The madness of the exclusive

The madness of the exclusive

It's official: Chidanand Rajghatta of the Times of India and Udai Jain of DNA are one and the same person. If that's not true, then George W Bush, President of the United States of America has an incredible memory, blessed with an ability to repeat exactly what he has said to someone else at an earlier interview. Exactly.

On Friday, February 24, 2006, both these papers carried interviews with Bush on their front pages. The Times of India calls it "A Times Exclusive" and the headlines (reproduced elsewhere in the issue) suggest, clearly, that it was a tete-a-tete between their correspondent and the US Prez. DNA, thankfully, does not call it exclusive anywhere, but when they say "in an interview with this writer", the assumption readers will make is that Bush and Jain were a cosy twosome.

Rajghatta enhances the projected intimacy, saying that the American President made these comments "in a wide ranging interview with The Times of India, his first ever to an Indian publication, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on a cold wintry afternoon."

When one first saw the front pages of Mumbai's oldest and newest English newspapers, one thought that each had got an interview, and the appearance of both on the same day was purely coincidental. Then, when both the interviews were compared with each other, it is undeniably apparent that both the journalists were with Bush at precisely the same time.

Both are not exactly the same, but the minimal paraphrasing is as laughable as a dumb primary school student copying from another's answer sheet. Let us begin at the beginning.

Rajghatta's opener: How and why has India come front and centre to US strategic thinking now after being on the margins for so long?

Jain's opener: Mr. President, how and why has India come front and center to US strategic thinking after being on the margins for so many years?

The interviews then ramble on, mimicking each other, and the coincidences end with a question on cricket. If two human beings can both ask the same question and then elicit the same response from the interviewee, the attack of the clones is at hand.

Rajghatta: Between a cricket match and a Bollywood movie, what would you like watching. Jain has the same brainwave, down to a perfectly precise disregard for grammar.

And Bush's reply to both these interviewers, including the sound effects: "I'm a cricket match person. (Laughter.) I appreciate it. As I understand it, I may have a little chance to learn something about cricket. It's a great pastime. (Laughter.)

In both instances, in both newspapers, the full stop after "Laughter" is inside the brackets. The Times of India and DNA have egg on their respective faces - but the horrific example is but one indicator in a much deeper malaise. This is not the first time in the recent past that such a "coincidence" has occurred; it is not the first time that an "exclusive" has been proven to be super-inclusive.

A week or two ago, a number of news channels broke exclusive stories - the Daya Nayak interview - within milliseconds of each other. Yesterday, (Thursday), a number of channels received "exclusive" copies of the Amar Singh CD.

Are media houses going to keep seeing more bizarre and embarrassing coincidences? Sadly, the answer is, Yes. Because this is also the time for the revenge of the true content provider - the people, the companies, the entities that are written about. Adapting deftly from an age of media monopoly to an age of media surfeit, from an age where they had to use all their persuasive powers and their buying clout to meet a reporter to an age where journalists from the largest media products are coming to terms with the fact that they have to join the queue for a news bite.

There is no better time to be working in a Public Relations firm, there is no better time to be a newsmaker. Daya Nayak played the game well, making Times Now and CNN-IBN look like babes in the woods of media. There was Arnab Goswami, crowing to the world on his exclusive, while Rajdeep Sardesai unravelled pretty much the same audio and video near simultaneously.

If media was on the ascendant with their investigative journalists and with the sting operations, it was only a matter of time before the opponents hit back. They, the newsmakers, are clearly aware of the value of each story - and will proceed to milk the system dry. The multiplicity of media products - in each category, in each city, will allow newsmakers to play one newspaper off against the other, one TV channel off against the other.

And newspapers and TV channels, in their hunger for exclusivity, will fall for the ploy: hook, line and sinker.

In the Times of India -DNA imbroglio, one is not quite certain as to the root of the gaffe. It is patent that Rajghatta and Jain knew that the other was present in the Roosevelt Room at the same time - what, then, allowed Rajghatta to call it exclusive, and led Jain to imply that he was the lone journalist with Bush? Only the two papers can answer the question, and one doubts that either will - but there will be introspection in both the organisations, and management will ask awkward questions of their editors.

As will the TV channels that "exclusively" spoke to Daya Nayak. Which begs the sawaal, dus crore ka: how important is the exclusive, the sensational, to the lives and profits of newspapers and news channels? In our issue two weeks ago, Impact had asked this very question of Richard Sambrook, Director of BBC's Global News Division, and this is what he had to say: "Impact and sensationalism is a very short term strategy. In the end, no organisation can maintain an infinite run of sensational stories."

This is obviously a view not shared by media houses in India. There is no doubt, considering the tactics employed by all news channels and newspapers that have launched in the last year, that there is a common view that sensationalism and exclusives form the route to success. In a number of instances, the channel or newspaper concerned has had to deal with embarrassment.

The Hindustan Times launch in Mumbai had the alleged Salman- Aishwarya tapes story on the front page. Except, the paper did not use the word alleged, and the tapes were later declared to be fake. The paper obviously felt the need to "arrive" in Mumbai with a strong, exclusive story. CNN-IBN got off the blocks with a series of exclusives, tripping only when the Daya Nayak story landed in their lap. The conundrum on the need to be first, the need to be exclusive, is not just an Indian one.

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