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Cooking Up a Storm

In the face of a real storm, Times Now strives for calm. The Newhour special on cyclone Phailin started off with Arnab Goswami implicitly appealing to Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground, to allay public fear raised by the comparison of the storm off the Odisha coast with Hurricane Katrina. Masters readily agreed that the comparison was unwarranted. Actually, he said, Phailin should be compared with the Odisha super-cyclone of 1999, which left over 10,000 dead. Exactly the reassuring touch that the east coast needed that night.

But Zee understood which way the wind blew. Initially, it had dramatised its set for maha-coverage of the “mahakhatra” presented by the “mahatoofan”. But soon, it degraded the threat perception to merely scary and chose to highlight the preparedness of the government and the operations of the National Disaster Response Force. Anchors focused on positive action like dealing with shortages of diesel, petrol, milk and ATM cash rather than the damage suffered. The slogan changed from mahatoofan to “India defeats the storm”. Quite a disappointment for those slavering in anticipation of HD-quality disaster porn.

I watched the Phailin coverage closely out of enlightened self-interest — I was wandering about on the weather-beaten coast when the storm developed. Back in Delhi, whose constantly yammering channels are barely noticed on the coast, the buzz was that the channels of the India Today group were a little too quiet about the charges filed by the CBI against Kumar Mangalam Birla. The nudge-nudge wink-wink reference was to the 27.5 per cent stake he had taken in the group in May 2012. As the elections approach, will we have to look at coverage through the lens of shareholding patterns? India has a long history of corporates trying to influence media. Shareholding actually makes interest transparent and might reduce manipulation.

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