Watching the Newshour on Times Now last night, I got the impression I was watching an episode of Tuesday Night Smackdown. Sure there were some similarities. The Newshour and Arnab Goswami are to news what the WWE and Vince McMahon are to sport. There’s clearly some sort of connection, but its mostly loud yelling more than anything. Like the WWE, Times Now reliably provides some popcorn munching entertainment. And then of course there are episodes when the story lines on Smackdown aren’t as tight and even the top drawer star’s moves aren’t nearly as slick as they can be. I can only assume the Newshour suffered one of those days.
On the face of it, it was a good topic for Goswami to rage over. The scars of Indian under-performance at the Rio Games are still relatively fresh and official apathy to a sportsperson’s plight is guaranteed to get the viewers blood boiling, TRPs soaring and Twitter hashtags trending. So #IndiaforJaisha it was.
The indisputable facts of the case were this. Indian marathon runner OP Jaisha had finished 89th at the women’s marathon event at the Rio Olympics. She collapsed on crossing the finish line and was hospitalised for dehydration. She finished with a time of two hours, 47 minutes and 19 seconds, which was 13 minutes below her personal best.
From this point on, the facts get a lot fuzzier. On returning from Rio, Jaisha had complained that lack of drinking water and refreshment facilities during the race had made her faint. She claimed that she had to run the race in 42 degree heat without water. Officials say that water and refreshments have to be provided by the organisers which they were. They added that if Jaisha wanted additional refreshments, she and her coach were meant to provide them. The drinks were then to be sealed in their presence and provided during the race. According to the AFI officials, Jaisha and her coach didn’t want those refreshments. Kavita Raut, who also took part in the marathon, concurred with the AFI’s version.
Unfortunately ambiguity rarely makes for good TV. In pro-wrestling terminology, the Newshour needed heels (villains – here the AFI officials) and a babyface (the good guys – alternatively Jaisha and Goswami).
The Newshour convinced the COO of the AFI – Manish Kumar, and CK Valson, the general secretary of the athletics body to show up. As heels, their job was to make Goswami’s indignation look even more righteous. Goswami had seven other equally interchangeable talking faces as well. Their job was to laugh at Goswami’s jokes and harangue the two AFI officials when Goswami seemed to flag.
It should have made for good TV. Arnab isn’t the most likeable host, but perception wise he is a saint compared to sports officials. However, and this is where the WWE connection comes in, while you know how the show is going to play out, it only works as long as the viewer can suspend his sense of disbelief that the good guy is actually in danger of losing the contest. Once the first move is seen as fake, the entire charade collapses.
Unfortunately for the Newshour, there were too many gaffes, which if you follow sports with some level of seriousness was easy to spot. You knew things were going to be bad when the Newhour’s lead visual was an image of Jaisha sprawled on the ground. It was captivating no doubt but it was two years too old, taken at the end of the 1500m event at the Asian Games. It didn’t help when Arnab insisted that Jaisha had no water made available to her and ran the race without liquid, even though it was clear from published photographs and even the IAAF’s own rule book that stated water and refreshments had to be provided by the organisers. He repeated multiple times that Jaisha had run in 43 degrees heat, even though official race information states that the temperature hovered between 19 degrees and 26 degrees.
When both Kumar and Valson tried to make a point, they were shouted down. Kumar eventually had his microphone muted off after weakly asking why Goswami had called them to the show to begin with. A panelist tried to get in on the act by suggesting that Valson did not know the rules of the sport and hence should quit his post. Unfortunately, it seemed that neither did the other panelists nor the host himself despite his effort at waving a piece of paper that actually corroborated what Valson had just said.
Jaisha’s argument that she had indeed asked for refreshments and that the AFI chose not to provide them, was an easy one for the Newshour to corroborate. Having spoken to her before, it would have been logical for them to ask Jaisha where she wanted India’s own stations. This would generally be specified in terms of intervals in kilometre points.
But that’s not what the show was about on Tuesday. It stayed resolutely at the level of the standard of a college level debate. We were informed on two occasions that perhaps the officials with the team had spent their time on Copacabana beach to check out ‘the women’and ‘beach volleyball’. Having worked himself up to a hysteria, it should have came as little surprise to Goswami that a viewer called in to call the AFI COO a ‘bast**d’.
At the end of about an hour, it wasn’t clear what was achieved by the entire enterprise. I certainly didn’t learn anything about the case that I didn’t know before. If anything I probably came out a bit dumber. I did have a new question though. How does one get convinced to come on Arnab’s show as the bad guy. At least the heels on WWE get health benefits. Apart from hearing damage, there’s little to take away from the Newshour.