On Rahul Dravid, and distortions

On the sidelines of the Bangalore Literature Festival this weekend my friend Amit Varma, who edits the excellent Pragati magazine when he is not commenting on affairs of state through reasoned prose and catchy limericks, talked to me of the bubbles we live in.

To underpin his argument, Amit referenced a book written by Walter Lippmann that feels as fresh and relevant today as when it was first published in 1922. In the opening chapter Lippmann argues, broadly, that our one world is actually many worlds. There is, for instance, a real world; there is a world that our overlords, our rulers, would have us see; and then there is the world we construct in our heads, made up of the bits and pieces of information we collect and force-fit into a highly personal worldview.

Amit brought the book up in context of contemporary problems roiling the media landscape — the media’s role in creating such artificial worlds, the dawning realization that this is leading us into dangerously ill-informed waters, and the increasing difficulty in now penetrating the bubbles and setting records straight.

I then logged into Twitter at some point yesterday and discovered yet another example of Amit’s argument at work. On my timeline, I found considerable angst, neatly split between two contrasting viewpoints. One side of the argument was that Rahul Dravid had criticized Virat Kohli’s in-your-face aggression, and also attacked him for his statements on how Anil Kumble’s tenure as national cricket coach had ended. The other side held that Dravid had been wronged, that the media had misreported both his words and his intent through selective quotation.

What baffled me was this: Dravid spoke with great clarity and nuance; rather than court controversy, he did his best to play them down as largely the confections of the media. There was no ambiguity whatsoever in all that he said in course of a nearly one-hour interaction. So wherefrom the dissonance? How do two sets of people construct two such wildly contrasting worlds for themselves, in one of which Dravid is a villain and in the other he is the wronged figure? Where do they get their basic facts from? Here is a sampling:

The Financial Express ran a story under the bold headline:

Do not follow Virat Kohli blindly, says Rahul Dravid; makes big anti-Virat statement

The Hindustan Times ran its story under the headline: Cricket Controversy: Rahul Dravid says Anil Kumble’s axing was ‘unfortunate’.

A strapline below the main headline says:

“Rahul Dravid, former Indian cricket team captain, has said that Virat Kohli’s statements before the start of a major series are sometimes ‘cringe’worth while the Anil Kumble sacking was a sad affair for the team”

For its part, Times of India front-paged the story under this headline:

Cringe on reading Virat Kohli’s pre-match statements: Rahul Dravid

The organizers estimate that somewhere between 500-600 people were present at the event. These people needed no external agency to tell them what was said, and what the context was. But the vast majority gets its information through the lens of the media — and in this case, the reports I cited above dangerously distort both the statements and the intent, of the speaker.

I use the word ‘dangerously’ with deliberate intent. Never mind political and societal issues where distortions and misinformation can have life or death consequences, during my time covering cricket I have at first hand witnessed the risks inherent in such manipulations of fact. There have been instances of reports that took facts and statements out of context to create a controversy; this, in turn, has led to anger and heartburn in the team dressing room between the person who spoke the words and the person(s) who the media portrayed as targets. Such anger has taken a lot of time and effort to dispel and, in some instances, the conflicts persisted despite the affected player’s best efforts to set the record straight.

And all this for what? A few more clicks that, at the very best, bring in a few rupees — measured not in lakhs and crores but literally in mere hundreds and thousands — to your bottomline? At what point do we ask ourselves if this is really worth it? At what point do we stop bemoaning our vanishing credibility while simultaneously, by our every act, we continue to erode what remains of that credibility?

Or to put it bluntly: The three stories cited above are flat out false. Not in the sense of fakes, but in how the reporters cherry-pick words and thoughts, bowdlerize statements, and create an impression that is at variance with reality.

I know this because I was there. The question in my mind now is, now that I have seen at first hand how grotesquely the media houses in question distort events, how do I believe any report I read in their pages or on their sites?

Here is the full video of the event featuring Rahul Dravid and Rajdeep Sardesai at the Bangalore Lit Fest this Sunday morning. Watch, and make up your own minds:

In passing, here is a lineup of stories that adhered to what was actually said and, in all cases, provided the context necessary to understand the words:

#1. An Anand Vasu report for Cricbuzz

#2. Another piece, also by Anand Vasu, for the Economic Times

#3. A Saurabh Somani piece for Wisden India on the Kumble question, and another on Dravid’s thoughts on the game and on Kohli

#4. An Ashwin Achal piece for the Hindu

#5. Two stories on Cricinfo

#6. A Scroll piece on the event

This is not an exhaustive list, merely an indicative one. And even here, it is interesting to see that every single piece focuses on two statements that came at the very end of an event in course of which Dravid spoke with such clarity on so many contemporary cricketing questions.

In passing, this: At the tail end of our conversation I asked Rahul Dravid when he will write a book on his life as a cricketer. His response was that he knew what would happen if he wrote an honest book, and he didn’t want to put his family through the fallout.

At the time, I thought Rahul was being a bit paranoid, a little bit over the top. I now understand why he said what he did.

12 thoughts on “On Rahul Dravid, and distortions

  1. Thank you for your lovely perspective on the compulsions of making (mis)leading statements on part of individuals who are expected to be professionals doing an honest job of factual representation of events.

    Rahul Dravid has been the one Indian in the glare of publicity who is faultless (not from perspective of his cricketing performance, though that too is ‘As Good as it Gets’ ) in how he’s led his life. Attempts, wilful or not, for him to be needlessly shrouded under a cloud of controversy are in extremely distasteful, unnecessary and dangerous if such ‘reporting’ can get away with inaccuracies.

  2. Ditto yr thoughts on Rahul’s comments.
    Sadly some people never learn and are always out to create unwarranted controversies.
    Rahul had me captivated by his talk and fully defended the current bunch in a matter of fact manner with his witty humour.
    Finally, his expression said it all on the stupid question of Rajdeep by delicately glancing it to fine leg.

    • 🙂 I suspect, from knowing Dravid from the day he began playing cricket at the top level, that he was more than somewhat annoyed at the persistent questioning. Just a characteristic of his that even when he ticks you off he does it with a smile and with delicacy and tact.

  3. Yes, made-up stories are not only a bad way to sell subscriptions… it’s even more a terrible way to sell premium ads to brand-conscious sponsors.

    It is also facile and unhelpful to assume that government’s role in journalism can be either nothing or absolute control for propaganda purposes. Most developed countries (where we strive to fit in) with press freedom, have far more public media, including multiple government-funded broadcast-news channels, than India does…. So don’t you think that if something ought to be done about this, wouldn’t the government be the best institution to do it….but then as mentioned earlier, the government has their own vested interests… so what do we do?

    In other words, “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favour of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

    Therefore, I really don’t see an answer to this… I have always argued about it only to reach a dead end…

    It is encouraging to see that in recent years, the Nobel committee has awarded several economics prizes to work on “information asymmetry,” “cognitive bias,” and other ways in which the human propensity toward misperception distorts the workings of the world.

    Hence, it is really encouraging to see people like you voicing strongly against it…

    I saw your interview with Dravid and Sardesai, and the write-ups on Dravid the following day, were indeed appalling…

    Once again, thank you for speaking up in support of Dravid and clarifying the issue!

    • To the conundrum you set out in your second para, good question, no real answers. Government control is never going to help solve this; it will merely add another set of problems to the already existing ones. The only real solution is self-regulation with a strong external oversight mechanism in the form of a conscience-keeping body made up of industry professionals themselves, but I don’t see much chance of that happening in the current scenario. I suspect change will happen when the media pocketbooks begin to really hurt, which at the rate we are all going, will be sooner than later.

      To your point about Nobels going to analysis of some of these issues, true — and also, organisations like the Reuters Institute of Journalism and Poynter have been producing detailed state of the media analysis year upon year that the media (at least in the developed countries) consumes avidly, and responds to in as timely fashion as it can manage. BuzzFeed is an example (not the only one, but illustrative). About five years ago, Reuters and Poynter both reported that the eulogies written for deep, detailed writing and reporting were premature; that there was a surprisingly robust audience for longform content that married quality of writing with depth of information. Four years ago, BuzzFeed decided to pivot; it reallocated the bulk of its resources away from clickbait and into deep reporting. And two years ago, it won its first Pulitzer. If I had suggested, even three years ago, that BF would be nominated for a Pulitzer let alone win one, you’d have laughed me off the floor, no?

      We want change in a hurry but that is not going to happen. It is however happening, one baby step at a time. When that change will percolate to India, though, is a whole other question, one I have no answers for.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, peace.

      • Yes, I would have…. I still haven’t got over the fact that Chris Hamby of BF was the Pulitzer Prize Finalist in International Reporting…. Personally, I maybe of the old school but I believe journalism that changes the world a little belongs in a proper newsroom, and needs good judgment and the resilience to keep plugging away, rather than being a discrete click-baity operation on the net. No offense to BF, although they have great plans and I wish that Greg Coleman and the new Board is going to change all that.

        Regarding changes…yes, given the current scenario, I don’t see any change going to happen soon…

        And, as you rightly pointed out, let us wait for the pocketbooks to hurt. Which I seriously doubt… as there are many more new “Nation wants to know” to take that place!

        Less said the better. I may be even pulled up for it!

        Please keep at it….Peace!

        • Interesting thing here is what it reveals about who you are. Almost tempted to do a Sherlock and draw deductions on who you are based on the things you let slip — your familiarity with the facts of Hamby, with the reconstituted BF board etc, which argue a more than superficial familiarity with the media world. :-))

          I agree with your point. I love the freedom of the internet, but I detest the binary nature of arguments that suggest that the democratization of information through the net is all good and therefore, the old world of curated news is automatically bad. One unfortunate aspect of this democratization, and the low entry threshold to being on the net, is that chaff has almost completely taken over the information space, and it is an increasingly difficult struggle for nuanced journalism to survive in the midst of the noise.

          Be well, stay in touch.

  4. I don’t blame the journalists. These are the headlines which have the highest Click to impression ratio and that’s what works in this Facebook age!

    • Okay well, ask yourself this — what is the point, finally? A page view is worth a tiny fraction of a cent if you manage to sell it (0.003 cents, IIRC); of that money, Facebook and Google get about 60-70 per cent anyway. So what exactly is the upside for you? The downside clearly is you ruin your credibility and over time people stop visiting you as often, so in the end, less “clicks” anyway.

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