Media support for Obama: US differs from India (Comment)

November 8th, 2008 - 10:58 am ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaA distinctive feature of the American election scene was the open editorial support given to Barack Obama by such well-known newspapers as Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.This practice is peculiar to the US. The mainstream media in other democracies usually shy away from such endorsements of individual candidates. The reason for their disinclination is that a show of partisanship may undermine their reputation for impartiality and affect circulation.

So, although their biases are known, they do not openly state it, confining themselves to reiterating general principles.

It is not clear why the American media do not expect that their credibility will be questioned if they reveal their preferences. It is not only a matter of their venerable age and past record. There are also newspapers as old and reputed as Washington Post and Los Angeles Times like The Times in Britain. But these will not risk adopting a position for or against a party or a candidate.

The big Indian media houses might have emulated their counterparts in the oldest democracy if only because of their earlier tradition of partisanship. In the colonial period, the major English-language newspapers could be broadly divided into two camps - nationalist and pro-British. The latter even had British editors. The Statesman, for instance, had an Englishman as its editor up to 1966 - two decades after independence. Up to Aug 14, 1947, it called Mahatma Gandhi as Mr Gandhi.

The “nationalist” newspapers, on the other hand, were mainly pro-Congress. And even the formerly pro-British media drifted towards this line after 1947 if only because there were no other major national parties.

In the course of time, however, even this approach was diluted, apparently because a gulf began to open up between the public and India’s Grand Old Party. The climax of this breach was the emergency rule of 1975-77, which saw two well-known newspapers, The Indian Express and The Statesman, indicate their opposition by refusing to toe the official line. Some of the others had crawled when only asked to bend, according to the opposition leaders of the time.

The emergency was some kind of a watershed, for it made the media turn away from the vaguely pro-Congress attitudes of the past. However, it has taken the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 1990s for the mainline English-language newspapers once again to veer close to the Congress primarily because of their support for secularism.

Like the emergency in India, the eight years of George W.Bush led to a great deal of self-introspection in the US media. Nothing quite demonstrated this turning of the searchlight inwards than a pledge by the New York Times that it will be more careful in future about official propaganda.

This cautionary note to itself was necessitated by the fact that the war against Iraq was built on lies - the charge against Saddam Hussein about amassing weapons of mass destruction or procuring uranium from an African country - and that the media had allowed these untruths to be published in good faith and also not to appear unpatriotic at a time of war.

It is not impossible that this role of being virtual peddlers of disinformation on behalf of the Bush administration made sections of the US media come out so strongly in Obama’s favour. Besides, Obama has gained from Bush’s high percentage of unpopularity.

As if to make amends for its earlier credulity, the New York Times has now accused Bush of using even the limited remaining period of his presidency to expand the areas of surveillance of private individuals, negating legal safeguards for endangered species and allowing exploration of oil and gas in pristine lands.

“We fear”, the paper has said, “it would take months, or years, for the next president to identify and then undo all the damage”.

Bush, of course, is a polarising figure in American politics as Indira Gandhi was in India in the aftermath of the emergency. In recent years, however, the difficulty of taking a firm for-or-against stance for parties and leaders in India has been accentuated by two factors. One is that there are no charismatic politicians like Obama. It is unlikely that Hillary Clinton would have secured a similar endorsement in the US if she had won the Democratic nomination.

And the other is that the two-party system has failed to evolve in India, as was expected in 1977 when the Janata Party was the only party opposing the Congress at the national level. Instead, a two-alliance system is taking shape, one led by the Congress and the other by the BJP. But the problem is the fear that some of their constituents can swing back and forth between the two groups.

All this evidently makes the kind of endorsement which Obama has received quite impossible in India.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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