Showing posts with label Washington Post. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Washington Post. 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

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Charlie Hebdo Massacre & Indian Intellectual Chicanery

Two demons barged into an editorial conference at Charlie Hebdo in Paris and gunned down ten innocent, unsuspecting human beings. While making their retreat they gunned down two security officials. It was a barbaric, act. It was a heinous crime against humanity. Two of their possible accomplices shot dead a policewoman; held a Jewish grocery store hostage and killed four innocent shoppers. The macabre acts were not done in the heat of passion. They were cold-blooded and premeditated. They cannot be justified no matter what the provocation was. They should be condemned in no uncertain terms. There should be no equivocation. There can be no alibis and no ifs and buts.

The international media has condemned the Charlie Hebdo massacre in unequivocal terms. Any right thinking individual would do it. Any right thinking individual in the media or public life would do it, not just because those in public life or the media thrive on ‘freedom of expression’ but because it is the morally right thing to do.

In its editorial on January 7, The Guardian opined that the gruesome incident should be condemned without equivocation:

“Events in Paris today were beyond belief, indeed beyond words. The adjectives are simply not there to capture the horror unleashed by weapons of war in a civilian office. The hooded thugs trained their Kalashnikovs on free speech everywhere. If they are allowed to force a loss of nerve, conversation will become inhibited, and the liberty of thought itself will falter too. […] The targeting of a weekly editorial conference implies a ruthless concern to maximise the toll, pursued with chilling preparedness. […] All those who are appalled by these crimes must use the free speech which the killers sought to silence – and use it to condemn them, without equivocation.”

In its editorial, The Washington Post (January 7) lamented that:

“SEVERAL PUBLISHERS in Western countries have disgraced themselves in recent years with self-censorship to avoid being targeted by Islamic militants. […] Media in democratic nations must also consciously commit themselves to rejecting intimidation by Islamic extremists or any other movement that seeks to stifle free speech through violence. […] Such acts cannot be allowed to inspire more self-censorship – or restrict robust coverage and criticism of Islamic extremism.”

Post-revolution France is given to democratic freedoms (her motto is Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) like the ancient Indian empires such as Magadha, Maurya, Gupta and the more recent Vijayanagara et al. Unlike contemporary India where secularism is a political tool France is a truly secular republic which in its original sense means that the church and government should remain aloof from each other.

Charlie Hebdo has not singled out Islam in its criticism. Indeed, in the past it ridiculed the Catholic Church and the Pope himself. The role of the Indian media in condemning the massacre is none too edifying. It could not whole-heartedly condemn the massacre, consumed as it is by dhimmitude and probably chastened by past experience:

The 1986 attack on Deccan Herald, Bangalore  is a case in point. The provocation was the English translation of a short story the paper published  the original of which was published a decade earlier in a Kerala newspaper. In the violence that followed sixteen people were killed

The Bangalore offices of the The New Indian Express came under religious fire over an article it published on the New Year Day of 2000. It was written by senior journalist T. J. S. George who merely referenced a seven-hundred year old work of the Italian poet/philosopher Dante. He had to go underground for several days to escape the wrath of lynch mobs. 

According to a 2002 article in India Today ‘[a]ll four English newspapers in Bangalore [Deccan Herald, The Hindu, The New Indian Express and Times Of India] have had their offices vandalized by Muslim mobs on the flimsiest of pretexts’ at one time or other.

The violent reactions might not have been spontaneous. They might have been instigated by the zeitgeist of competitive secular assertiveness. (Here the word ‘secular’ must be understood in its skewed Indian sense.)

There are other violent instances perpetrated in the name of Islam such as the 2007 attack on Bangladeshi writer Tasliman Nasreen in Hyderabad.

In another gruesome instance T. J. Joseph, a Malayalam professor at Newman College in Thodupuzha, Kerala had his hand cut off as punishment for blasphemy. According some reports the punishment was awarded by a Taliban type kangaroo court (Darul Khada). Intimidated by the barbarity of the attack, rather than defending its professor, the college dismissed him from service. Four years later, daunted by the financial difficulties faced by the family, the professor’s wife who was an eye-witness to the macabre incident committed suicide by hanging herself.

Sadly, none of the Indian intellectuals – a tribe which rushes to petition all and sundry on behalf of convicted criminals – condemned the Paris massacre. Congress politicians, Mani Sankar Aiyer and Digvijay Singh justified the horrific incidents by finding alibis for the killer demons.

The Indian media tried another tack to soften the blow by finding false moral equivalence with some real or imagined protests by the majority religion. Invariably the protests against M. F. Hussain’s paintings (some of which desecrated Hindu goddesses) and the recent movie PK (which ridiculed Hindu god-men) were cited. None of these incidents are even remotely comparable with the Paris massacre in scale or gruesomeness. They were protests by a section of people who were offended. Equating the two is bizarre. It amounts to intellectual and political chicanery. If right to offend as a facet of free speech is an acceptable democratic right, so should be the right to protest.

The Indian media would do well to heed Eric Wenkle (Washington Post, January 7) when he said that it is inadvisable to describe Charlie Hebdo as a ‘satirical magazine’ or a weekly ‘satirical newspaper’ as it would be distracting from the magnitude of the crime committed on its editors:

“The magazine famously deploys satire and art to convey it message. Yet the label, at least on this occasion, carries a distracting and diversionary impact, which is somehow to distinguish or distance the work of Charlie Hebdo form the work of a regular old magazine or newspaper. For the purpose of what happened today, however there is no distinction: These were journalists who died because of what they produced.”

The Indian politicians who found alibis and the Indian media which drew false moral equivalence with past Hindu protests are – it appears – attempting to somehow diminish the diabolical nature of the massacre.

There would be no point in arguing that these were only ‘reactions brought about by provocations’ or in any way rationalizing the incident by trying to ‘put it in context’ as the politicians sought to do. As Padraig Reidy (The Telegraph, January 7) put it:

“Jihadists kill because that is what they do. It does not matter if you are a French cartoonist or a Yezidi child, or an aid worker or journalist: if you are not one of the chosen few, you are fair game. Provocation is merely an excuse used by bullies to justify their actions, while ensuring the world bows to their will.