Unable to Keep Up With the Din of Daily News, Rajdeep Sardesai Tries To Reinvent Himself

By Sandeep Bhushan | 10 August 2016

It was not a scene one is used to seeing: the journalist Rajdeep Sardesai loudly gushing “fantastico!” each time a school student correctly answered a question. The exclamation “fantastico,” one realised during the course of the one-hour quiz show, was the advertising tag line of a car being launched by its sponsor, the Tata group. Sardesai is the quizmaster of News Wiz, which started on 24 July 2016, and is aired on India Today TV.

At the peak of his career, this avatar of the renowned anchor would have been unthinkable.

Is brand Sardesai on the cusp of change, I asked him. Sardesai did not deny it, but did not seem unduly worried either. “I am only re-inventing myself,” he said. “My core competence remains news. Even this quiz show that I am doing is based on news. It will create a culture of news sorely lacking today.” But his answer did not quite explain the timing for his decision—why now?

I have known Sardesai for more than 15 years now—half of it as my editorial supervisor at NDTV. It is fair to say that he looks a pale shadow of his earlier self. Sardesai’s is the face that launched two TV channels—NDTV and CNN-IBN—and now provides prime-time heft to a third—India Today Television. It may even be the best-known face of satellite television news of the last 20 years, never mind the TRP numbers. In the days that he powered NDTV to the top, he was the quintessential reporter’s editor: a hands-on boss, with a politically sharp, quicksilver mind, and the energy levels of a marathon runner. He occasionally even shared his scoops with reporters—a quality almost unthinkable today.

Back then, Sardesai was a complete news-room leader. That is no longer the case. His role has been truncated—he is merely an “Editorial Consultant” at India Today. Unlike his earlier profiles, he does not head news operations any more.

Sardesai’s reportage from Bihar before assembly elections in the state last year was lacklustre. That he had spent too much time in the studio showed—his interviewees were cut short repeatedly, able to give only short, incomplete bites. Sardesai himself spoke with a characteristic anchor-like breathlessness, as if in a studio discussion. Even his prime-time fare is often, if not always, devoid of energy. And although he does still become animated on issues closest to his heart—cricket, caste and communalism—the cast of characters in his nightly prime-time show are studio regulars, and the debating format is woven around predictable binaries. The anchor has, relatively speaking, democratised his one-hour bulletin with more ground reports, more reporter presence and even a sprinkling of feel-good stories. He has also recently taken to broadcasting editorial meetings via Facebook Live—though it is unclear whether that has improved the news quality of his daily show.

Maybe it is the format. Maybe it is viewer fatigue. Maybe Arnab Goswami’s brand of perpetual outrage has some sort of audience connect that is leaving his competitors defeated. Either which way, ever since Sardesai was prised out of CNN-IBN—the network he painstakingly built from scratch—following a takeover by the Ambanis in mid 2014, things have never quite been the same.

Sardesai’s exit from CNN-IBN came not long after Narendra Modi’s rise to prime ministership. The sour relationship the two share is no secret. In the past, Modi has been disapproving of Sardesai’s reporting—during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, when Modi was chief minister, he banned NDTV because he believed Sardesai and Barkha Dutt’s reporting would spur the violence. The term “news traders”—once used by the prime minister to describe journalists—is now commonly used by his supporters as a way of criticising Sardesai. The message seems to have trickled down, and causing his access to ministers and bureaucrats to be revoked—a body blow to editors and reporters. In a 24-hour news cycle, choking the flow of information is the surest way to cut a journalist’s career short. After all, editors are the newsroom leaders, the faces of the network—and have to be seen as such by their colleagues. In such a demanding cycle, how do journalists break stories—more a marketing exercise for the channel than an editorial one—and stand out among the clutter of news networks if their sources are no longer a phone call away?

“Would you have done a similar quiz show 15 years ago?” I asked Sardesai. “No way,” he replied, quite candidly. “Today I am stuck with a medium that I am no longer enjoying. The entire media ecosystem has changed. There is so much noise. Every day you are expected to shout and compete with other networks.” The “noise” that Sardesai alludes to is likely a combination of the Goswami-style anchoring that is grabbing eyeballs, and the abusive and unforgiving onslaught of social-media trolls. Like most, Sardesai is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

But there could be another aspect to this, one that has perhaps escaped Sardesai. The careers of the first generation of English-language news anchors in India—all of whom were from the NDTV stable and who defined much of post-liberalisation TV news—seem to have run their course. The endgame, if it has not already begun, is around the corner. Barkha Dutt never quite recovered from Radia tape allegations, and it is unclear which way her new digital media project, ThePrint, is headed. Goswami’s editorial preference for the BJP is now practically public knowledge, but what will happen to his career and credibility when a non-BJP government comes to power?

Sardesai was satellite television’s first anchor-reporter-editor. Will he be the first to change course as well? Just sometime ago there were unconfirmed reports that he would be the Aam Aadmi Party’s chief ministerial candidate in Goa, but he flatly denied the rumour. He did tell me though, that he was “open to quiz shows even on networks like Sony and Star, provided it is news based.”

As television news plumbs newer depths, its most credible practitioners are plotting their escape. “Credibility” is, of course, relative, and the larger context of television news as owner-driven has to be factored in. But with Sardesai re-adjusting his professional focus, India’s fatigued news landscape looks set to change.

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.


11 thoughts on “Unable to Keep Up With the Din of Daily News, Rajdeep Sardesai Tries To Reinvent Himself”

Sandeep Bhushan is a frustrated , failed TV journalist. He had no credibility then , has none now. he would be jealous of junior Anchors. Its good that TV had rid itself of this frustrated hack from Bhopal

Quite a thoughtful analysis. Looks obvious too after reading the same. If something is not appealing to someone anymore, he/she can seek alternatives to keep going. For those who have watched professionals like Rajdeep since he began on air with NDTV in the 90s, it does’nt surprise us that the present scheme of things leaves them with a feeling of being a fish out of water.

If Barkha’s credibility nose dived after Radiator episode, same the case of Rajeev after Parliament Vote for Cash sting. Surprised no mention of that & neither his wife’s continuous anti-namo barbs.

The most fundamental question appears at the end : Credibility?
While It’s easy to gloss over the years of incompetence as a loss of TRPs to Arnab Goswami and his brand of journalism, i’d like to see a fair summation of the past 15 years from some journalist.
Rajdeep Sardesai if capable is welcome to have a shot at it. His wife , a mediocre “journalist” and would be an Olympic gold medal level achievement to be called mediocre on her opinion pieces for ToI, is welcome to give it a shot too.
Can someone attempt to push away the blinkered Congress or BJP lenses and be objective? There in lies the answer to “revival of journalism and credibility” and all these dusty words from a dictionary Indian press loves to throw around. To be able to REPORT. Irrespective of who’s going to be angry and who’s not going to give a Rajya Sabha nomination nor even a MLA/MP seat considering they choose to go the elections route — Is the Indian public so lucky? This mainly applies to the English Mainstream Media (and may apply to Hindi too run out of Delhi).
And as a disclaimer, i did vote for BJP (for AIMIM and Congress/JDS are not alternatives i’d consider voting for) but am not a bhakt.

Was really a different experience to see Rajdeep in that quiz show.
Finding a credible new show has become impossible these days.

Look no further than “Barkha Dutt never quite recovered from Radia tape allegations” to understand the breed of journalists that have destroyed journalism in last 20 years. The author while needling Arnab, is rather far too sympathetic to Barkha, the news trader. He bats for Barkha as we if it was all made up “allegations”, as if we all haven’t heard the tapes. That was the true issue with “first generation of English-language news anchors in India—all of whom were from the NDTV stable and who defined much of post-liberalisation TV news”.

This breed were one of the few side-effects of Liberalization. They swooped in and took over control of the Angrezi airwaves, just like the Russian Oligarchs took over power centers after Soviet Union broke up.

This first generation of english-news anchors stood for mediocrity and elitist bias. The traits that put them there were family connections, political connections, English degree, fancy English accent and dubious capital. Their talent was English grammer and represented the worst of journalism in 60 years of independence and destroyed the “liberal” disclosure in quest for TRPs. Can’t wait for the ashes to give birth to a healthy version of journalism.

Arnab is not the answer, but 20 years of Arnab is probably required to undo the damage these media workers and their tribe have unleashed on India. Arnab happened because of likes of Barkha, Rajdeep and their ilk like Sandeep.

“Goswami’s editorial preference for the BJP is now practically public knowledge, but what will happen to his career and credibility when a non-BJP government comes to power?”

What is also practically public knowledge is the editorial preference of “first-generation English news anchors” to the most corrupt regime of independent india. From tacit to explicit coverup of the ills, until they could no longer be covered up. The brokering of deals with politicians. The blatant propaganda and self-censorship on behalf of ruling family was simply astounding. Not a word was to be uttered on the Gandhi family or Vadra family.

And yet, symptomatic of the “pseudo-secular” strain, the author doesn’t see the irony: What did he expect would happen when a non-UPA government came to power, give them more Padma Shrees?

Writer is fine Rajdeep taking congress side, and has problem with Arnab… come out of these sides and show us the true Journalism and not biased views

“Goswami’s editorial preference for the BJP is now practically public knowledge”- I really doubt this statement. Goswamy takes a strong nationalistic line and that is about the only time he looks to be in agreement with the BJP. At other times, and taking up other issues, his stands is at odds with the party. This can also be verified by the amount of badmouthing he has been receiving from many of the party’s online supporters- only recently has it given place to some amount of admiration because of his taking up the national cause- so unfashionable in our upper class, fashionable circles!

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