President Trump speaks to Jim Acosta of CNN during a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
When I watched CNN correspondent Jim Acosta clash with President Trump on live television, I was captivated, and a bit envious. Watching the subsequent suspension of his White House credentials (after the fake accusation that he was inappropriate with a female staffer who attempted to wrest the microphone away from him), my American media friends are convinced that this represents shrinking freedom for the U.S. media.
Ironically for us in India, the entire showdown represented a moment of freedom — at least at first. This sort of direct, combative altercation is frankly unimaginable between any head of government in India and any reporter I know, including myself. Here, Acosta and Peter Alexander, who stood up for him and got into his own argument with Trump, would have been most likely sacked from their jobs or, at least, put on notice. And such an extended, open press conference, where reporters can assertively assume the right to persistently follow up on their questions to the most powerful politician in the country, would never have taken place at all.
Despite the derision that seems to be the defining quality of Trump’s relationship with the U.S. media, that the world’s most powerful man persisted with the press conference and almost seemed to revel in the volley of angry questions from the floor was astonishing by Indian standards. Of course, our top politicians would never behave in Trump’s demented manner. But nor would they have been ready for this sort of antagonistic line of questioning at a press conference — that is, if they would even hold one in the first place.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given sit-down interviews to carefully chosen journalists, at home and abroad. But in four years, he has not held a single free-wheeling press conference where reporters on the beat can grill him. His predecessor Manmohan Singh used to have an annual media conference but for the most part shut out individual television interviews. Sonia Gandhi, the power behind Singh’s throne, remained largely elusive to journalists. In other words, Indian media does not know either an Acosta or a Trump.
Even if you attribute Trump’s willingness to engage the same media he attacks and loathes to be representative of his own narcissism, there is an institutional press freedom in the United States that we simply do not have here in India. The rights of the First Amendment have been genuinely absorbed in the political culture of America; Trump has to grin and bear the scathing satire of a Stephen Colbert or a Hasan Minhaj.
India is different. I ask my colleagues who berated Trump on social media for his treatment of Acosta: Shouldn’t we start by finding our individual voices at home first?
The truth is that the Indian mainstream media has been steadily defanged. This is particularly true for television media. While Modi would never behave in an unhinged, Trumpian manner, he does share one thing in common with the U.S. president: a belief that liberal journalists are his enemy. This goes back to his years as chief minister of Gujarat, where he believes the media was unfair to him in its reporting of the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002. As prime minister, he has withdrawn the long-held tradition of journalists traveling with him on his trips abroad. Also gone with this policy shift is the prime minister’s customary onboard press conference. Access to information, background briefings, even informal meetings have been severely curtailed, especially for journalists rumored to not be liked by the regime. And our fraternity has not risen as one against these penalties.
That’s why I was especially delighted to see the U.S. media strongly protest the withdrawal of White House accreditation to Acosta. Some journalists like to mock what they call “access journalism,” but blocking a reporter from meeting her sources or making sure that the administration is wary of engaging her is also a form of press intimidation, albeit a more covert and insidious one. These days, the opposition India National Congress party often calls out the press for being too supplicant and the government for being too closed. But, the party’s record on freedom is blotted in large part by the shadow of the 1975 Emergency, which saw sweeping restrictions imposed by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that throttled the national media. The Congress party has not disowned those years unequivocally enough. Besides, once politicians work out that the media can be nudged into docility, no party is likely to give up the advantage if it gets elected.
Meanwhile, Indian prime-time news has become mostly a dangerous exercise in populism, even bordering on majoritarianism. Either networks are sycophantic or there is the odd channel here or there that is antigovernment (as a result of being spurred on by political activism). Neither is healthy for journalism. The eruption of hundreds of news channels has not meant greater professionalism. The individual brilliance of journalists has not been able to offer a warranty to the news media against a flawed revenue model. Most media groups are owned by industrialists who in turn are dependent on the government of the day for permissions and clearances and respite from potential tax entanglements. Worse, with people unwilling to pay for news, organizations draw a large chunk of earnings from government advertisements, handing over a level of control.
As the world’s largest democracy, India is a raucous, argumentative and opinionated country. But our media could do with an Indian version of an ironclad First Amendment. Till then, we can only draw vicarious pleasure — and angst — from the goings-on in America’s media.