The curiosity in humankind’s nature has been the main drive behind its pursuit of information. Before the invention of the printing press, sailors and wanderers would bring back information from distant lands, which was then passed on by word of mouth, from one person to another, one community to another.
The printing press brought with it the facility of having such information recorded and, subsequently, be challenged if someone had a different version of the same story. Thanks once again to humankind’s curiosity, this storytelling developed into the business of reporting, which became popular at an unprecedented scale, so much so that publications had to be dedicated for this purpose. This is the shortest story of the birth of newspapers and its twin called journalism.
When versions of the same story began to differ in core facts was when civilised society started to think about responsible journalism and thus came up the question of credibility, fact-finding and checks of various kinds. State censorships emerged at around the same stage, out of similar reasons. This potentially meant that all newspapers reported the same stories, which, commercially speaking, left no charm in the business.
At this juncture, the predicament faced by the newspaper industry was how to be different and how to generate more revenue from circulation and advertisement. It was at this point that gossip was first introduced as a lifesaver for the budding (and already struggling) industry of journalism. The public was already intrigued to know what celebrities did behind closed doors.
This genre, later to be termed as tabloid journalism, gained mass popularity as newspapers continued to reveal the everyday lives of celebrities. This led to scandals becoming the main lifeline of journalism.
The definition of celebrities, which was initially restricted to actors and actresses, expanded to take into its fold politicians and leaders. As the world of journalism evolved into mass media, politicians emerged as the most scandalous class and, naturally, one that generated more sales and profits.
As we write these lines, actors and actresses jealously feel overshadowed by politicians in the world of scandals as the latter hog headlines much more and for a longer period of time. Also, as we write these lines, the global media has gone into a frenzy of scandal reporting.
At a time when thousands of members of the global population continue to die of the deadly coronavirus, it is distressing to see the media shamelessly take off its robes of decency and wrap itself in the scales of tabloid and yellow journalism. A short headline on the hundreds who lost their lives to the coronavirus and then a long story of a president who considers injecting disinfectants into the veins of the general public; a stupid idea that can easily be brushed away is given huge chunks of airtime, where virologists, epidemiologists and experts of public health are taken on Skype to condemn an idea that requires no more than a common man (with a bit of common sense) to reject.
The discussion goes on and on with diagrams and charts showing how injecting toilet bleach could travel into the bloodstream and work as a killer and not a cure of viral infection. A more sensible debate might have been to question those who elected such a leader. A democratically leader, they say, represents the nation. So why not ask the nation what made them stoop this low.
A president from Latin America has refused to wear a mask and has made it to international headlines. He hogs the headlines for several days, and, as soon as other stories start to take over, he decides to wear a mask. There he is! Back at the top.
A political advisor of a prime minister travels to a different part of the country, where he and his family can self-isolate. He ends up at his destination and also at the top headlines. Fair enough, he should not have breached the lockdown that kept everyone strictly indoors, especially when he himself was instrumental in drafting the law around it. But unlimited time for questioning an advisor? Why not just bring the story to light and leave the public to decide if a government that relies on such advisors is trustworthy or not.
The media claims to be a public servant, so why not leave it to the public to decide? Over the last couple of weeks, hours upon hours have been invested in covering the story. Reporters and politicians are shown demanding the advisor to resign. He is made to sit before the media and read out to them what was more of an alibi than a statement. The one who asks him the most gruelling question is seen as the best reporter.
All this goes on in the theatre of mass media at a time when humanity is going through its worst crisis in many decades; at a time when every person of the world is swamped in the uncertainty of how to get back to normal life; at a time when the underprivileged population of the world is trying to decide whether the epidemic of poverty is the worst killer or the coronavirus.
At such a time of uncertainty and crisis, humanity looks at the menu card of modern media. There is very little or nothing on it that the majority of the world’s population can afford. Scandal, for most of the human population, is still a luxury.