Sandra Samuel, Faces and the ‘Nouveau’ Media – Monobina Gupta
Guest post by MONOBINA GUPTA
“The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of a cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalistic industry, along plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good die like dogs, for no good reason.”
– Hunter Thompson in Generation of Swine
We, in the business of media, are running a trade in ‘faces;’ swapping ordinary ones for the attractive, distorting news coverage and not really giving a damn about it. But the craft of journalism was not always so warped. We made it so.
A long time ago, it was the job of the media to make invisible faces visible – to give the voiceless a voice. At least that was what old-timers in journalism taught me when I first came into the profession in the late 1980s. I remember reporters visiting tacky hutments huddled by the side of Yamuna, in Delhi’s searing summer, when a fire broke out; newspapers carrying stories about ‘cast-aways’, living in the capital’s twilight zones, losing in the fire their bare possessions – some pots, pans, a few pieces of ragged clothing. The chief reporters would make it a mandatory journalistic drill for reporters to go to Delhi’s not so pleasant quarter; a way of sensitizing the ‘not too sensitive’ minds. It was part of a mandatory ‘rite of passage’ before you could enter the ‘hallowed’ and more complex portals of the profession. Of course, even then every catastrophe would trigger that inevitable, space-clincher question: How many dead? Space in the paper would depend on the number of dead. A sinister wish for a number that went beyond twos and threes – would lurk in some dark corner of your thoughts; a heartless way of ensuring space for your report. Journalism had a robust crust of cynicism even then but it pales into insignificance when pitted against the hard-edged cynicism sweeping across the media today. Cold indifference to subaltern classes, almost an ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’ restricting stories to ‘people like us’ were not considered traits worth emulating.
The change began at first tentatively and then became strident with the opening up of the Indian economy in 1992. Liberalisation impacted the media fundamentally as did the explosion in the visual medium. The make-over began, at first imperceptibly, then aggressively.
Newsrooms started looking more and more corporate and the content became increasingly driven by the market. The print media thrashed about in the eddies of churning, hunting for news that could compete with the sensationalism of byte journalism. The old dictum of ‘an ear to the ground’ began to die a tortuous death. I realized exactly how painful that death has been while watching India’s biggest- ever terror strike in Mumbai unravel scene by scene on the television screen on 26th November, 2008.
The ‘vanguard’ of the fourth estate-the visual media-revealed itself as what it truly is: class conscious, a bleeding heart when terror bleeds the well-heeled, the chattering classes, the socially and economically powerful. It was the first time that the cocooned elite of Mumbai had been hit by unbridled violence. The community responded much the same way Americans had in the aftermath of 9/11.The English speaking, articulate elite described the attacks as unprecedented, a first-time ever in the history of the financial capital. Yes, it was ‘unprecedented’ not only because of its scale of planning but most importantly because of the class of victims the terrorists had zeroed in on. The cold, hard truth is Mumbai, was in the past, not once, or twice but several times bled white by terrorist violence. The number of deaths had even then shot up to 200. The men and women of the media who had covered these horrific acts – knew the truth better than anybody else. But still they feigned ignorance. Major English news channels – NDTV and CNN-IBN had captions saying ‘Enough is Enough’ running day after day.
I thought we had crossed that threshold long back; when terror had repeatedly stalked the most crowded places of our cities-be it Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market, Karol Bagh or Ahmedabad’s Akshardham temple. What was truly unprecedented was the outcry from the privileged classes and the media. An agitated woman on one of the television programmes spoke truthfully pointing out that Sarojini Nagar market was not the kind of market she shopped at. But terror attacks on 26th November invaded her exclusivity, their ‘private’ space.
It took sixty hours of violence for the rich to fly into a tizzy, abuse politicians and scream ‘Enough is Enough.’ I wonder at the enduring patience of millions of Indians who have waited all of sixty years to be able to live with some semblance of dignity. It is a sobering realization that the huge mass of the displaced and the dispossessed, the homeless and the malnourished, the unlettered and the jobless- are not running amok through our streets shouting ‘Enough is Enough.’ That would be scarier than Mumbai terror attacks.
As I watched the telecast, the hysterical correspondents focusing on ‘faces’ they were comfortable looking at while keeping the ‘uncomfortable’ ones out of the camera lenses, I realized the media was at its old game; getting the ‘right faces.’ I could relate much of that one-sided coverage to the ethos that rules the world of media spinning around the axis of market.
It was strange the way the electronic media, for hours, kept referring to the person who rescued the 2-year-old Jewish baby from the besieged Nariman house as ‘Baby Moshe’s Indian nanny.’ Much later did we get to know her name and age: Sandra Samuel, 44-years old. We knew the Israeli government was thinking of conferring on Sandra an honour usually reserved for saviours of Jews during the Holocaust. But beyond these basic nuggets of information we knew nothing about the person who displayed such courage, such compassion, in the face of bare, stark terror.
Except for her traumatised face, the ‘Indian nanny’, for days remained anonymous, almost faceless, a shadowy figure. Did she have a family? What were her thoughts when she left India? Does she have a detailed first-person account to tell the media?
Do we really care? Why should we? Hers is not a face that sells. She is neither a glamorous beauty nor blessed with burgeoning wealth, sipping her evening coffee in Taj. The Indian nanny does not demand a separate story on her life. I got to hear that story finally on December 5, more than a week after the terror attack, not from our reporters but a reporter from CNN. Sandra was articulate speaking at length about what her thoughts were during those hours, the days and nights of terror. Over and over she repeated that she had only thought of baby Moshe and how to save him.
“I was in the storeroom hiding like a coward,” she said, “Until the next morning, when the baby called me. Moshe, when I went to him, he was next to his Ima (mother) standing and crying my name. That’s what I know.” She continued, “My first thought was for the baby,” Samuel said. “But then I saw the rabbi and his wife. I thought-even today I am thinking I should have sent the baby and done something for the rabbi and his wife, but…”
As I listened to the interview I learnt that Sandra was a mother of two. It was a moving account of how closely she bonded with Moshe, of how she braved those dark hours driven by a single, desperate aim to save the baby. Her trauma, the confusing haze of the aftermath was summed up in this reply she gave to the interviewer’s question about how she was coping. “Me? Baby’s there…Sandra is there. That’s it,” she said with a sad smile.
There was this question about how she escaped. “It was like just take the baby and run,” she said. “Frankly, I don’t even know what I was thinking. I just picked up the baby and I ran, and that other worker was with me, Jackie, and we ran. Like mad we just ran.”
“When I hear gunshots, it’s not like one or two, it’s like hundreds of gunshots. 10, 20 grenades, bombs in the Chabad, so…I don’t think of fear,” she recalled. “Does anyone think of dying at that moment when a small, precious baby’s…no.”
It was a moving account especially because of the times we live in, stricken with an anxiety/phobia about the ‘integrity’ of the domestic help. We see how miserably the rich and the powerful treat the ‘Sandras’ who look after their children. I have seen a ‘nanny,’ not more than 16 years of age, waiting outside Barista – a coffeeshop in Khan Market, while the family gorged itself inside with the baby gurgling in the pram next to them.
Sandra, the Indian nanny, has travelled all the way from India to Israel to be with Moshe till he “grows up.” The family wanted her to be with the baby because she was the one person Moshe was really responding to. In an interview to CBS news Sandra said she would be with Moshe as long as he needed her; till he ‘grows big.’ She said, “By God’s grace I hope I am there to see it. That’s it. All my blessings to my Moshe baby.”
Over a decade the media has honed and perfected the skill of weeding out ‘non-photogenic, shabby people’ from television channels, newspaper columns. There is nothing accidental about the way Mumbai terror attacks were covered. It is part of
a well-rehearsed media policy.
Having been an ‘insider’ in active newsrooms of the print media, I can tell you how obsessed editors are with getting the ‘right faces.’ They can spend hours telling you how readers do not want to ‘read’ given their diminishing attention span. But they do want to ‘see’ and ‘see’ at great length. So here is the mandate: get faces. But not all. People, extraordinary for their talent, heroism, achievement, are not on the priority list if they unfortunately don’t ‘look the part.’ The media wants ‘faces’ that are ‘presentable’- in other words ‘good looking, sexy, glamorous.’ In an article in Times of India (dated December 5), Anil Dharkar, a Mumbai based commentator talked about the media’s pursuit of good- looking people. “There was virtually no airtime given to the attacks on Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) or Cama hospital. Yet the mayhem began there and 54 people were killed. Is that because the dead were not from the elite? Is that because grieving relatives and friends of those killed are more photogenic when they are of fair skin and well dressed and their mourning is more restrained?”
The only way ‘non-good looking’ faces, can get into print or find themselves on television is if they belong to money bags, or corporate tycoons. Once you get into that category–the ‘good, bad and the ugly’- can make it on any page of every newspaper
I remember an editor in his earnest zeal to mainstream the paper asked me to remove the picture of a girl from the North East, posing for a story on Nehru jacket. I was asked to get a ‘mainstream face!’ Attending meetings presided over by editors can be a good indicator to why the country’s media is the way it is today!
I also recall an occasion Gloria Steinem was in Delhi and some of us in the media planned to go for her talk at the Indian Women’s Press Corps. But the men-heading media organizations had other plans. An editor quite categorically said he did not want any coverage of Gloria Steinem. “Who is interested? We want Scarlett Johansson to be on the page. People want to see her.” Since I was more interested in ‘seeing’ Gloria Steinem I obviously too did not count.
Women are soft targets. In one of the newspapers I worked with, I was specifically directed not to come up with ‘morbid’ story ideas. Morbidity could mean stories of women fighting sexism, domestic violence, especially if the women concerned belonged not to South but West or East Delhi. The women’s feature section was deliberately dumbed down to an endless repetition of stories – women bonding in spas, not bonding in corporate board rooms, couples wanting to swap partners, couples not wanting to do so, children wanting parents to be friends, others wanting distance…
I can cite thousands of instances of news coverages smacking of the same bias – of class and looks (and the two often seem to go together!) – on an aggressive display during the Mumbai terror attacks. When 1,900 men and women employees, smart, attractive, were sacked from Jet Airways, following the recession, the media erupted into a cacophony of voices. They lectured on the injustice of abrupt retrenchment. Cameras endlessly panned the photogenic faces of the sacked employees. Sure enough the campaign had its effect. Politicians scrambled to undo the sack order. Within 24 hours Naresh Goyal, the chief of Jet Airways, took back the employees saying the agony on those young faces was giving him sleepless nights!
How many of us remember a single instance of media coverage of sacked workers – skilled and unskilled? In the unorganized sector workers are routinely sacked and the trend has got worse over the last decade. Wasn’t it this same media, down to individual names, that has been shouting itself hoarse over the employers’ right to hire and fire? Unlike the Jet Airways employees, those workers neither have education, nor special skills. Also, unlike them, the workers do not sign contracts warning them beforehand that management could throw them out any time it wished. Jet Airways employees were fully aware of this golden rule of flexible hire and fire of a free market economy. Workers who get axed every second day and have no safety net to fall back should be subjects of ‘human interest’ stories. But then media has its cut-off mark. Without ‘good breeding’ or ‘good looks’ they fail to reach the cut-off mark. But they do, once in a while, mark their presence. Cases of sacked workers, accused of killing a boss, who refused to take them back, are splashed on the front page, on television screens.
The coverage of Mumbai terror attacks is a continuation of the same trend. Even in grief we were looking for ‘right faces’, forgetting about ordinary people, outside Taj and Trident, caught in the hail of bullets, the fire and smoke of the grenades. Mumbai’s famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station figured in the reports as a mere afterthought. Stories about the forgotten others started appearing, almost, like afterthoughts, footnotes, after a week had gone by. The first story on television of a 13-year-old survivor, at the CST, who saw terrorists mow down six members of his family was done, once again, by a CNN reporter. He told us about this boy from a lower-middle class background, who is now in the hospital. The doctor said he is suffering from trauma. The boy has an older brother who will now take care of him. It is, then, the upstartishness of the new media ethos in India that is at issue here. A ‘nouveau media’ that has all the hardware but is simply dazzled by its own glitter and glamour?
Even inside the exotic Taj and Trident there were hotel waiters, the staff, who, like the NSG commandos, worked defiantly in the face of terror. A guest at the Taj who was in touch with NDTV on his cell phone told the anchor after he was rescued that he had seen the chef and his kitchen staff being ‘massacred.’ Barring stray mentions, the channels had no ‘stories’ of the staff – the waiters who served sandwiches to the hostages, did their duties, tried to keep the guests calm. We had no ‘faces’ of survivors in their families.
There was virtually a tacit silence not to talk about Muslims who were affected by the terror strikes. Barring an occasional voice – almost like a mandatory input mentioning a Muslim victim – the visual media excluded Muslims from their reportage on the impact of terror on Mumbaikars. How did the community live through this terror? Did they feel frightened, implicated? Were they anxious about the backlash it could trigger? We could not have forgotten – or maybe we have – the screaming front-page story in the Indian Express about Muslim youths who were picked up in Hyderabad after a blast and tortured in police custody.
My friend Vineeta’s aunt thought it odd there was not even a word on the channels about Muslim casualties. They must have been around she remarked. Vineeta emphasizes that her aunt is not a political person. She is just a good human being.
For seven days national television channels went hysterical in their grief, mercilessly thrashed politicians and worked up a jingoistic war cry. BJP leader L.K. Advani, earlier this week, sent back a TV journalist who had landed on his doorstep for a chat. For once the humourless leader came up with an acerbic retort. He told the journalist to run the nation with Barkha Dutt (NDTV), Rajdeep Sardesai (CNN-IBN) and Arnab Goswami (Times Now) as its prime minister, home minister and defence minister! I may have got the order wrong.