's contents, the question might well be rephrased as: why don't current forms of media practice articulate questions of conflict beyond episodes of crisis? It is a more pertinent query. The answers are quite insightful. For instance, Arundhati Roy opines that resistance movements have been forced to create consumer-friendly crises. We will have to liberate ourselves from being manipulated, perverted and headed off in the wrong direction by the media's endless appetite for theatre because that saps energy and inspiration,' says Roy.

But how does one do that? Do the alternatives offered by proponents of tactical media hold any promise? Perhaps they do. But the mainstream media's ability to create and consolidate stereotypes is immense and its claims to truth are fearfully hegemonic, as Craig Etcheson and Lynn S Graybill reveal in their essays. So many essays in the reader deconstruct this hegemonic project that one is tempted to call the volume, 'Reading the Media.'

The editors would have done well to have something on the political economy of the media and its effects on crisis reportage. Of course, many articles do note that the media today is a handmaiden of the corporate world, but that only whets one's appetite and kindles a longing for analysis of the financial underpinnings of the media. But then, we shouldn't forget that studying the political economy is the stock-in-trade of atavistic Marxists.

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