The post-1990 boom in the Nepali media pushed many established practices of the past into the shadows. Professional attitudes and commercial considerations made 'mission journalism' unfashionable. But the idea of the journalist as a stakeholder rather than merely a recorder survives in a different form.
Instigative journalism sounds like a neologism, but dates back to the circulation wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the latter part of the 19th century. The New York Press coined the term 'yellow kid journalism' in early 1897 to describe the combative coverage of rival papers. The expression was shortened to 'yellow journalism' later.
However, instigative journalism perhaps best describes the techniques adopted by Hearst to provoke the population into action. As the story goes, Hearst sent author Stephen Crane and artist Frederick Remington to Cuba to report on Spanish atrocities. To Remington's request that he be called back as there was no war in Cuba, his boss cabled back: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war."
The year 2066 BS began with a sensational peace of instigative journalism. In a front-page report, Kantipur Daily alleged that the Nepal Army was contemplating a 'soft' coup to pre-empt the dismissal of its chief by the Maoist-led coalition government. The NA public relations outfit took the story seriously enough to issue a denial the same day. It termed the report "imaginary and illusionary".
Himal Khabarpatrika responded with a provocative caption on its cover to accompany a cleverly manipulated image of Pushpa Kamal Dahal in military regalia. Other print media ran equally confrontational opinion pieces. The subsequent polarisation of public opinion, it could be said, led to the dismissal of the army chief, his restoration under presidential orders, the resignation of the prime minister and the formation of an anti-Maoist coalition. Politics has been going around in circles ever since, with President Ram Baran Yadav at the centre.
The Kathmandu establishment loves President Yadav's penchant for Hindu rituals and his barely disguised anti-Maoist politics. But as the day of reckoning (May 28, 2010) nears and the possibility of completing the constitution in time recedes, everyone is feeling apprehensive as far as the president is concerned.
Premier Nepal recently urged the head of state to exercise restraint. The media have adopted a hostile tone. Constitutionalists close to UML have stopped defending presidential consultations. Even Himal Khabarpatrika ran an editorial sometime ago requesting President Yadav to calm down.
Ever since his vocal opposition to the Madhes Uprising, President Yadav hasn't been very popular in the Tarai. Now Pahadis too seem to have lost some of their initial enthusiasm for him. But one journalist has stood by the president throughout, defending all his actions and inactions with commitment and zeal. In the writings of Birganj-based reporter and columnist Chandrakishor, a whiff of the mission journalism of yore can still be found. He is often guarded in offering his views, but even his circumspection has the old-world charm of when it was unbecoming of a journalist to praise a politician openly. Chandrakishor is my choice for 'Journalist of 2066 BS' in 'The Year of Print'.
Instigative journalism undoubtedly rules the roost in Nepali media. For the old-timers of the profession however, the mere survival of mission journalism in some form is reason enough to celebrate.