The word “byline” first appeared about a century ago in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. Over time, for idealists among us, the byline came to represent the power of journalism—the courage it provided an ordinary reporter to challenge the high and mighty. As a young journalist, this was the sort of byline I aspired for, whose sanctity, I believed, was to be doggedly protected by editors. Over my career, I have watched the byline die a slow and violent death. It has been killed not only by power-hungry politicians and corporate barons, but also by media owners and their servile editors.
More than a decade ago, I opened a folder in my email called “Morgue.” I began saving in it stories I had written that met journalistic standards but still failed to see the light of the day. Stories have continued to pile up in that folder even as I have changed jobs—from working for a big start-up newspaper, to a giant media house known for its crass profit hunt, to a media house with great moral reputation. In the mortuary of these dead stories, I have a collection of reporting on some of our biggest political leaders and corporate giants that, in a country with a robust media, would have been celebrated, and in a law-abiding society, would have triggered major criminal investigations. But in India, these stories have found few takers. There have been times when I have seen individual editors stand up for journalism, but they have been rare exceptions. The culture of the newsroom has degenerated slowly, and self-censorship has become second nature to young journalists.
I became acquainted with the realities of the newsroom within a few years of starting my career. One evening about a decade ago, I received a call from a promoter of the newspaper I was working for. A member of my team had dug up a sensational story about a mysterious fire that had destroyed income-tax files pertaining to a large fine imposed upon a major real-estate company. The promoter asked me to hold the story for a couple of days, because someone from that company had reached out to him to provide their version. Two days later, the newspaper was wrapped in a jacket advertisement of the tax-evading real estate firm. The story never appeared in the newspaper.
Over the past few decades, Indian media is increasingly being driven by profits, and has all but abandoned its role as the fourth pillar of democracy. In this landscape, far from being appreciated, good reporting is actively censored. Editors play brokers, trying to balance various interests while maintaining a veneer of professionalism. And owners have pawned their brands for political and commercial glory. The fastest promotions and the fattest salary packages are reserved mostly for middlemen, who masquerade as journalists but primarily fix deals and manage the sundry troublemakers for the media baron—politicians, tax authorities and the police, among others.