3 years

Media

Look Who’s Talking

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
Page 1 of 1
Since when did we in India care about journalistic ethics?

This bizarre response by the PMO was sent to Simon Denyer, India Bureau Chief of The Washington Post, after yet another story pointing out the obvious fact that ‘India’s silent Prime Minister’ has become ‘a tragic figure’. I’d say that this a charitable claim, he has become a figure of ridicule wherever Indians gather and talk politics.

The PMO’s media adviser has claimed:

» That Denyer did not get the PMO’s side of the story. Well, we’ve all been waiting for years for a version of important events as seen by the PMO. Denyer is not the only one who has been baffled by the PMO’s persistent silence.

» That the request for an interview was declined till the end of the Monsoon Session. Really? Has the PM been taking time to talk to the media in the numerous months that the Parliament was not in session? Guess the last time the PM granted an interview. It was February this year—to that intensely political journal called Science. Before that? I can’t remember. The last time he spoke to an Indian media organisation was in his previous term when he pitched for the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. How about an interview now? We are all asking.

» That Denyer apologised in private. Saying ‘sorry’ for a website snag is not the same as saying ‘sorry’ for an article. That is a glib and indefensible claim.

» That ‘the former Media Adviser to the PM Dr Sanjaya Baru has complained that you “rehashed and used” an 8-month-old quote from an Indian Magazine’. Has Baru been misquoted? Is it a misrepresentation? Has he changed his mind? And if the answer to these questions is ‘no’, what is Pachauri taking objection to—the violation of media ethics in using an unattributed quote? If so, we could point out several such cases every day, would Pachauri care to act on them?

The letter is in keeping with a wider problem. I had once written that the Indian response to literature was beholden to the West. The argument could just as well apply to our entire literate culture. Indian news TV channels responded to The Washington Post piece as if it were a revelation. The PMO’s media adviser reacted as if his job was not to worry about the PM’s image in India, but his image in Washington DC. This was then mirrored by the glee with which the media jumped on two unattributed quotes from Caravan magazine used in the article, even while they remain largely silent about daily violations of journalistic ethics in the Indian media.

The lack of attribution by Denyer is an error, and Caravan certainly has the right to feel aggrieved, but do the PMO and the rest of the Indian media have the right to react in similar fashion?

Consider some serious cases that have recently been in the news.

THE FAREED ZAKARIA CASE

‘As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839) and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man”’—Jill Lepore, The New Yorker.

‘Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were

passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man”’—Fareed Zakaria, Time.

 

Zakaria’s paragraph, clearly lifted from Lepore’s, resulted in an apology and his month-long suspension from CNN and Time magazine. Mild or not, this was not just a case of an attribution being dropped, this was a clear case of plagiarism, and it cannot be pardoned on the claim that the problem was only of a single quote, of which the original source—the governor of ‘Texas!’—was cited. Try imagining the probability of using the same quote through an independent reading of the original source. This was copying, plain and simple, whatever

the excuses made for it. The Indian media spent a lot of time reporting and analysing this event. But more than a year earlier, something similar had taken place in India.

THE AROON PURIE CASE

‘Jackie Chan is the highest-paid actor in Asia, and that makes sense. Besides producing, directing, and starring in his own action movies since 1980, he’s earned millions in Hollywood with blockbusters like Rush Hour and The Karate Kid. But the No. 2 spot goes to someone who doesn’t make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature. If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth. Or, as his films are contractually obligated to credit him, “Superstar Rajinikanth!”’—Grady  Hendrix in Slate.

‘Jackie Chan is the highest-paid actor in Asia, and that makes sense. Besides producing, directing, and starring in his own action movies since 1980, he’s earned millions in Hollywood with blockbusters like Rush Hour and The Karate Kid. But the No. 2 spot goes to someone who doesn’t make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature. If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth. Or, as his films are contractually obligated to credit him, “Superstar Rajinikanth!”’—Aroon Purie in India Today.

Aroon Purie clarified, ‘Unfortunately, a couple of sentences lifted from another article were sent to me. An excuse is not an explanation. So, without any reservations, mea culpa. Apologies.’

In the meantime, how did the Indian media treat the incident? The answer is easy—as if it never happened.  Ironically, Sanjaya Baru, now being quoted by Pachauri on unattributed quotes, was then editor of Business Standard and had chosen to hold back a regular weekly column where journalist Mitali Saran had written about the incident.

THE JONAH LEHRER CASE

“I didn’t have many songs, but I was making up some compositions on the spot, rearranging verses to old blues ballads, adding an original line here or there, anything that came into my mind—slapping a title on it.”—Bob Dylan.

In his book, Imagine, How Creativity Works, former New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer uses a part of that quote to conclude, ‘While it would be easy to dismiss such songs as mere rip-offs—several of them would almost certainly violate current copyright standards—Dylan was able to transform his folk sources into pop masterpieces. T.S. Eliot said it best: “Immature poets imitate. Mature poets steal.” Even at the age of twenty-one, Dylan was a mature poet. He was already a thief.’

For Lehrer, the simplified story of how Dylan arrived at his song Like a Rolling Stone worked very nicely to set up his book on creative imagination. The song, he seemed to suggest, came to Dylan all at once after a period when he had come close to renouncing music: ‘The only thing he was sure of was that this life couldn’t last. Whenever Dylan read about himself in the newspaper, he made the same observation: “God, I’m glad I’m not me,” he said. “I’m glad I’m not that.”’

The only problem with Lehrer’s account of the singer’s creative process was that Dylan had not said all the things Lehrer had him saying in the book. For instance, Dylan never said “I’m glad I’m not that.” Lehrer could well have rephrased Dylan to explain his own writing—‘I didn’t have many quotes, but I was making up some on the spot, rearranging others, adding an original line here or there.’

The problem was that what was forgivable where Dylan was concerned, was unacceptable in Lehrer’s work. Lehrer was sacked from The New Yorker. Clearly, a journalist can get away with less than what a poet or rockstar can. The journalist has a commitment to the literal truth.

But is that really so? In the first few pages of his book, Lehrer makes a few observations about Dylan that are not in direct quotes.

‘The camera turns—Dylan’s weariness feels like an accusation… When Dylan wasn’t surly, he was often sarcastic, telling journalists… that his songs were inspired by “chaos, watermelons, and clocks.” That last line almost made him smile.’

And ‘Whenever Dylan read about himself in the newspaper, he made the same observation: “God, I’m glad I’m not me,” he said. “I’m glad I’m not that.”’

The first observation could perhaps be justified by the claim that the author had viewed the recorded sequence. The second is a lie. There is no suggestion in the book that Lehrer ever spoke to Dylan about what he felt when he made that statement about chaos, watermelons and clocks. The third is farcical, as has been noted by those who have written on the case. It is difficult to imagine Dylan repeating this each time he read his name in a newspaper. But no one would have demanded Lehrer’s resignation on the basis of such statements that are clearly fabrications. Such writing is often encouraged in the name of narrative non-fiction and its aim seems to be the same as the quotes that have been massaged (which certainly do not seem to misrepresent Dylan): to make the copy read better than would have been possible with the literal truth. I think the problem lies not just with Lehrer’s intention, which was presumably to write easy-to-read, regurgitated and often laughable science, much in the manner of Malcolm Gladwell, but with the demands of style that narrative non-fiction now imposes.

It seems to follow that a journalist even in the West is required to remain committed to the literal truth only when he is quoting someone. But in India, the direct quote, especially in the English media, is a myth. Our conversations are often bilingual, switching from one language to another mid-sentence. Direct quotes, at best, paraphrase such a conversation. At worst, they are an invention. On any given day, if you read a political story and come to a point where an unnamed source is quoted saying something that substantiates the thrust of the story, there is a nine-in-ten chance that quote is an invention.

In India, you won’t get sacked for doing what Lehrer did, you won’t even get noticed. As a country, maybe we should let go of our pretence to treating plagiarism or a violation of journalistic ethics as a matter of concern. We don’t really care, unless it is done by someone who is not from our country, or someone not powerful enough to compel our silence.