Sunday, April 20, 2008

Free Press: India and USA

Both India and the USA have a "free press". It is a social innovation the USA takes credit for. A free press is not traditionally associated with third-world countries like India. There is some element of truth to that: until about 1990, the press in India was indeed not very effective as a counter to the government. That has changed, and the press in India now seems to have achieved vibrancy. The press in both countries has problems, but they are different.

In the US, the big problem is the effectiveness of the government's public relations machinery. The government apparatus has learned all the tricks and methods for managing public opinion. This includes more effectively putting out the government's point of view than any private newspaper could manage and methods for subverting some of the press's insiders. These include various inducements as well as the threat of denial of sources. The government's efficiency in public relations means than whenever the government needs to, it can neutralize any effects of a "free press".

In India, the press is also stymied by subversion of its insiders. But this subversion is a lot more ad-hoc and less institutionalized than in the US. Individual politicians cultivate individual journalists and editors according to their strategic vision and financial resources. The lack of cohesion is increased by the large number of warring political parties, making it harder for any party or politician to control all the press. The second factor is the general low standards of evidence and article writing in the press. Many leading dailies have errors which would make a class 10 student cringe. The quality of writing can be insipid and there is not effort to make content complete. There are often articles that are 2 or 3 lines long.

Overall, it seems to me that the Indian press is more effective at exposing problems in government than the American press. This is simply because, although the press in the US is a lot better developed and more mature than the Indian press, the Indian political establishment is less well-versed at managing the press than the American political establishment.