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Sunday, August 02, 2015

Best of Enemies

Having been out of India for the last seven years, I have not been a witness to the rise of gladiatorial television that has swept the country off its feet, and made mega stars of news anchors. The quality and character of news has metamorphosed with talking heads spewing venom has become a norm, turning the staid business of news into rambunctious entertainment.

There is an erroneous perception among the practitioners of this craft that Indian television has taken a leaf from the West, and more particularly from America, where influencers holding diametrically opposing views slug it out on television to entertain the audience.

I say erroneous because in most cases the chat shows on American television do engage in a bit of slugfest, they aren’t devoid of substantive content. Among the best exchanges that I’ve enjoyed are between Fareed Zakaria and Bret Stephens – on the opposing sides of the ideological divide – and who combine finesse, sophistication, etiquette, and a deep conviction of their ideological position to convince the audience as well as the opponent of the validity of their point of view.

The little that I get to see of Indian television – mostly from snippets shared by journalist friends in India on Facebook – seems to be utterly devoid of substance, and relies more on all-round hollering with everyone, including the news anchors, speaking simultaneously. But this may be a view based on insufficient evidence. There are some fine journalists in India whom I’ve known and whose professionalism I respect, and a number of them are on television.

This rather long preamble to this post was necessary to provide a context to the excellent documentary I saw yesterday at Tiff Bell Lightbox – The Best of Enemies. It narrates the historic debate between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal on ABC in 1968 that created television history, and set the tone and the format for television debates globally. It is a format that has remained more or less unchanged even after nearly five decades.

Both Buckley and Vidal were failed politicians perhaps because they were intellectuals who couldn’t relate to voters, but could relate more to each other despite their strong personal animosity and equally strong ideological antipathy for each other.  

The documentary made by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville narrates how ABC – then a lowly third in the pecking order of America’s national broadcasters (or as one of the interviewees of the documentary says, “it would’ve been fourth, had there been a fourth broadcaster”) was able to redefine television journalism when it engaged Buckley and Vidal to exchange views on first the Republican convention, and then the Democratic convention leading up to the Presidential elections of 1968 that eventually saw Nixon being elected as the President of the United States.

The documentary traces the ideological underpinnings of both Buckley and Vidal. The former was the superstar ideologue of American conservatism, the editor of the influential National Review, and a man much sought after by the then Republican leadership, especially Ronald Reagan. The latter, on the other hand, was the voice of liberal America, boldly exploring taboo themes of transsexuality, feminism and continuing patriarchy in his novels such as Myra Breckenridge (1968).

Buckley, the supremely gifted debater, with a perpetual supercilious sneer, was seemingly confident of demolishing Vidal in a jiffy. But Vidal had worked long and hard on understanding his opponent, and proved to be tenacious. As the debate progressed, the effete verbal jabs were replaced by venomous and vicious spitfire insults and repartees. It must have made for riveting television then, and doesn’t lose the sting even now.

The documentary intersperses the ten debates between the two with their biographies and their ideological pursuits both pre and post the debate. It interviews people known to them personally; people involved with television broadcasting at that time; academics and media studies experts to piece together a compelling story.

The debate, of course, ended disastrously with both debaters turning abusive, and Buckley threatening Vidal with violence. Vidal, of course, is the provocateur; he calls Buckley crypto-Nazi, and Buckley, the ever calm and collected lofty intellectual, crumbles to pieces, and retaliates by calling Vidal a queer, and then threatens to sock Vidal in the face.

Although the debates ended then, the issues that both raised – race relations, rising economic gap between the rich and the poor – continued to remain relevant for a better part of the next 20 years. It would seem, especially with the rise of Reagan and Reaganism that after all Buckley’s point of view had eventually emerged triumphant. But that triumph has, of course, led to unmitigated disaster, as is becoming evident by the unending economic recession and the rising inequalities between the haves and the have-nots.  

For all those interested in journalism and the perennial debate between the right and the left this documentary is not to be missed. 

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