What Happened to You?

Ah, the world of expression. There is the unapologetic relentlessness of a point that has to be driven at any cost. Ethics be damned. There is the unabashed, single-minded pursuit of demeaning of the opposite. Morals be damned. There is an insidious display of allegiance to the sanctity of truth, while closing eyes -- again unashamedly -- to the Pinocchio-ness of the existence that lies as naturally as it breathes. Integrity be damned. There is the naked rush to be the first to break the news, first to comment, first to express glee or rage, first to judge, first to assign blame. Dignity be damned.

The holier-than-thou adviser, the more-loyal-than-the-king friend, the court jester, the castle snoop, the Judean traitor, the icy maiden, the Faustian soul-seller, the town crier, the snarly witch, the smooth operator, the Don Juan, the flirtatious siren, the knight in shining armor, the beautiful princess, the wily minister, the naïve king. Nah, it is not a list of characters from Shakespeare's King Lear or Marlowe's Arden of Faversham; these are merely a few from the very fascinating cast of actors one sees on one's timeline any given day. And hey, no prizes for guessing: most of these intriguing specimen of humanity hail from my motherland, Pakistan, and its should-be-friends-but-won't-be-friends neighbor, India. Welcome to twitter.

When did the blurring of line happen? What happened to that very fine line that distinguishes reporting from opinion, truth from hearsay, facts from gossip? When did media become an amphitheater where sensationalism ruled, bawdiness dictated, and shrillness decided what was to be stated? When did the simple job of imparting news and information become a money-making enterprise in the hands of those who looked at newspapers as boring chronicles of information and TV as something you switch on while doing something else, more interesting? How did the medium of information become a tool of exploitation? Who turned the world of news into a whirlpool of innuendo, allegation, slander and finger pointing? When did the TRPs become the yardstick of who the most credible anchor was? Who made the tycoon the owner of TV channels to turn them into his/her propaganda machine? Here comes the very simple explanation: it happened with the advent of the 24-hour news channel. It happened when social media became the main source of information. And it happened when the avaricious-for-scoops audience lapped it all up. Welcome to media, circa 2014.

The blurring of line is a global phenomenon. The conscious or subliminal insertion of one's biases, ideology, morality, phobias, whims, wiles, expectations and mental baggage is contextualized in all one writes, utters or even thinks. How the prudent compartmentalization of that is done to ensure the presentation of a text that is adherent to an acceptable ethos of news-imparting is a daunting task, but surely, not impossible. The idiom of hero-worshipping and demonizing needs to find a middle ground, a balancing act, a modifier. The good and the bad need to shift out of the black and white boxes to attempt for some shades of grey. When presenting a report, how it imparts the distinct clarity of a documentary, and not exude the feel of an episode of a soap opera is up to the integrity -- or the lack thereof -- of the reporter. In an interaction with a panel of guests, the personal agenda is to be put on ice, and the questions are to be presented to have a discussion that is a pot pourri of opinions, analyses and POVs, not a reproduction of an unmentionable investigation session at the Guantanamo Bay. How an op-ed becomes the eulogy of the top politician or the witch-hunt of the top politician's top rival is up to the moral discretion -- of the journalistic nature -- of the columnist.

And then comes the social media. That one space of interactive-ness that has redefined communication, unifying diversity, distance and dichotomies, in such a manner that it blows your mind away. And while doing that, it has paved way for so many distortions of one narrative that by the time it travels from one side to the other, in a matter of seconds, the phenomenon of Chinese-whispering strips it of its primary purity. Entire reputations are shredded taking bits of the whole out of context. Lives are ruined -- albeit temporarily in most cases -- with the viral-ing of a personal story, juiced up as breaking news. Words are twisted with a maniacal glee to unfurl legions of trolls on unsuspecting preys, and the relishing is brutal, even when brief. Slander is thrown around more casually than the batting of eyelashes, or butts of cigarettes on a dirty dance floor. Hashtags assume the form of scarlet letters, and "trends" set in motion the virtual lynching of that one person who dared to criticize the one you idolize. Anonymity provides the cover to unleash that dark side that derives pleasure in dipping words in poison, and criticism in a volley of cuss words that would shame a Finnish sailor.

As one reads tweets, one just wonders: how did the world become so blatantly insecure that the offensive is deemed the sole response? Or were people always in search of ways to unleash the Dr. Hydes lurking within them? The unsubstantiated character assassination of one person finds validation through the self-righteous role-playing of another person's negativity and cynicism cloaked in pontification. And they do this with a sense of (misplaced) pride, while tipping their hats to the virtual anonymity of social media.

The fine balance of the personal and the unprejudiced is one yardstick of what distinguishes a real journalist from a sensationalist, a decent person from a sadist. So who are you? Have you ever pondered that little something when you see your name in a byline, or when your face looms larger than the memory of a bad breakup on millions of TV screens across your homeland, or when you see your vituperative post commented upon/endorsed/applauded with more outpouring of vitriol? Does your myopia stop you from noticing that you do exactly what you give others hell for? Do you realize that you lie so smoothly that you have no idea when your utterances became mere noise? Have you any real awareness of the loss of that bright-eyed, optimistic, earnest person you were once upon a time before you decided to give the world what you think it deserved? Have you ever heeded that tiny voice within you -- yes, it's that long-forgotten thing called conscience -- that hollers, once in a while...come on, dude, what ya doin'?

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with the launch of HuffPost India (December 8, 2014). To read all posts in the series, visit here.