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Cooking Up a Storm

Phailin should be compared with the Odisha super-cyclone of 1999.

In the face of a real storm,Times Now strives for calm. The Newhour special on cyclone Phailin started off with Arnab Goswami implicitly appealing to Jeff Masters,director of meteorology at the Weather Underground,to allay public fear raised by the comparison of the storm off the Odisha coast with Hurricane Katrina. Masters readily agreed that the comparison was unwarranted. Actually,he said,Phailin should be compared with the Odisha super-cyclone of 1999,which left over 10,000 dead. Exactly the reassuring touch that the east coast needed that night.

But Zee understood which way the wind blew. Initially,it had dramatised its set for maha-coverage of the “mahakhatra” presented by the “mahatoofan”. But soon,it degraded the threat perception to merely scary and chose to highlight the preparedness of the government and the operations of the National Disaster Response Force. Anchors focused on positive action like dealing with shortages of diesel,petrol,milk and ATM cash rather than the damage suffered. The slogan changed from mahatoofan to “India defeats the storm”. Quite a disappointment for those slavering in anticipation of HD-quality disaster porn.

I watched the Phailin coverage closely out of enlightened self-interest — I was wandering about on the weather-beaten coast when the storm developed. Back in Delhi,whose constantly yammering channels are barely noticed on the coast,the buzz was that the channels of the India Today group were a little too quiet about the charges filed by the CBI against Kumar Mangalam Birla. The nudge-nudge wink-wink reference was to the 27.5 per cent stake he had taken in the group in May 2012. As the elections approach,will we have to look at coverage through the lens of shareholding patterns? India has a long history of corporates trying to influence media. Shareholding actually makes interest transparent and might reduce manipulation.

Later,former coal secretary PC Parakh did speak to TS Sudhir of Headlines Today,asking to know why the PM should be excluded from the “conspiracy”. But the most important point in the interview was lost in the general jug-the-PM hysteria that followed. Parakh spoke of the “uncomfortable feeling” that serving officials are experiencing,seeing that their actions could have serious consequences well after retirement. It’s precisely the sort of vague menace that had created the policy paralysis following the 2G scam.

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The absurd story of the week was the mahakhudai,which the Archaeological Survey of India began in a village in Unnao at 11:30 am on Thursday. We know the exact time when spade struck sod because it was beamed out by a whole forest of TV transmitter dishes that had mushroomed at the site. India News had been running a countdown practically from the crack of dawn,with a fresh story every half-hour. Stories like the picture of a sacrificial fire at the site of the dig. Vipin Chaubey,their man on the spot,wanted to know why Shobhan Sarkar,the priest who started the craziness by dreaming of 1,000 kg of gold buried under a temple,had been keeping the media up all night.

Amidst the absolutely gaga coverage,Himanshi Matta of NewsX brought in a note of scepticism,suggesting that the crowds which had gathered were more interested in the media circus than in gold. Zee News wondered if superstition was not being promoted here. But the big story no one touched was the abject,subject state of the ASI,which can be press-ganged into doing any old thing — examining the historicity of mythological figures,the origins of undersea geological features and now,a gold rush dreamed up by a seer and funded by the government.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

First published on: 19-10-2013 at 04:43 IST
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