Donald Trump insulting and stonewalling the press is nothing new in dog-eat-dog world…writes Bikram Vohra
Donald Trump’s first official press conference as president-elect became an issue only because the White House press corps are a largely elitist and spoilt bunch, rotten and accustomed to having the inside track. And because they don’t support each other. In that lies the fourth estate’s problem.
For all the piety that we in the media spray over togetherness, solidarity and the ethical foundations of our grand watchdog role, it really is ‘dog eat dog’. We, the media, are our own worst enemies. Nobody came to the rescue of the CNN correspondent who kept asking for his moment in the sun, kept accusing the president-elect of being inappropriate. In fact, when Trump was consigning BuzzFeed to the garbage pile, there were titters of appreciation! Even if they were from strategically placed pro-Trump elements, the majority of the media did nothing to back a colleague; they just basked in it.
The press interaction became a stampede of self-preservation. To hell with principles. We will write about it later, but we are not going to risk our necks now.
Fact is we enjoy our competitors’ discomfort while pretending to be collective. Indira Gandhi, radiating power, as she entered with her entourage, would put her “friends” in the first row. If you ever asked her a leading “uncomfortable” question, they would shout you down or strengthen her rude response with loud laughs and mock the questioner. You were literally pulled back into your chair.
Even now, that tradition of drowning out a persistent journalist with derision continues. From his fellow mediapersons, who are all encouraged by bureaucrats placed around the room to exercise damage control.
It happens all the time. Sycophants invariably take over the show. Rajiv Gandhi tried his TV talk show conference and journalists lost their minds, so completely that all they wanted was to be on TV. It resulted in convoluted, long-winded, tedious questions — just to ensure the camera stays on them longer. At the end of this verbal saga, Gandhi would say “yes” or “no” or “we will see”.
Morarji Desai, however, takes the cake. At one press meet, I think it was Times editor Inder Malhotra — although I may be wrong — who asked a reasonable question about India’s nuclear stand. Morarji asked, “Who are you?”
The senior editor identified himself.
At which the then prime minister said, “You should know the answer then. Now sit down.”
Among all Indian prime ministers, Narsimha Rao came closest to Trump. He wouldn’t even bother answering a difficult question.
Those familiar with Indian press conferences would recognise Trump’s inaugural effort. The brusque man of power, surrounded by security, sycophants, lickspittles and fawning supporters up front. The well-positioned pro-PM individuals, already knowing what to ask and when to ask, followed by a line of hostile minority who seldom get a look-in, and then the rest of the press, which spends entire careers without asking a single question.
Chief ministers are even worse. They are the king of their turf, and well-padded by the hired media. They just sneer past those who might fling an awkward question at them.
History is tepid and one has to ask after the Trump-ing of the media if we need to look at ourselves and reinvent our courage and conviction. Could the media have walked out, saying if you insult one journalist, you insult them all? We tried that once when the Emergency was announced and Khushwant Singh led a band of brothers and sisters to boycott a conference. But nobody did, because the draconian penalties shut everyone up.