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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Tracking hate

An important, and increasingly ignored, part of the journalistic process is connect-the-dots. Two connected developments of recent times came together to make this model extinct: 1. The need for speed and, 2. Depleting newsroom resources that resulted in the extinction of the beat journalist.

Because there is a premium on putting up a “story” within minutes of something happening, the newsroom no longer has the time to think, to find patterns, to look for context and backstory and nuance. And because the beat journalist — a reporter whose primary task is to focus on one theme and develop expertise in it — no longer exists, there is within the newsroom no specialized knowledge on tap.

Collectively, these two factors create a situation where much of reportage is akin to skipping a stone across a lake — the story skims the surface, and when it runs out of steam it dies, without ever penetrating beneath the top layer. Connect-the-dots journalism is important, though, because it helps to identify and distinguish patterns, to explore how a contemporary event fits into a larger whole.

Earlier this year, the Hindustan Times introduced a ‘hate tracker‘. It’s a good example of using technology to aid research-based journalism; it collects incidents of hate crime from around the country and displays them by location, by name of victim, by date. Spend some time with it and see what patterns you spot.

A note in passing: Aparisim ‘Bobby’ Ghosh,  formerly Time magazine’s World Editor and then head of Quartz, who was hired as editor in chief by the Hindustan Times about 18 months ago and who, during his tenure, has been responsible for HT investing in the newer forms of journalism, has ‘resigned’ for “personal reasons”.

PostScript: I’m off the blog for about ten days, during which I will be traveling in parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala on some personal work. I’ll be back on Sunday September 24. Be well, all. 

Media Matters: Culpable Homicide edition

Briefly: In January, conservative website The Daily Caller published a video of people being run over by cars. Mike Raust, whose byline went with the video, said in the accompanying text:

Here’s a compilation of liberal protesters getting pushed out of the way by cars and trucks. Study the technique; it may prove useful in the next four years.

Fox Nation, the aggregator site of Fox News, then republished the video and caption, giving it greater amplification and traction.

Earlier this month, in the wake of Charlottesville where civil rights lawyer Heather Heyer was killed when a fascist deliberately ran over a group of protestors, Slate rediscovered that video clip, which continued to reside on both Daily Caller and Fox, and called those outlets out.

The Daily Caller and Fox have since taken the clip down. Not because they thought at the time that the clip was inappropriate, that it was an incitement. Not because they were chastened by Charlottesville, where a murderer used the technique they had urged the right wing to “study”. But because they were caught out, called out in public.

Keep this in mind, the next time you hear intemperate TV anchors demonize some person or group. There are dangerously unstable people out there who will take their cues from these rants. And someone will die. And the journalist, the anchor, the website will have killed that person, as surely as if they were at the wheel of that car, or held the knife, or wielded the sword or gun or rope.

(As I’ve said before, I will between instalments of the Media Matters deep dive use this blog as a scratch-pad to collect incidents, thoughts that I can connect up later in the series. This is one such.)

Media Matters #4: The rise of the pseudo-event

THE PHRASE “pseudo-event” officially entered the lexicon in 1962 and is defined as “an event, such as a press conference, that is designed primarily to attract attention”.

It was coined by historian Daniel J Boorstin, and is the leitmotif of The Image, his 1961 jeremiad on mass media and the rise of the faux celebrity.

Boorstin linked the two developments – the emergence of the instant celebrity and the proliferation of pseudo-events – to argue that news, which from the 15th century onwards has meant “a report of recent events” and “previously unknown information”, was being subsumed by manufactured events.

The proximate trigger for Boorstin’s book-length thoughts was the 1960 Presidential election, backlit by the drama of the first-ever televised presidential debate, September 26, 1960, between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon. (The events surrounding that debate, and the election campaign itself, was the theme of Theodore E White’s Pulitzer-winning book The Making of The President 1960; the debate is here in full).

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Media Matters #3: Enter the Excel jockey

There is only one teeny problem with TimesNow anchor Navika Kumar: She talks so fast, so incessantly, and at such high decibels that her mind never manages to catch up and make itself heard.

Late last week, Navika Kumar hosted a debate on Vande Mataram, which Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath wants to mandate as India’s answer to the Tebbit Test. On the same day in Gorakhpur, the UP constituency Adityanath has represented in the Lok Sabha since 1998, 31 children died in the span of 24 hours of what early reports said is a combination of encephalitis and the cutting off of the hospital’s oxygen supply for non-payment of bills.

As the Vande Mataram debate gathered sound and fury in the TimesNow studio, one of the invited guests sought to question BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra on the Gorakhpur tragedy. “This is an issue that is very sensitive,” Patra said in exasperation after the nth attempt to bring up the tragedy, “but for God’s sake, we are debating about an issue that is also equally sensitive, that is, Vande Mataram.”

At this point, Navika Kumar cut in:

“We understand that today is a sad day because 30 children have lost their lives in Gorakhpur in a hospital because of certain conditions of lack of oxygen supply, we understand that. Let us not beat our chests in a manner as if something like this has never happened in Akhilesh Yadav’s time. When the debate is on Vande Mataram you are bringing up this issue because you are running away from the real issue.”

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The ‘patriotism’ red herring

(One of the issues that I intend to touch on in my ongoing series on the state of the media relates to how governments, with the active contrivance of media houses, periodically creates ‘issues’ intended to vitiate the atmosphere.

One such ‘story’ is gathering steam right now; I’ll use this post as a scratch-pad to capture it as it unfolds, and then circle back to the larger point in my Media Matters posts. So:

On December 10, 2014 then Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani, via her office, sent out a circular to all schools in the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya scheme mandating that December 25 — the birthday of, among others, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and freedom fighter Madan Mohan Malaviya — should be celebrated as Good Governance Day with essay contests and other activities.

Newspapers reported that this would entail schools having to compulsorily remain open on Christmas Day. There was, predictably, a sizeable backlash. Minister Smriti Irani, on Twitter, termed the report ‘deliberate mischief‘ on the part of the Times of India and that schools would remain closed for Christmas and the essay competition was online only; suggested that the reporter should have checked with colleagues covering the HRD beat or directly with the Secretary of School Education;  and asked for a front page retraction in bold type.

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