WTF just happened: Sept 24

Three days into this WTFJH series that I started as a means to find/reclaim my voice, and I find that the feedback alone has been worth it.

I’ve been getting mails suggesting what I should write about (and also what I should not); mails asking what prompted me to return to blogging at a time when the trend is to move away from the format, and – this is by far the majority – what have I to say, what am I prepared to disclose, about my own biases.

Taking these in order: first, why emails? This will work much better, for both of us, if the conversation surrounding my posts is appended to the posts themselves. I’ve not asked for sign-ins before you comment; I have placed no bar on your commenting anonymously, so there really is no reason to flood my mailbox rather than speak your piece right here. Or am I missing something?

Two: re the question of whether I will write about this or that. This is a work in progress and I am still trying to work out a system, a rhythm, that suits me. I don’t intend to write about every single thing that happens – I am an individual, not a news site, and I don’t have the resources for such blanket coverage. My focus for now (remember “work in progress”?) is to connect up the dots; to examine an issue that catches my eye and see if it is part of a larger pattern – in other words, to go beyond capturing the headlines du jour. (So yeah, you will find one incident highlighted and elaborated upon and other incidents, bearing at least a superficial similarity, ignored.)Why blogging? Because social media does not allow for nuance. Typically, what happens is you see something, and sometimes it prompts you to say something. That ‘something’ doesn’t fit into 140 characters, but even before you can elaborate, people pick up on something in that first question and go ‘what about’. Now you are in a bind – you can either follow your thought through, or respond. If you do the former, the whole thing snowballs: your lack of response to the first set of queries is seen as an inability to engage; meanwhile, others are picking up on other posts in the thread and similarly interjecting with questions. The nature of the beast is that you are never able to follow a thought through to a logical conclusion – and the result is a certain sense of frustration. Therefore, I will blog.

And now let’s talk about bias – again. ‘Again’, because the media in general has done considerable soul-searching on the question a decade or so earlier, and a consensus of sorts has emerged. Dan Gillmor, author of the book We The Media, was one of the earliest to point out that ‘objectivity’, or the seeming absence of bias, is a flawed concept. In a 2005 essay titled The End of Objectivity, he said:

We are human. We have biases and backgrounds and a variety of conflicts that we bring to our jobs every day.

Every single person reading these entries has her biases. And so do I. My biases stem from my upbringing, from the values inculcated in me by my family and my teachers, from what I read and hear and see, and from the life I have lived – just the same as yours.

The ‘objectivity’ debate is a trap journalism has walked into with eyes wide open. Something happens, and it feels wrong. You write about it, from the facts and from the feeling those facts engender. Any time you call out a wrong, it is going to rub some person, or institution, the wrong way – and that entity will likely attack you with allegations of bias. At some point in the process, journalists began to pre-emptively anticipate and neutralize that attack by being ‘even-handed’ – which, in practice, boils down to he-said-she-said reporting. How that works in is, someone says or does something that is flat out wrong, you report it and a couple of paras down you go “But a spokesperson for X said…”.

If the spokesperson spoke to facts, his words are valid. But if it is just spin, then quoting it in pursuit of an ill-defined objectivity serves no purpose.

A case in point (I’ll use an example from the US, though you see much the same thing happening here): At the very first press conference after Donald Trump became President, then press secretary Sean Spicer attacked the media for reporting (accurately) that the turnout for Trump’s inauguration was less than the one for Barack Obama eight years earlier. Immediately thereafter, Trump’s senior advisor Kelyanne Conway appeared on various media outlets to elaborate. Challenged on Spicer’s falsehoods, Conway came up with a coinage straight out of Orwellian double-speak:

You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving – Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternate facts to that.

(Closer to home, to cite just one example, BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma managed, in course of one tweet, to suggest that rioting in Basirhat, West Bengal, was being covered up, and countered that by posting “media pics of the riots”. When the fakery was outed, the BJP’s national IT head Amit Malviya had his own Kelyanne Conway moment: the images, he said, were used for “representational purposes”.)

An ‘objective’ report would talk of what Sharma did, how it was exposed, what police action followed, and what Malviya said – and in doing that, dilute the facts by mixing in the spin. Is the job of a journalist to present a clear picture, or to confuse it?

Journalism professor Jay Rosen called such ‘objectivity’ “the view from nowhere”, while making the point that objectivity as a journalistic principle does not – or rather, should not — mean the absence of a point of view.

Gillmor argued – and I agree with him – that rather than pretend to an objectivity that is an unnatural state, journalists need to focus on (1) Thoroughness (ensuring that you have looked at/reported all the facts); (2) Accuracy (which needs no elaboration); (3) Fairness (being aware of what biases drive us, being ready to listen to other points of view, and never deliberately ignoring a point of view because it doesn’t suit our narrative); and (4) Transparency (disclosing any conflicts inherent in what we chose to write about).

Gillmor in his essay elaborates on these four pillars of reporting, and his post has resulted in a robust, and ongoing, discussion on his blog. Jay Rosen’s “view from nowhere” triggered a thought that resulted in eBay’s Pierre Omidyar announcing a new media venture dedicated to a journalism that hews to those four principles cited above. (Details). A year after the announcement, The Intercept was launched (more details), and till date continues to produce a kind of journalism where transparency, not objectivity, is the guiding principle. The reporting is in-depth, the commentary is sharp and takes no prisoners.

Thus much for the reader question about bias: reduced to its essence, yes, I am human, I have my own biases, and my objective on this blog will not be to lobotomize myself, but to be transparent, thorough, fair. (None of which is possible, by the way, without feedback, so I look forward to hearing from you not just on this broad note, but on successive posts going forward). And now for some headlines that caught my eye:

#1. The Center has asked police across the country to “encourage” people to move towards a cashless economy. (Other recommendations include pushing Aadhar and “honouring” journalists who portray the police positively).

This is classic WTF. How does the police “encourage” me to go cashless, exactly? If I want to pay in legal tender, I have the absolute right to do so. More to the point, how does the police encourage say the lady who sells vegetables off of a small pushcart parked at the end of my street to go cashless? What will almost certainly happen, if such vague and untenable directives are handed down, is to give the police one more stick to use to threaten, browbeat, and ultimately, to demand and take bribes. As to the proposal to “honor” journalists, WTF again – what is this other than an open bribe to write positive stories? (And by the same token, what is to stop the police from being zealous about the corollary, and punish journalists who report stories that cast the role of the police negatively?)

#2. Around 6 PM last Thursday (September 21) evening, three boys reportedly molested a girl who was returning to her hostel. She raised the alarm; the boys fled. The girls say such harassment and sexual abuse has become common on campus, and demand action. The vice-chancellor goes missing; the university’s PRO says the protest is “politically motivated”. All this happens while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a tour of Benaras that takes his convoy through the BHU premises. The protesting students block roads; the police resort to a lathi-charge. Several students are injured, some during a second lathi-charge when the protesting students camped outside the office of the VC. (This site has a set of videos and images relating to the incident). The proctor said the police were acting in self-defense. The college has closed early for Dussehra; Chief Minister Adityanath has asked for a report.

#3. Another senior journalist, KJ Singh, has been murdered in Mohali. His mother, aged 92, was also murdered. Again, the perpetrators are unknown, as is the motive. The police will investigate and, if precedent is any judge, nothing will happen – nothing has happened in the 27 cases of journalists killed in the line of duty since 1992. (BTW, see the response immediately below that tweet – is this what we have become, that people casually say that such things “happen in every democracy”?)

Which reminds me: I have become inured to the vomitus reactions on social media to contemporary events, but even so a tweet late last week stunned me. Editorial director of the New Indian Express Prabhu Chawla is among the senior-most journalists practicing today. At the time of writing, this is the tweet he has pinned to his Twitter handle.

Just how egregious is it that a man whose seniority and job definition mandate that he sets standards for the rest of us indulges in point-scoring in the wake of a fellow journalist’s death? What is most contemptible is his attempt to make the “ominous silence” about the bias of upper caste journalists against those of lower castes/classes.

Chawla is lying when he talks of this “ominous silence”. Various media organizations across the country condemned the killings, including the Delhi press which is Chawla’s target.

Chawla himself, a senior member of the profession and as such among those the rest of us are supposed to look to for guidance, never showed up. And when it was pointed out to him that the killing of Bhowmick was in fact condemned, this “editorial director” further debased himself with an exercise in arithmetic.

When I landed my first real job as a journalist, back in 1989, my then editor Nikhil Lakshman had guided me to the work of a few stellar practitioners of the time and advised me to look to them for inspiration. Prabhu Chawla’s was one of the first names Nikhil mentioned.

One of the saddest aspects, for me personally, of the times we live in is how so many of those people, who I once looked up to, have been revealed as hollow, soulless sycophants, shameful caricatures of what a journalist should be.

If this is what “editorial directors” are like today, where is today’s young journalist supposed to go for inspiration, advice, guidance? It is little wonder that the shining star of today’s generation is an Arnab Goswami – liar, unabashed mouthpiece and serial trafficker in fakes.

#4. A ‘Bharatiya Patriot’ safely ensconced in London shared on his Twitter timeline a video of a priest being beaten supposedly by Muslims who were angered by the sound of the puja bell. In fact, the priest had been caught attempting to molest a girl, and had been beaten by her family members. The Kolkatta police confirmed as much. And not for the first time, I think what this country needs a lot less of is the faux ‘patriotism’ of those who seek to gaslight, to inflame passions, to provoke, to incite, to appeal to our basest instincts.

PostScript: In The Wire, Monobina Gupta explores the question of journalistic objectivity from a slightly different angle. This is well worth a read.

Tomorrow, PM Modi will address the BJP executive, and the speech, to be telecast live, is expected to contain “important announcements”. Apropos:

Modi chest

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8 thoughts on “WTF just happened: Sept 24

  1. ‘One of the saddest aspects, for me personally, of the times we live in is how so many of those people, who I once looked up to, have been revealed as hollow, soulless sycophants, shameful caricatures of what a journalist should be.’

    So what changed suddenly if they were always thus? People do not change overnight do they? Integrity is something that normally stands tall. Good that you revealed the truth but sad to know that Indian journalists are this bad..

    • In a sense, nothing “changed” by much. As I grew into the profession, I slowly realized from many examples that journalism is no different to other professions. In the sense that there are lakhs of journos doing good work for laughably small salaries. And there are the few powerful ones who translated their positions and the power of their bylines into personal profit. I’ve seen examples of that since the 1980s, when I was a baby freelancer, and from the 90s on, from when I have worked full-time.

      What has changed now is the institutionalization of something best expressed by George Bush after 9/11: the whole “you are either with us or against us binary”. Journalists are not supposed to be with or against anyone — they are supposed to be for what is right, and against what is wrong. However, this creation of a no-exceptions binary has led to a situation where star journalists have openly, and unabashedly, become government/corporate mouthpieces. Where they earlier did what they did under relative cover, they now do all that, and more, openly and flaunt it as the way to be. For instance, witness Arnab cloaking his water-carrying for the government as being a “nationalist”, and suggesting that those who question the government are anti-national. Also witness the many bylines that openly espouse governmental spin, peddle in fake news, and become proselytizers for their preferred party.

      This was never so open, so naked, so unabashed, so institutionalized. And that should worry everyone interested in the media — because look at the example it sets for the next generation.

      I was recently lecturing at a journalism college in Chennai. When the floor was opened for questions, the very first one I got, and I wrote it down at the time, was phrased like this: “At a time when media credibility is at an all-time low, at a time when there is no senior journalist I can look up to and model myself on, what do I do? How do I build my personal credibility, at least, and is there any point to doing it, can personal credibility survive when institutional credibility is lost?”

      I damn near cried.The questioner was a young girl, training to be a journalist, about 19 years old. Look what she has to contend with.

      That is what has changed.

    • I hope to. I am slowly finding the voice I thought I had lost. Hopefully, no more mental laryngitis attacks. 🙂

  2. Prem Panicker, you rock (and that is something I don’t easily say). In my own small way, will try to give inputs from time to time, if I may.

  3. Pingback: WTF – the BHU sequel | Smoke Signals

  4. Say ‘Blogito ergo sum’ and carry on 🙂 Wonderful analyses of the various topics addressed here. (And a belated “Welcome back”… hope the weekend was good).

    About Prabhu Chawla, regardless of the so-called seniority of the gentleman, one must not forget his roots – the same atmosphere that produced Arun Jaitley, Rajat Sharma.or the gang of the 70s during the emergency. At that time or after that, we all certainly looked up to Chawla because we thought he was a good journalist because he would bash the ruling party fearlessly and therefore gleefully we accepted him as one of our own. Only to find out our biases were mistaken and so were we about him.. but much later.. The real divide did not actually happen in ’79, not even the dual membership issue, not even the Rath Yatra, but the real animosity turned up after all that. It took a while for the rest of us befuddled idiots to know what they truly were (oh yes, we all knew, but we refused to see, because we were so gleeful about someone bashing up Indira and her clan). Even now, I am afraid, it is the same thing. But this time we are told it is better to ignore our warning bells and embrace anyone who is inimical to the ruling party. I think it is a recipe for disaster. But what else is the choice?

    By the way, try this in Google.. 😀 Chappan inch is actually close to 1420 in millimeters.. so it is not wrong to say “Ek Hazaar 420 ke baraabar hai… ” … and goodness, he said it himself, we just need to turn it into metric scale.. maybe his other utterances will have different meanings as well, in other scales..

    For a brief moment up there I gasped that you had trained under Nikhil Chakravarthy… still, sound advice from someone as balanced as the editor of rediff… 🙂

    Thank you for this. (I always thank you, so that you do not go off into the wilderness again thinking that it is a thankless effort, blog on…)..

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