कौन-सी बात कहाँ, कैसे कही जाती है
ये सलीक़ा हो, तो हर बात सुनी जाती है
The op-ed industry is today perhaps the most closed, unaccountable, and nepotistic institution in the world of journalism. Scores of op-eds are published every day in the leading dailies and online platforms about everything from politics, history, and economics to sports, cinema, and culinary sciences. Naturally, the op-eds that are published in large publications and by renowned names tend to get more views and attention while those on obscure platforms and written by individuals worth zilch (like this one) are generally thrown in the wastebin of obscurity. Since large publications provide big platforms where professional editors go through op-eds before publishing them and recruit celebrated names to gain viewership, let us only focus on this industry here. I will refrain from taking the names of publications and op-ed writers below but I hope you will get the sense of where I am coming from.
The single biggest advantage that large publication houses provide to opinion writers is the fact that they employ professional editors so that false information, abuses, libels, and such cannot get published. This creates (or at least should create) a sense of responsibility amongst the editors who are expected to not give the green signal to the content that is obviously meant for defaming somebody/an institution in a personal sense. Sadly, too many editors these days have forgone this sense of responsibility.
Except for very few honorable exceptions, I can literally pick up a newspaper these days and more often than not tell which side of the political spectrum the op-eds will be against. There are hardly 40-50 op-ed writers who get the audience in leading dailies in a population of 1.3 billion Indians, almost each of whom has politics as the favorite topic to talk about while sipping tea or waiting to catch a bus. It is also generally the case that this clique of op-ed writers keep gloating about each other and are contemptuous of others outside their coterie. A recent example of this was during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic when many among this coterie were absolutely oblivious to the amazing work that young journalists from around the country were doing in bringing out the untold distresses that Indians were suffering from. This coterie kept propping each other while writing critiquing the governments and the society from their armchairs.
The political discourse has become so divided these days that hypocrisy can often be seen amongst this clique of op-ed writers. Thus, many among these often write against Uniform Civil Code just because the ruling dispensation supports it despite otherwise proclaiming loudly they are secularists and liberals. If the treatment of all citizens by the state would not be uniform, then I am not sure what secularism and liberalism would constitute. That is exactly why the founding generation of India codified Uniform Civil Code in the Directive Principles of our Constitution. As another example from the other side of the spectrum, many op-ed writers are busy these days highlighting the “wonderful” role played by the central government in its vaccination procurement and distribution policies and critiquing various media organizations for showing that India has slipped down in various human welfare and freedom indicators in the past five years. Reading such “scholars”, I sometimes wonder if they are doing this for monetary reasons, out of sheer conviction, or just to feature in the next Padma awardees list.
It is true to some extent that the public at large does not care about what the rotting apples of the op-ed industry are producing (except stench of course). Still, national debates that most people consume on daily television and news get influenced by what these influencers write. For example, when President Trump was hinting last year that the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic may be man-made and may lie in a lab in China, almost the whole liberal op-ed gang turned against him. The sheer amount of contempt for everything (though not mistaken in many cases) that came out of President Trump’s mouth meant that even the scientific community at large did not take the lab leak theory seriously. This only wasted precious time in understanding the origins of the pandemic. Now, when America has a new president who is equally anti-China compared to his predecessor, this theory started gaining traction and new facts were uncovered. It is now being believed that the lab leak theory is indeed correct and the same clique of op-ed writers has reversed their earlier position. Pre-conceived notions rather than facts weigh more for this group of writers whom circumstances have provided the precious opportunity of shaping public opinion. As we all know, with great power, comes great responsibility, which unfortunately this clique has forgotten.
Again, except for a few publications (generally academic), debates do not take place anymore between op-ed writers coming from opposing viewpoints. Most op-ed writers contribute to platforms where their like-minded peers write along similar lines. As a result, diversity of viewpoints in a single publication is mostly absent. The business model for most publications has become so skewed (courtesy of the online advertising model and us, the people, who subscribe to views that we like and want to read to bolster our own biases) that they cannot afford to be seen in the center. They must be either on the left or on the right of the political spectrum. We are today so wholly divided that there is no meeting point between the opposing ideologues. As a result, the democratic institutions that need continuous nurturing by all of us in an unbiased manner suffer.
Benjamin Franklin once remarked: if you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing. Unfortunately, most of our contemporary rotten op-ed writers are writing things worth not reading and doing things worth forgetting.