Showing posts with label Slate. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Slate. Show all posts

Monday, September 23, 2019

‘The Fourth Estate’ Not ‘The Almighty’

The article attempts to deal with the question “What is the function of the media? Is it reporting facts or setting narratives?”

During much of his current term President Donald Trump had to fight accusations that he had had a secret covenant with the Russians, who helped him rig the 2016 presidential election. There were three prime accusations. The first was that a Russian organisation, ‘Internet Research Agency’ (IRA), which influences poll outcomes through social media campaigns, was deployed to run down his opponent Hilary Clinton and boost his election. The second was more serious and was about a possible hacking of the computers in the Democratic Party election offices by the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU. Had this been proven it would have turned out to be not just Trump’s own ‘Watergate’ but far worse! The third was about ‘obstruction of justice’.

This article is not about whether or not President Trump was guilty or not of the misdemeanours he was accused of but about their treatment by the American media. The accusations levelled by Trump’s political rivals were orchestrated by internationally visible sections of the American media like ‘CNN,’ ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Washington Post’Times’ journalists won two Pulitzer prizes for the ‘Trump-Russia’ stories!

The US Attorney General William Barr appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate the allegations.  The report Mueller submitted in March this year did not find any substantive evidence to prove the allegations. As Byron York observed in his September 10, 2019, ‘Washington Examiner’ opinion piece

‘the conspiracy-coordination allegation the Times had devoted itself to pursuing turned out to be false … TheTrump-Russia hole came up dry!  

The story did not end there. Some of The New York Times’ readers and its own staff were not happy. York wrote ‘many on the Left faulted [The New York Times] for being insufficiently anti-Trump! At this point, the issue spilled out of the media domain. It is no more about disseminating information or offering comment, however judgemental could it be. It is now more an ethical dilemma, a reflection of the media scene back home in India. Should a media organisation behave like a consumer goods supplier or restaurateur and cater to the tastes of a consumer – assuming a majority of readers the paper caters to are of a certain political leaning – or remain steadfast to an ideal of sticking to the truth? And remain neutral till the issue is settled one way or the other in the appropriate forums? The Times is now caught between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis of its own making.

The paper conducted an internal town-hall meeting for its newsroom staff to assuage ruffled feelings. It was necessitated because of an uproar over a headline about the president’s alleged ‘racism’ and tweets from the paper’s staff. ‘Slate’ published a transcript of the recording of the Times’ town-hall meeting edited and curated by Ashley Feinberg. The Times’ Executive Editor, Dean Baquet and Publisher A. G. Sulzberger addressed the meeting.

A defensive Baquet seemed to find fault with the readers. He suddenly remembered that it was not the duty of the media to run political campaigns, but as an independent media hold administrations accountable! He pointed out the obvious: 

“They [the paper’s critics who want Trump’s head] sometimes want us to pretend that he was not elected president, but he was elected president.”  

What should be worrying in this episode is the apparent political conditioning of the staff. Shouldn’t newspaper employees be trained to be neutral observers and faithful reporters rather than political instruments?

Both York and Feinberg felt that Baquet’s remark that “the story changed” was significant. York wonders whether having spent a lot of time and energy on the ‘Trump-Russia’ story (and failed) the Times would spend the next two years on the “Trump-is-a-racist narrative”?

The ‘The Fourth Estate’ in the headline does not refer to Geoffrey Archer’s eponymous novel but to Edmund Burke’s laudatory reference to the press.[1]

In Irving Wallace’s brilliant thriller, ‘The Almighty’, the protagonist inherits a newspaper, a fictional rival of ‘The New York Times’. The conditional inheritance stipulates that the paper which was way behind its traditional rival should surpass its circulation for at least one day in the succeeding year. In order to retain ownership, the protagonist recruits a gang of terrorists to stage events and then scoop them as news. He sets himself up as ‘The Almighty’!  

The present media might not go the whole hog to stage terror incidents to scoop stories, but they were, in the past, halfway there. The way they stoked war hysteria for George W. Bush to bomb Iraq in the second gulf war in 2003 to destroy elusive weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was near enough. Are the Times’ and The Washington Post’s anti-Trump campaigns one of a piece with their earlier war campaigns?

[1] In his 1787 speech in the British House of Commons, Edmund Burke reportedly said “There are three estates in Parliament (the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons) but in the Reporters' Gallery yonder there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech or witty saying, it is a literal fact, very momentous to us in these times.” 

An earlier version of the article appeared in The Times Of India Blogs

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rahul Gandhi, Arnab Goswami & The Big Grapefruit Interview

About half of the journalists who cover the White House in Washington DC are from the American media. There is a belief that each one of them gets up every morning with the conviction that the government was going to lie to them before sundown. The American media is relatively independent and objective because its members cultivate two important traits: a measure of healthy scepticism and irreverence towards people in authority.

However there is another aspect to American journalism. It is the planted question, and its cousin, the grapefruit. As an aside, a planted question asked in a parliamentary debate in Australia is called a Dorothy Dixer.

In American media parlance, a grapefruit is a seemingly tough question (a journalist asks during the course of an interview) but is in fact a scripted favour to the politician being interviewed. It is like a slow ball bowled in a cricket match which lands near the batsman’s feet. He can simply smash it beyond the ropes.

The planted question, the Dorothy Dixer or the grapefruit serves the same purpose: promoting one’s party’s policies and programmes and criticizing the opposition. Although George Bush, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been known to have used the ‘planted question’ technique in their campaigns, there is a perception in the West that it is more common in India. Bhagyashree Garekar of the Singapore Straits Times told John Dickerson, it was a common practice in India. See the penultimate paragraph of this article: HillaryClinton gets snared by a planted question

But the devices are usually employed as a small component – usually one or two questions in the question and answer session at the end of a speech or in a parliamentary debate or one question in an impromptu interview with a politician. Can you imagine a whole interview being stage-managed; or to put it simply the whole interview being a grapefruit? But that was what exactly Arnab Goswamy’s interview with Rahul Gandhi was! See its full text here: Rahul Gandhi'sfirst interview: Full text

Max Atkinson, a UK based communications expert says that news interviewers are paid to be neutral’. He goes on to say that appearing to take sides can get them into serious trouble’. It sounds surprising, doesn’t it? But Atkinson is talking about the media in Britain, not India. Atkinson suggests that the solution to compel evasive politicians answer difficult questions is to conduct the interview in front of an audience. If only Atkinson knew how the Barkha Dutts, Rajdeep Sardesais and Sagarika Ghoses conduct their interviews in front of studio audiences!

One expected Arnab Goswami who breathes fire, screams and shrieks, on his primetime show to be persistent with his questions, to pin down Rahul to take positions and at least seek to answer some pertinent questions. Instead Arnab served Rahul the biggest grapefruit that one can imagine, by querying about Narendra Modi and flogging the dead horse of Gujarat 2002. Atkinson would be surprised to know that Indian news interviewers who would be neutral on the subject of Narendra Modi are a rarity. Here is how Rahul’s view of the Sikh genocide of 1984 in which his father had a hand compares with the communal riots of 2002:

In 1984, RahulG was 13. Yet, he knew that ‘the government was trying to stop the riots’. In 2002, he was 31 but he heard that ‘the government in Gujarat was actually abetting and pushing the riots further’.

Rahul Gandhi’s inability to frame his replies in grammatically correct English, though he was presumably educated in England, is not a major issue:

I like difficult to tough issues. I like dealing with them.

Yes, we will be specific but if I would like to sort of explain things in a broader fashion, I think that will okay with you.

I think probably the Sikhs are one of the industrious people in this country.

What is surprising is his mendacity about the process of electing a prime minister, especially by the Congress party. By the by, Rahul utters the word ‘process 29 times in the interview; ‘issue’ 47 times, ‘RTI’ 71 times and ‘system’ 74 times!

Rahul of course doesn’t want to lose an opportunity to plug in his family history, especially the poignant aspects of it (‘as a child, he saw his grandmother jailed and later assassinated; and his father assassinated’). Then there is the invocation of Arjuna (‘he only sees one thing, he does not see anything else’)!

What does one make of this sentence: ‘I am here basically for one thing, I see tremendous energy in this country, I see more energy in this country than any other country, I see billions of youngsters and I see this energy is trapped’?

Here is a gem: because the judiciary and the press are not under the RTI, political parties should not be brought under the RTI as that ‘changes the balance of power’! He is however candid about one thing: in our parliamentary system as it stands today ‘an MLA or an MP does not make laws. He merely presses buttons.

This is how Rahul perceives how the economy works: ‘We are working on prices, as I said we have spoken to our Chief Ministers and we have reduced prices in states where we are in power.’

The nation certainly wants to know what Rahul proposes to do to grapple with the myriad problems the nation faces: spiraling inflation, unemployment, billowing current account deficit et al. The nation would want to know how he would deal with hostile neighbours like Pakistan and China; how he would tackle terrorism and what he intends doing to resolve a number of other problems that befuddle the nation. Sadly the net take away from the interview was that it veered our national political debate away from these questions and bringing Gujarat 2002 back to the centre stage. And that was the grapefruit that Arnab gifted to Rahul!