A reality check

Published : Apr 01, 2000 00:00 IST

Bill Clinton's visit has magnified the glaring differences between India and the United States in the strange mix of modern politics and media.

THERE'S hype, and then there's buzz. By this point, it seems nearly every conscious Indian, no matter how much he or she might have wished otherwise, was deluged by the former on the occasion of the U.S. President's visit, escape from which might well pr ove impossible, at least for some weeks to come. Aside from the intrusive tastelessness of it all, though, an important distinction is present between the two terms. Hype is when one party is doing all the talking, and loudly. Buzz, on the other hand, is when one in fact says very little, but every one else is talking about that mysterious, but intriguing, entity, be it a company or a person. This visit has, if anything, magnified the glaring differences between both nations in the strange mix of modern politics and media.

In recent years, successful American politicians, commentators, and companies - particularly those operating at a national level - have mastered the art of buzz. Soap-box orators like Pat Buchanan, though not without their faithful followers of the past, have largely come to be regarded as irritating blowhards. A masterful series of strategic leaks within a record of reserved dialogue, particularly in the Clinton administration, has instead come to dominate the back-and-forth of Washington Beltway media coverage. Within India, however, the tireless self-promoter to this day takes the political limelight. While this still works wonders among Indian voters in drawing lakhs of supporters to stump rallies, the advent of President Clinton and his phenomenal press entourage presents a telling set of contrasts when thrust together with India's government and media.

The Times of India

Indian coverage of the event, as any sentient individual here knows all too well, has been resoundingly about hype. Much of the print media, largely shut out of substantive events, tended to approach the onslaught of its American peers by aping their vis ual counterparts. The Times of India ran a plea on its front page to "catch the Clinton euphoria on indiatimes.com", advertising 24-hour coverage, announcing that "right from his arrival to his departure, indiatimes will keep track of his activiti es and webcast it round the clock." Traffic to the site was indeed so heavy that users attempting to access the "world class webcast" were confronted with white screens and error messages. Inside, one was greeted by a full-page advertisement from the Con federation of Indian Industry reading "Welcome back Chelsea. And thanks for bringing your father." Good luck in finding a single-column parallel in a U.S. newspaper.

The U.S. media, both print and visual, collectively covered a very different angle. "Dark Horizons: India, Pakistan, and the Bomb", ran the title of Peter Jennings' story on ABC televison's World Report programme on the Clinton visit. "India's Unwired Vi llages Mired in the Distant Past," complete with coloured descriptions of an "unlettered field hand in a ragged loin cloth" and "raggedy children... (playing) in the dirt with toys made from twisted wire," was splashed across the front page of the massiv e Sunday edition of The New York Times. USA Today's website featured the telling headline "Poor South Asian country gets first U.S. President visit" as President Clinton made his historic first visit to Bangladesh. While the Indian Prime Mi nister repeatedly called for the trip to be regarded as a meeting of equals, "the most dangerous place" (taking the cover of the London-based The Economist) was perhaps the most mentioned four words in Western-based stories on the visit.

Despite the lopsidedness in end coverage between the foreign and domestic press, the U.S. press was given systematic preference in both access and facilities, even after reaching the various stops along Clinton's itinerary. Notwithstanding the extremely limited total space for the events given the demand, often only one Indian correspondent per newspaper was allowed to fight for a spot amongst the other journalists there. Soma Basu, covering the Agra visit for The Hindu, characterised the U.S. pr ess set-up, on the other hand, as "very cushy". According to rather harried White House Press Office officials, for American journalists, coverage of the Clinton visit was divided up into several tour packages of sorts. Depending upon the destination, be it Jaipur, Agra or Delhi, assorted block options with fixed prices were available. For internal travel, said a senior journalist, $290 bought one chartered flights on Jet Airways. The full-service option included flights along every step of Clinton's jo urney from Washington D.C. onwards, catered meals, workspace, and a friendly face to meet one at the airport, and was available for a cool $15,000, payable by credit card.

Contrasting the CEO-filled delegation in Clinton's trip to China, a member of the elite group of Indian-American professionals to meet Clinton regarding information technology and other business issues was quoted as saying that, as a meeting of two democ racies, the Clinton visit was more about the interaction of companies than official state-to-state deals and statements. With the hype in India surrounding the new Indo-U.S. bilateralism (which necessarily entails concomitant attention in the U.S.) throu gh the IT sector, a look at the media coverage targeting technology and business run out of the U.S. reveals a few interesting things. News.com's massive and widely-hailed website contained but one piece on Rupert Murdoch's forthcoming series of investme nts here, buried among assorted other items. CNNfn and CBS Marketwatch held a similar dearth of stories dealing with India. Wired News (wired.com) turned up one interesting story by Lakshmi Chaudry on IIT incubator funds. But a simple search on "India" y ielded sparse returns of India-related stories, many with a brief mention buried deep within the listed story. And then there is Slashdot, the combination news/forum site so popular and widely used in the U.S. technology world that the so-called "Slashdo t effect" (of sites being shut down from overloading traffic by merely being linked by the page) has been coined from its name. A search revealed that the last story to mention India was a piece on the spread of Linux back in January.

As yet, though, awareness pertaining to business and IT can only go up. A New York-based IT consultant of Indian descent was quoted as saying that Indians were steadily becoming "the new Jews" in the U.S. with their lucrative positions in finance and tec hnology. The consensus remains that it is but a matter of time before commensurate public awareness (and, likely, public backlash) catches up with the status of Indians in the U.S. But it is not quite there yet.

In examining the recent glut of media attention for the Clinton visit, it has been argued that the media will always tend to blow up a story to its own collective interests, regardless of historical period. However, this argument does not stand up to ana lysis. Going through the archives of The Hindu material regarding the visit of each visiting U.S. President - Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, and now Clinton - one thing becomes evident. This is that the sorts of word usage and issues covered were stri kingly similar throughout. Regional violence was an issue when Eisenhower came. "A warm welcome for Carter" reads a 1978 curtain-raiser (the same phrase used recently by the Minister of State for External Affairs regarding the reception for Clinton).

The coverage is unprecedented. Only one other such international excursion, Clinton's nine-day visit to China in the summer of 1998, exceeds it in duration. The length of the trip itself alone shows that it is not a trivial matter, but the overall import ance to India is as yet unclear. The implementation of institutional dialogue arrangements between the two nations in the recently published Indo-U.S. Vision Statement is indeed encouraging, but there remains the question of to what extent (and how quick ly) such declarations will filter down and be implemented in the respective nations' bureaucracies and polities themselves, and in turn, what the net effects will be on the India and United States of tomorrow.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable contrast between the two nations was seen in the televised press conference at Hyderabad House where the Vision Statement was signed. Clinton, despite being in an unfamiliar and indeed largely forbidding setting, seemed at home with the questions presented to him, as few and predictable as they may have been. Prime Minister Vajpayee, on the other hand, appeared visibly ill-at-ease with the press meet, a mainstay of American-style politics, bearing a rictus-like smile and t aking nearly a minute to respond to certain questions, at one point requiring Clinton to prod him, saying "it's your turn."

IN the public mind, Clinton's presidency is essentially over, with American attentions now shifted squarely upon George W. Bush and Al Gore in their run up to the November elections. Furthermore, in matters of foreign policy and related media attention, South Asia currently ranks quite low. What U.S. media coverage there is remains roundly focussed on India-Pakistan antagonisms and tensions and related issues. However, while the Taiwanese elections and Elian Gonzalez dominated media attention, the big s tory in the U.S. was unquestionably that of Pope John Paul II's trip to West Asia. Interestingly, from the BBC to CNN to local broadcast media, live newscasts covering the Pope's visit literally retraced his steps for the day (much like the blow-by-blow coverage omnipresent in India on Clinton's itinerary). In the same reports, Clinton's trip, if at all, was given at the most a minute of coverage. And despite the ubiquitous reports on both India's and Pakistan's failure to sign the Comprehensive Test Ba n Treaty, there was a palpable silence when it came to even brief mentions of President Clinton's stunning defeat in getting the treaty passed in the U.S. itself.

What the trip amounted to domestically was, in the end, that of a PR mission by an outgoing President eager to secure a positive and lasting legacy. After the release of the Kenneth Starr report, few Americans - his admirers included, and even those with the cleanest of minds - can watch the famously telegenic President speak without at least once thinking of him, a cigar, and the now-famous words: "tastes good". In many ways, this trip and the few months ahead amount to his final opportunities to raise his rank in the history books before they are written. And he knows it. The recurring phrase in his past speeches was "building a bridge to the 21st century." Now, the man most at home on television, it seems, must present at least a facade of journeys and initiatives to last beyond the change of channels.

Nevertheless, while the media explosion in India was misleading in its overall effect, a reality check should be tempered with optimism. According to Professor Ashutosh Varshney of Notre Dame University, "the most important thing right now is upgrading o f the Indo-U.S. dialogue on an institutional basis. If this trip can do that, it will be a great success."

Arjun Dirghangi is a U.S. citizen of Indian origin studying in the departments of Neuroscience and Behaviour as well as Political Science at Columbia University in New York City.

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