|Degrees of deception 3|
Antara Dev Sen
This ‘me too’ journalism helps in creating fallen stars like Jayson Blair, who was fired from The New York Times in May following public complaints of fabrication. Since all you need to do is rehash someone else’s copy and add zing to it — something that Blair seems to have done wonderfully — it’s easy to make stars out of lazy reporters. Of course, NYT went into convulsions trying to keep their nose clean after the matter was exposed. The lady protested too much and too loud — starting from its front page and continuing over several inside pages. The headline spoke of Blair’s "long trail of deception" and the copy talked of how he had "misled readers", "fabricated comments" and "concocted scenes", how he "stole material from other newspapers and wire services" and how the "betrayal" and "deceit" of this shabbily dressed, unstable, alcoholic, "immature" reporter "with a hungry ambition" had sunk NYT into "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper."
Shortly after this, three things happened. First, NYT’s star writer Rick Bragg had to quit following an uproar when he was caught out after putting his own byline to the report of a stringer. Bragg went down fighting, claiming that this was a widely followed and accepted practice among busy journalists. Second, Howell Raines, executive editor, and Gerald Boyd, managing editor of NYT, had to resign in early June. Meanwhile, there were reports that in late May, the Pulitzer Prize board had started reviewing the case of Pulitzer-winner Walter Duranty, who had been NYT’s Moscow correspondent. It was no secret that Duranty covered up the great Ukrainian famine (1929-33), and effectively helped Joseph Stalin, whom he worshipped, to kill 10 million people, mostly farmers. After a long international campaign, seven decades after his winning the highest US award for journalism in 1932, proceedings to strip Duranty of his Pulitzer had begun.
But Duranty’s wilful suppression of information about this gigantic genocide was not the low point of NYT, nor was his public defence of Stalin’s murderous policies. And of course NYT’s own current biased reporting — justifying the need of the Iraq war and publishing unconfirmed stories about fearful ‘weapons of mass destruction’ — doesn’t count as unethical journalism, even when thousands are killed in the process. The hunt for unethical journalism looks for easy targets. Like a 27-year-old Black reporter making up details in stories and passing off phone interviews as face-to-face meetings. Blair, who had certainly violated journalistic ethics by pretending to be where he wasn’t and studding his ‘stories’ with nice little invented details, did not have an evil agenda, had not really concocted news and had certainly not been responsible for aiding or covering up political killings. Besides, Blair and Bragg had been propped up by the machine precisely for their ability to churn out attractive prose in volumes. But the system that created these quick, smart writing machines failed to control them when they flipped out, and went into attack mode to defend itself.
In India, where we are not overtly worried about ethics, there is still a certain clarity of vision. When the chief editor of one of the biggest English dailies is caught plagiarising copy, he is quietly superannuated and life goes on. There is no unnecessary digging — there is too much to hide. We are under no illusions of ethical supremacy. I remember TT (initials changed to protect identity) sitting in our newsroom in undisputed Indian territory and filing stories from neighbouring countries, over the telephone, for an international radio channel. "TT here, but cannot hear," he would start off, straining his ears to drown out our collective cacophony. And end with "This is TT, in Dhaka." Or any other city anywhere in the subcontinent. He had his facts right — he always pored over the ticker, made several phone calls and was clearly a conscientious reporter. Except that, like Blair, he wasn’t where he said he was.
Which is not entirely unheard of. My friend CC (initials changed), I was told, had been hauled up by his editor for filing stories from the northeast when he had been sighted in the neighbourhood Press Club. The paper may not have minded that particularly, if CC had not given them what they regarded as ‘inflated travel bills’. "But sir, you have my reports! You have my air ticket!" protested CC.
He was told that the company had checked and his name was not on the passenger manifest.
"Come now, in such troubled times, how can I be travelling under my own name?" said CC. "I had to travel incognito."
And what about the fake car bill?
"Fake! I hired a white ambassador — you could check, sir, the registration number is on my bill." They had, said the editor. The number was that of a truck.
By now my friend was most offended. "This is shocking!" he said. "I risk my life to get stories for the newspaper. I get you scoops. If I tell you today that the prime minister has been killed and the government is about to fall, would you believe me or not?"
"Of course I would," replied the editor. "You are my reporter, I have to trust you."
"You would trust me on the security of the nation and the prime minister’s life, sir," said CC. "But you cannot trust me in this small matter of a travel bill?"
When I asked CC about it, he listened to the story, laughed silently and denied everything. I trust him on this. The story may have had elements of truth in it, but was as a whole part of the many myths that cling to a colourful star journalist in India.
Blair, with his talent for imaginary detail and suspicious bills, could have been a hero in our land. Because we know that certain details matter only to sell your story to the editor and then to the readers. Take SS (initials changed), who was filing a flood report over the telephone from an eastern Indian city. "The whole city is flooded. People are huddling on rooftops," he started. "The chief minister, standing on his own rooftop, naked except for his underpants, said…" The cub reporter writing it down at this end was shocked. "Er, would that be okay to print? It’s the chief minister, after all…"
"What? The underpants? Okay, make it a lungi…" and the dictation continued unhesitatingly.
Ethically wrong. But does it make that much of a difference whether the head of that state, perched on his rooftop, was wearing underpants or a lungi? Reporters very often change details like these, editors go further and change more. ("For heavens’ sake get that godforsaken village’s name out of the dateline and put in a recognisable town. And the story has been held over for a week now! Change the date, can’t you?") Every day, every minute, there are small deceptions that the media carries out, but these are mostly harmless, and not really worth worrying about. It’s the big deceptions that one should be aware of and guard against.
The big deceptions lie in choosing which areas to ignore, which to cover and what ‘truth’ to see in them. There is always a choice that the journalist makes about what to report and what to ignore, because that is the nature of reportage as well as commentary. You cannot be exhaustive, given the time and space you work in. You have to leave out some details and decide what is relevant and what is not. Above all, there are limits to knowledge, so the truth you deal with may not be the absolute truth. But even under these conditions, one can be truthful and one can be misleading. In failing to distinguish between propaganda and truth, in failing to report what is of consequence to society, in accepting half-truths as the whole story, in allowing your own biases to colour your vision, media often misleads its audience or reader. And when that is done in a systematic way, due to commercial or political considerations, it is a deception worth worrying about.
It is worth worrying why some ‘news’, managed by PR firms and government agents, effortlessly gets endless media space, while others have to be very lucky or very plucky to get a column centimetre. The government’s manipulation of the media is old hat. And the recent BBC expose about how the US government stage-managed the ‘rescue’ of US prisoner of war Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital is just an example of this tactic being perfected. It reminds you faintly of BBC journalist Nik Gowing’s analysis of the danger of ‘real time’ television playing into the hands of killers to not just offer a misleading picture, but to create and manipulate the events that would follow.
Such manipulation of the media — whether sins of commission or sins of omission — needs to be guarded against. For when information and opinion that doesn’t work for the media producers, or doesn’t work for the political powers that control them, is blocked, we, as media consumers, lose out. Small deceptions of individual journalists, even if unethical, pale into insignificance in the face of the larger deceptions of big media. That’s what we need to watch out for, especially since India has one of the world’s most mature and responsible media networks. We have much more to lose than a travel allowance.
1. Interview broadcast on NDTV 24x7, June 15, 2003.
2. See The Editors’ Guild Report on the Gujarat violence, 2002.
3. I have discussed stereotypes and prejudice in media and a few of the other issues raised here in some detail in India: A National Culture?, ed. Geeti Sen, Sage & IIC, New Delhi, 2003.
4. ‘What makes mainstream media mainstream?’, Noam Chomsky’s talk at Z Media Institute, June 1997, Znet.
5. In a 1998-99 study for the Reuter Foundation, Oxford, with a limited sample of four national newspapers in English (TOI, HT, The Hindu and The Telegraph), I had found that between 1988 and 1998 the space given in column centimetres to entertainment and lifestyle stories had quadrupled. Space for social awareness/development stories had shrunk sharply, while general news remained the same.
6. See Cass Sunstein’s ‘The future of free speech’, The Little Magazine, Looking Back, Volume II: 2, 2001.
7. In his 1994 study of Rwanda after the genocide for the Kennedy school of Government, Harvard University, Nik Gowing challenged the conventional theory about a simple cause and effect relationship between television coverage of conflicts and the making of foreign policy. He showed how killers used "real time" television to mani pulate international policymakers, journalists and aid workers to suit their own needs.
Antara Dev Sen is editor of The Little Magazine. She lives in Delhi