Wednesday, February 07, 2007

An evening to remember

Last night, we had the distinguished honour of hosting the books editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Cheryl Reed and her husband Greg, who is Senior Business correspondent at the Chicago Tribune, to dinner. It was a very pleasant meeting, interspersed with lengthy discussions on a series of issues, such as the state of the Indian media and how it compares with the scenario in the US. The traditional medium of news, be it print or television, is losing its position in the US. What was shocking to learn was that not only were papers folding up and TV news viewership dwindling, but also the supposed rise of the Internet was only theoretically so: Greg said there was no way to prove that the Net was gaining at the cost of other media, when the entire industry, as it were, was losing steam. Americans, in Greg and Cheryl’s view, are just not interested in news anymore. Video games, yes; news, no. 9/11 was supposed to have increased the ordinary American’s interest in the outside world, but paradoxically, it had the opposite effect. People just lost appetite for any news, since the most of it was anyway depressing. "Being happy," Cheryl said, "is a big concern in America. Even psychiatrists advise their patients to not read/watch news, in any format."

The meeting was an eye-opener in other ways, especially with regard to American attitudes. For instance, we (that includes my sis, mom and I) were told that since announcing her interest in running for presidency in 2008, Hillary Clinton has been photographed from close quarters by several newspapers, revealing, in the process, her wrinkles and acne — in other words, signs of impending old age — while Obama, on the other hand, is pictured on the beach, indulging in water sports and generally coming across as a "rockstar". How did any of this matter, we asked, in a presidential contest? Surely, people would be more interested in what these people thought on various issues rather than how they looked. No, not so, was the refrain. "Looks," said Cheryl, "matter a great deal in American society. A lot of people would vote on how well groomed the candidate is when appearing in public, and not really concern themselves with other issues." That said, she added that despite a general wave of antagonism for Bush owing to the mess in Iraq, ordinary Americans are not vocalising their criticism of the war, because they do not want to let down the soldiers who are fighting under very tough conditions in the Middle East. This is especially resonant today because a lot of people remember the shabby treatment doled out to the soldiers who returned from Vietnam three decades ago.

Another interesting discussion was on the state of the Indian print media. Cheryl said that she did not like the Indian journo’s propensity to bombard the reader with a lot of facts without informing why one should care for them. "Simplicity is largely lacking from the papers here," she said, "and for a common reader, a lot of the printed news may end up meaning nothing much." Greg said the Indian media’s priorities are quite misplaced — he derided the big-bang reporting on the Tata-Corus deal, saying such a news item would only merit a tiny paragraph in an American paper. Why blow up issues that do not concern the common man at an immediate level? He said reporting on racism — as in the recent Shilpa Shetty row — makes sense since it affects ordinary lives, but a mega steel deal? He also agreed with Cheryl on the simplicity argument, saying Indian newspapers should look to the Wall Street Journal for inspiration. It’s the most widely read and respected paper abroad, yet very approachable too.

Also, in both Greg’s and Cheryl’s opinion, attending a journalism school is not quite the same as actually going out into the field and getting one’s hands dirty in the thick of reporting. Greg said interning with a newspaper was far better education than spending two years in a J-school to learn the ropes which you apply on the field only when you start working. So why not from the word go? That said, Cheryl conceded that literary journalism (since I evinced an interest in it) may call for some kind of grooming like the Arts programme offered by Indiana University.

Overall, it was a very fruitful discussion, helping us to clear quite a few cobwebs that had settled on our perceptions about the US. Greg and Cheryl too seemed to have had a good time. They loved the food and Greg particularly was amused at my mom’s solicitousness. Their extended Indian trip was an enjoyable one as well, including sojourns to Kerala and Rajasthan — easily the must-visit places on any tourist’s itinerary.

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