Many fictional and comic superheroes have a day job as a journalist. What does the scribe alter-ego of a superhero signify for contemporary journalism?
Spiderman, Superman and Shaktimaan are popular super action figures in pop-culture, held most dear by the 90s kids. Spiderman is the consequence of genetic convolution of a human and spider DNA; Superman who belongs to Krypton comes equipped with laser vision and telekinetic flight power that can reverse the Earth’s rotation and Shaktimaan can be best understood as a gifted man straight out of Vedas who has mastered his true-self and harnessed cosmic powers to acquire supernatural abilities.
A common thread that runs across the lives of all these three fictional characters is that they are journalists by the day and superheroes by the night.
Peter Parker (Spiderman) is an underpaid photojournalist at the Daily Bugle. Clark Kent (Superman) who comes under-dressed to avoid suspicion is a reporter with the Daily Planet newspaper and Pandit Gangadhar Vidyadhar Mayadhar Omakarnath Shastri aka Shaktimaan is a photojournalist with the newspaper Aaj Ki Awaaz.
Even superheroes are not free from the compulsion of earning a livelihood. Is it just a coincidence that our most loved superheroes are also scribes – recording the reality of the world that they have been chosen to fix either by serendipity or by their very design? It is a great cover for an individual who needs to be watchful of the evil in society.
As journalists we do harbour the belief that we are on the side of good and the powerless like all superheroes. That it is our prerogative to expose evil. This gives rise to the superhero complex in a journalist. And there is a certain degree of truth in it as journalism as a profession is different from all others.
Journalists are self-starters. Without that spark, they just can’t survive. It’s something that comes naturally to anyone who makes the hard choice of being part of the industry. They are in a sense outliers, who could have chosen to mint money in any other profession. Much like the aforementioned superheroes, they perceive themselves to be the custodians of human values, morals and virtue.
In a profession without a rigid framework, they apply their minds to discern the pace of progress of events while they camp at the intersections of politics, science, religion, economics, history, culture, big events and everything else that affects people’s lives. That’s the hero in them. They may have a blue tick or some cult followership, influence among local masses or in power corridors or have superb understanding of the matters and publish remarkable investigative reports. $4 bn Lenskart can’t bring down the government, but a small news website can, if it comes to that, with a 500-word expose.
But the human inside them lives in the midst of personal conflicts. Money, fame, and power lure them too. If a journalist doesn’t make great money, they compensate for the unsatisfactory salary with fame. Fame is like LIC policy, it attracts money from all directions once it matures. They resort to ridiculous theatrics for fame – things about which there’s nothing journalistic.
When both money and fame are ample, even the most seasoned of journalists become complacent and make rookie mistakes making them mince-meat for trolls. Yet others ride the high horse of moral indignation in the imaginary battlefield of righteousness, which in common parlance is described as “wokeness”. In their perpetual yearning for something larger than ordinary, they stoop to the level of discovering fabricated story angles and slip in unchecked bias without an iota of shame or cross-questioning.
Contrarily, one who stays deprived of both money and fame for a long time tends to become terribly depressed. In fact, research shows journalists are highly vulnerable to mental health disorders.
The biggest victim of the superhero complex that is an inherent part of being a journalist is the young, naive journo-activists, fresh out of college who think “speaking truth to power” is what entails journalism. They secure all their by-lines around this distorted definition of journalism.
Their map of the world is restricted by their own privileged upbringing. So, when they encounter the stark realities of life for the first time, their world comes crashing down making them enormously distressed and prone to other-blaming, dimming their ability to locate truth in an objective manner.
When the lifestyle gap between those who record daily history and those who are being written about – the migrant, the refugee, the labourer, the anganwadi worker, the village teacher – keeps on increasing, objectivity and truth become the first casualty.
Finally, there are the young romantics, literature-loving, self-indulgent journos who like to interpret the grimmest of human sufferings – be it the migrant crisis during the first lockdown or the conflict in Kashmir through a Kafkaesque lens – the detached brooding of an existentialist.
Yet, in this superhero complex each of these caricatures of journalists exhibit extremely human characterisitics. Ultimately, they learn it the hard way that they would stay relevant not with the courage of conviction of their written words but by the acquired skills of manipulating others, courting the elite or those in power and editorial boards, leveraging boom mic to show boldness in front of illiterates, information trading, liasoning and lobbying, lying, cheating and sending clever tweets to their herd-followership, all of this to climb the greasy pole of success. None of this is superheroic, it is just as human as it can get. An inconvenient truth for the – ‘Guardians of Democracy’.
In whichever way they’re at it, the human inside them strives to match the hero but: (un)knowingly they only end up serving the vested interests, healing their personal pain, or channelling their hate and bitterness.
The notion of the superhero deeply embedded in the image of a journalist vaporises sooner or later for someone who has been in the industry for a good time. Writing as a profession is coupled with age and experience, especially in journalism where commenting on public affairs carries a larger responsibility. Until this self-realisation happens in a somewhat ambiguous profession, not as strictly defined as that of a soldier and not as vague as that of a painter, a young professional is influenced by the perverted ideas of journalism that are glorified today. It is unhealthy to build one’s identity around these bastardised forms of echo-chamber journalism.
This is precisely why it is endlessly dangerous to let a 25 year old Editor-in-chief of a Youtube channel shape public opinion. Possessed of self-conceit, they realise they’re not the Avengers, but just a scribe.