Media magic

The advantage of having a friend — in this case, Nakul Shenoy — who is adept at magic (though he, all the while, denies that there is anything called magic) is that you can over time learn to spot the moves even as the magician makes them.

Take cups-and-balls, a trick that dates back over 2000 years. It is one of the most ubiquitous of magic acts. Watch the legendary Penn and Teller perform the act:

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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.

WTF Just Happened: The Jay Shah edition

The big news, while I was traveling in Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu, is a Rohini Singh story in The Wire on the strange business dealings of Jay Shah, son of BJP president Amit Shah.

Shah Junior in his response called the article “false, derogatory and defamatory“; his lawyer had earlier responded to the website saying, essentially, that there was no wrongdoing. Shah has since filed a Rs 100 crore defamation case against the reporter and editors of the site — whenever the case is heard, I want a ringside seat.

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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.) Continue reading

Post fact ergo…

Arnab Goswami is again in the news. This time, for making up an entirely fictitious account of his encounter with a lynch mob during the 2002 Gujarat riots.

“Making up an entirely fictitious account”, which is how I described the act in the previous para, is of a piece with “alternate facts”, the coinage popularized by Kelyanne Conway — epistemological obfuscation. What Goswami did, shorn of such window dressing, is: he lied.

Rajdeep Sardesai and other senior journalists who were Goswami’s colleagues at NDTV at the time were right to call out the lie. One of the issues with the press is that it takes unto itself the power, and the responsibility, to ‘speak truth to power’, but when it comes to wrongdoing by peers, falls strangely silent.

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What rubbish!

Update“We are out here cleaning India Gate. Cleaning programmes are going on across the country. The message is we have to keep India clean. Everybody and not just government officials will have to participate in this. And it has to be an everyday operation, not just once in a year and not just for the camera.”

Alphons Kannanthanam, a recent inductee into the Union Cabinet, was doing his bit for the Swach Bharat cause — pity that he first arranged for cameras and the press, and then had volunteers litter the India Gate lawns so he could “clean it up”. That he then lectured about camera-ops is merely the ironical icing on the cake.

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‘Ban us, you big baby’

“Donald Trump misunderstands — or, more likely, simply opposes — the role a free press plays in a democratic society. Reporters are supposed to hold public figures accountable. Any American political candidate who attacks the press for doing its job is campaigning in the wrong country. In the United States, under our Constitution, a free press is a check on politicians of all parties.”

 This brilliant rant by the editors of The York Dispatch is worth reading for its own sake — and because the central message is equally true of our times, our world.