Archive for July, 2010


Yesterday in one of my classes I spoke about the freedom of the press and said that the Indian media could not really call itself free because of the pressures brought up on by external forces when it comes to deciding whether a story should be published. What happened during the Emergency in 1975 and more recently when Tehelka did the sting operations on shady arms deals is public knowledge. I believed (and still believe) the US media has more freedom than their Indian counterparts, and were far more responsible than the Indian broadcast channels.

Today I read the shocking report about Shirley Sherrod, an African-American employee of the US Department of Agriculture. Her crime (if one even call it that) was a speech that she gave at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where she described her “earlier racial bitterness and partiality, her growth as a person and then as a government official, and her current view that racial division and partiality are holding back not just small farmers in the US, but everyone who is not, by birth or wealth, in the ruling class.”

But why did she lose her job? A blogger edited a video of the speech and took only the part where Sherrod confessed her earlier partiality, out of context, and published it alone. Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media picked up this forgery and cast it as evidence of the rampant “reverse racism” (black against white) that they constantly cite, but never seem to lay their hands on such instances. They decided they had finally got one and it was aired. As soon as the video became public the storm broke. Sherrod was asked to submit her resignation on her Blackberry even as she drove around Washington on work.

While her resignation by itself is controversial, it’s the part played by her superiors, the blogger, and the mainstream media that raises quite a stink. Her superiors did not think it necessary to ask her for an explanation or even initiate an inquiry to determine what she had said and in what context. All this under the nose of the great African-American reformer ‘Rev’ Barack Obama! Though he apologised the damage was done.

We teach in journalism schools that one should never publish a story without confirming its veracity. Here’s was Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and other media houses beaming the video on their networks without bothering to confirm its authenticity. And this is the US media we are talking about.

Reminds me of the video grab on a Hindi news channel of the school teacher in Delhi who was allegedly shown soliciting school girls in a prostitution racket. It turned out later that the video was a fake. Was any action taken against that media house?

The second incident involved a CNN West Asia editor Octavia Nasr who paid her “respects” to a Muslim cleric who was instrumental in the setting up of the Hezbollah, which the US describes as a terrorist organisation. CNN asked her to quit because they believed she had violated the editorial policy of the media house and she did, claiming that it was an “error in judgement”. Did I speak too soon about the free US media?

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So was Rouvanjit Rawla’s suicide induced by caning or was there something else to it? There are so many unanswered questions. No one has bothered to look for any answers, yet. But what I can comment on is something I have found acutely embarrassing – the role of the media which has been nothing short of dubious. I thought after the disgraceful reportage of the Aarushi Talwar case, the media had been reasonably chastised to mend its ways. But the manner the Rouvanjit case was reported, nothing seems to have changed.

By now most of the discerning viewers, would have realised that the talk about self censorship is all just bunkum. The news channels proved that when it came to TRPs and grabbing eyeballs, they would stop at nothing. I do not hold a candle to either La Martiniere or the Principal Sunirmal Chakravarthi. The manner in which the media went after both was just irresponsible and reporting of the worst kind. Just like in the Aarushi and Jessica Lal cases, a trial by media of the school and the principal has been conducted and ‘chief justices’ Sardesai, Dutt, Goswami, Sanghvi and others had already pronounced their verdict – Guilty. While I can honestly say that I expected nothing better from the broadcast media, I was a trifle disappointed by the views of my former boss.

I just wonder whether the media was really interested in getting to the bottom of the case or just drumming up hysteria thereby ensuring viewership. For example, was it just the caning, or the note in the boy’s diary, asking his parents to see the principal, that made him take the drastic step? Was a suicide note enough to indict the principal and the school? And did he write it? Was a forensic test conducted to ensure the authenticity of the note?

Applying the same yardstick, the late Viveka Babjee left a suicide note in which she blamed her boyfriend for her death. But the media immediately jumped to the boyfriend’s defence. So what was the difference between the two? A suicide note is a suicide note – whether it is written by a highly strung, allegedly neurotic woman or a 12-year-old boy.

So what was the liquid found in the boy’s stomach – soft drink or something stronger? Some papers said Fanta and others said it was an alcoholic drink. Didn’t the media think it was anything out of the ordinary to find a 12-year-old downing a semi-alcoholic drink? What about the boy’s parents and their personal lives? We know, for example, that the Rawlas were filthy rich and the boy suffered from a huge complex because he received very little attention at home. He was an attention-seeker ad invariably got into trouble for indiscipline in school. His grades were all messed up too. Could all these issues have driven him to suicide? Did the media investigate all these angles?

Call me old fashioned, but some of these American methods (which I call spockisms after Dr Benjamin Spock) don’t work with Indian kids. They haven’t worked that well with American kids either, have they? If they had, you wouldn’t read about American students pulling a gun on a teacher at the slightest pretext. So far in India, and thankfully so, students only look through their teachers, or insult them to their face in the classroom! And they don’t care about the consequences because they know they won’t be punished – after all they are the rich, spoilt V.I.Ps of this generation.

Will our pundits of the idiot box (now I know why they call it that!), tell me, why, while caning is an offence and should be dealt with accordingly, there’s nothing wrong in bringing stink bombs to school? Or bunking class? Or flouting rules? Shouldn’t a kid get punished for that? Okay, so corporal punishment is banned in schools. The school principal defied the law and caned the boy and he should be penalised. That still does not mean he was responsible for the boy’s death. I think the media conveniently overlooked the cardinal rule – “Every man is innocent, until proven guilty.”

But what is the truth? If the media cares enough about responsible and ethical journalism it should get to the bottom of the murky episode? Or does it believe it has done its job by crucifying the school and principal?