Bearded Muslims as terrorists, and other media compulsions
ABC’s apology for portraying a Hindu terrorist in Quantico begs the question: what decides the portrayal of a particular group in the media? ‘Follow the money’ may just hold the answer.
By Saad Razi Shaikh
In the last season of the TV show Quantico, the plotline showed a terrorist who happened to be Hindu, identified by the rudraksh bead he was wearing. A furore rose in India, and both ABC and Priyanka Chopra, the lead actress, had to apologize. A few commentators, however, wondered why inappropriate depiction of other groups (read minorities, be it religious, linguistic or sexual) couldn’t guarantee equal condemnation, or apologies.
In 1985, two young journalists, Clint C. Wilson and Félix Gutiérrez brought out a book, titled Minorities and Media: Diversity and The End of Mass Communication. Written post the discrimination they experienced in the newsrooms, the book tried to investigate the orientation of the mass media, its funding mode, and the treatment it meted out to the minorities in the United States. (Blacks mostly, but also Native Americans and Latinos.)
Although nearly half a century and half a globe separate from our present location, the book is nevertheless a very useful tool to explain the coverage of minorities in India in the mainstream media. For starters, the funding model, combining artificially cheap prices and the advertising dependency to finance the deficit, remains the same. As the authors observed,
The media must serve the needs of the economic system because, as part of the corporate community, they’re private-enterprise institutions, rather than tax-supported institutions, such as schools or libraries. Because they’re part of the private-enterprise system, they must behave as other corporations and businesses do, seeking revenues and profits by maximizing consumption of their product while lowering the costs of production and distribution.
Successful in doing so, it could charge higher prices to advertisers. The focus of the mainstream media would therefore be the largest organized social group, whom it could target (in the case of America, Whites), and whose views would gain preference over other groups. This is not to say that other groups were invisible in the media. However, “their numbers were relatively insignificant compared with the White majority and, as a result, they were not considered important components of the mass audience.” And what was the treatment met out to them?
As the authors write:
For the most part, the mass media treated groups not in the mass audience or mainstream by either ignoring them or stereotyping them. When they were treated, it was often in stereotyped roles, such as Black Mammy, and Indian maiden, a Latin lover or sinister Asian warlord. These characterizations of minorities were largely based on the perceptions and preconceptions of those outside the groups, rather than the realities of the groups themselves.
It is a staple diet of a thriller Bollywood movie to have a terrorist, who naturally sports a beard and a Muslim name. Positive and realistic portrayals are rare and mostly confined to independent cinema. The stereotype in the mainstream cinema has direct repercussions in the everyday life.
To quote Wilson and Gutiérrez again,
In a media-dominated society…all of us depend on the media of communication to define and portray those things we have not experienced for ourselves. Thus, we “learn” about others through radio, television, movies, newspapers, and magazines. The portrayals and news coverage…can become a reality in our minds, especially if we have no personal experiences to balance them against.
The ‘intolerance’ debate rose in India post-2014, the charge being led by many prominent personalities associated with both the news and the movie industry. The rising incidents of violence were blamed on the ruling dispensation. Curiously, there was little introspection on their own role in contributing to the stereotypes and misrepresentations that continues to fuel the hate factory to this day. “Muslims are being eliminated!” Shrieks our concerned well-wishers in the media. But didn’t their elimination begin much earlier, through the space and voice denied to them in the mainstream media?
Writing on the place of minorities in India, Dr. Ambedkar took the yardstick to define a minority as one facing social discrimination. Ambedkar’s definition was not a numerical one, it instead focused on a power minority. The dividing line between a majority and a minority was therefore educational condition, economic position, and social standing. Except for Savarnas then, the vast majority (bahujans) constitute a power minority, while being a numerical majority.
This situation is reflected in the poor representation of these groups in the mainstream media. Upper caste Hindus, who constitute 16% of the Indian population, occupy 85% of the top positions in the national media. The share for Muslims is an abysmal 3%, even though they constitute 13.4% of the country’s population. Of the 315 key decision-makers in the media, not even a single person belonged to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes.
Recent remedial actions, as well as flourishing niche websites for these groups to articulate their narratives are promising developments. But unless the structural lacunae of the mainstream media, that is their funding model, is fixed, the misrepresentation or underrepresentation of these groups will continue. Two months back, Cobrapost highlighted the rot plaguing Indian media. We need to sit up and think what made its genesis possible in the first place.
Saad Razi Shaikh is a Delhi-based freelance journalist, having previously written for The Wire, Newslaundry, and Two Circles. He can be reached on Twitter: @Writweeter.
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