One of the greatest, albeit probably apocryphal, stories on the power of the media is the supposed exchange of cables between media baron William Randolph Hearst and Frederic Remington - an illustrator Hearst had hired for his newspapers - just before the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Hearst's New York Journal at the time was fighting head to head with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World for market supremacy, both using rabid sensationalism to boost circulation. One of the stories the two papers covered elaborately, and loudly, was the alleged excesses of Spanish rule in Cuba, with both demanding American intervention.
Hearst had recruited Remington to send him illustrations from Cuba. After spending some time there, Remington decided to return home. Before leaving Havana, Remington sent Hearst a telegram that is said to have said: "Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return."
Legend has it that Hearst replied: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war."
Soon after, the American battleship USS Maine, which was sent in as a symbol of American support to Cuba's struggle for independence, exploded and sank in Havana harbour for reasons unknown to this date. Papers owned by Hearst and Pulitzer, however, promptly decided it was the handiwork of the Spanish, and launched a renewed media campaign demanding retaliation by America. Within a couple of months the United States declared war on Spain over Cuba. The war had been delivered.
Media observers on both sides often complain that the reporting of China in an influential section of the Indian media in the past few years would make Hearst proud.
With headlines such as "Nervous China may attack India by 2012" and "India prepared for limited conflict with China", or "With China in mind, India tests new-generation Agni missile with high 'kill efficiency'", anyone relying only on the Indian media's depiction of China could easily be forgiven for thinking that war is imminent. In the process, sightings of Mars and Venus have been reported as Chinese UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) while there have been several reports of Chinese soldiers charging across the border riding mules.
"Shrill, jingoistic and embarrassing," is how A.G. Noorani describes Indian media's China reportage. "Every now and then the media breaks into a patriotic frenzy over anonymously sourced reports of border violations without bothering to explain the intricacies of our tangled frontiers," says the veteran media commentator, constitutional expert and historian, who has written extensively on the vexed border issue.
To infer that India's vast media speaks with one voice, however, may be unfair. With 82,000 newspapers, the country's print media market is as huge as it is diverse, in part due to the multiplicity of linguistic groups. Neutral, even peaceable, China stories are hence not uncommon, but negative stories clearly get far greater play. As a result, the dominant voice when it comes to China is antagonistic, identifying the country as a bully that covets Indian land.
"The media everywhere turns patriotic and embedded when it comes to foreign affairs. Look no further than the US media," says Ashis Chakrabarti, a Sinophile and senior editor of eastern India's leading English-language daily, The Telegraph. "It's basically the bad old cry of 'My country, right or wrong'. But Indian media's China coverage suffers from a sense of injured merit, resulting from the 1962 war to China's rise as an economic superpower. If you can't beat them, bait them - that seems to be the selling point for the Indian media's China coverage."
Indians' attitude towards China is largely informed by the brief border war in 1962, in which India suffered a humiliating defeat. As the war came after a prolonged period of bonding between the two Asian giants when India declared friendship with China the cornerstone of its foreign policy, the conflict went down as an act of betrayal. Even though a whole range of issues at the time coalesced to trigger the war, the fuse was lit by competing border claims, and this is how it continues to be remembered.
India's own role in the border crisis half a century ago finds little mention in popular discourse except in occasional, contrarian media commentaries. The original problem - of inheriting a muddled boundary arrangement from the colonial masters - has similarly been erased from public memory. The residual memory of the 1962 war in a country repeatedly invaded throughout its history is thus one of a sudden and unprovoked Chinese attack on India's territorial integrity.
Added to this historically determined antipathy to China is the economics of the news business. As almost the entire media industry in India is profit-driven and privately owned, the commercial appeal of conflict as a theme in a cutthroat media environment is only too obvious, especially with the arrival of 24/7 news channels, all looking to war mongering to boost ratings.
Noorani lays the blame for shrill media nationalism squarely on electronic media. "Television caters for both literate and illiterate news consumers and cannot afford the nuance one would require in reporting foreign policy. This creates a market for extremist views, which newspapers then have to compete with," he says.
According to Noorani, this ratings-driven news agenda fosters a climate of bellicosity. Academics, he says, want to be seen on television to make their mark as public intellectuals. And to do that, it becomes necessary to be strident to fit news channels' "rally 'round the flag" agenda. "Being loud helps, being hysterical helps even more. We are just not interested in moderate viewpoints any more."
But historian Tansen Sen, who closely follows Chinese and Indian media coverage of each other, believes the problem is not restricted to India, pointing out that the Chinese media is just as guilty of highlighting negative news about India.
"Talking heads and the so-called China or India experts don't help much in pointing out the nuances and separating the hyperbole from news," he says. "Most of these people have limited knowledge of the other country, a consequence of the fairly low standard of China studies in India and India studies in China."
A dangerous aspect of negative reportage is the phenomenon of "looping", Sen says. "Editorials in Chinese newspapers that are critical about India, for example, are reported in Indian media as if they are pronouncements of the Chinese government. These Indian reports are then translated back into Chinese and presented as negative coverage by the Indian media."
Tang Lu, a research fellow at the Xinhua Centre for World Affairs Studies, agrees Indians do not understand that Chinese media is diverse, but says the Chinese, too, don't realise the complexities of India's media market and agenda and tend to appropriate Indian media content for public opinion and government intent. While the Indian media tends to portray China as a threat, the Chinese media tends to look down on India, she says.
"One of the popular topics in Chinese media is comparing China and India with a view to building up national pride by highlighting India's inferiority. There's a culture of shallow patriotism," Tang says.
"Plus, the Chinese media are also quick to pick up news on India's military build-up, border issues and India-US relations. Since many of these are sourced from Indian media, with the inherent anti-China bias, they acquire an added layer of venom by the time they have been processed by Chinese journalists."
The sustained negative portrayal on both sides has had an immense impact on public opinion. India Poll 2013 on Indian attitudes found only 9 per cent of Indians believe China does not pose a threat, while 84 per cent believe it does.
According to the latest Pew Global Attitudes Project, only 23 per cent of Indians describe their country's relationship with China as co-operative. In China, 39 per cent view their relationship with India as one of co-operation, falling from 53 per cent in 2010, largely as a result of the cycle of mutually hostile media content.
Sen was one of the brains behind the China-India media forums started in Singapore to address this problem of misinformation. "The aim was to explore ways in which Indian and Chinese media people, talking heads and scholars could collaborate in presenting useful, yet critical, coverage in order to promote mutual understanding and awareness among Indians and Chinese," he says.
Video: China, India sign border defence agreement
The idea has now caught on, with more organisations and even the two governments joining in. The Global Times Foundation and India's Observer Research Foundation launched their first China-India media exchange programme in August in Beijing with a four-day conference. Cai Mingzhao, minister of the State Council Information Office, and Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid last month launched the first Sino-Indian media forum in New Delhi.
So peace may be in the air, if not the airwaves yet. Chakrabarti notices a subtle change, especially in the Indian business media. In China, the Global Times, itself a picture of jingoism and the favourite source of Indian media's citations to validate Chinese bellicosity, has lately been running conciliatory pieces on media issues with headlines such as "Accentuating the positive" and "Sino-Indian media help advance ties". Hearst must be turning in his grave.