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How media fixes truth to fit its facts

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P. P. Bala Chandran
Worked at Gulf News, Reuters, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Asia Week etc. Reporter, Editor, Managing Editor, Columnist, Author etc

In the wake of last February’s Indian Air Force strike on the terrorist ‘training centres’ in Pakistan’s Balakote, a section of the Indian media, egged on by the country’s perfidious Opposition, raised questions about the ‘truthfulness’ of the bombings. They said even if the bombings were to be true, the evidence produced by the Indian government was not commensurate with the extent of havoc that an early morning strike by six fighter-bombers could have wreaked on an undefended target. Instead, they seemed to trust the reports that appeared in the western media which, by and large, repudiated, or, the least, doubted India’s official claims.

The naysayers seemed to place boundless faith in the credibility of a Guardian, or Reuters, or a Washington Post and not in the country’s Defence Ministry sources, including the Air Force. So enormous was the trust deficit that the Opposition and its handmaiden media exhibited in their own government that the whole world ridiculed not just the government but one of the world’s most professional Air Forces, in particular, and the armed forces, in general. At the root of such malicious mistrust in one’s own government and an ‘unimpeachable’ faith in the western media lie not just in an irrational smugness on the part of our media and the political Opposition but also in its pathological cynicism; not to speak of an elephantine ignorance in matters outside one’s own petty, limited circles. These lost souls take the authenticity and credibility of a British or an American broadsheet or a television channel, a ponderous news magazine or an aggressive wire service for granted primarily because they don’t have any or much familiarity with these ‘hallowed’ heads.

As someone who had associated with some of the big titles mentioned above, I can vouch for a fact that the western media would need an island-sized fig leaf to cover its shame when it comes to professional letdowns. Following is an attempt to draw a few of those scandalous instances where the ‘Angrez’ proved to be a few steps ahead of us in plain chicanery and professional skullduggery. The following account was written some time ago but is updated for the present:

I am a patriot, all right; but not the kind that would fit into Humphrey Bogart’s definition of patriotism. “Patriotism” the Hollywood legend once said, “is all about not scratching your arse while singing the national anthem”.

No, I don’t agree with Bogart. Patriotism is much more than not scratching inconvenient places on your anatomy. But even as a patriot, I would sometimes feel envious of the Americans who could flaunt a 10-gallon John Wayne hat on their mantelpiece and the Star and Stripes on the roof of their cowshed. As a matter of fact, till some time ago, I had been nursing a dream that one day we would all have our own Desi John Wayne (Manoj Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan or Dharmendra being no substitutes) to hang from all the walls; that one day we would have as much freedom as the gangs of Ghaziabad to fly the national flag from our rooftops, or wear knickers cut from the tricolour. Why not? If the Yankee Doodle Boys could it, why not us?

But more than anything else, what used to make me the most envious of things American was its media, and its print more than its electronic. The high standards of professionalism it had set for itself; the hard-to-beat benchmark of excellence, the sense of commitment, the thoroughgoing attitude of the average American journalist and, of course, the impervious level of arrogance that even a cub reporter from a community newspaper would exhibit in his dealings with a Third World fellow scribe. All of them had filled me, in my callow days, with a deep yearning to be like them. Ironically, the imperiousness when it comes from the children of Albion does not become as natural and deserving as it does when it’s flaunted by the Americans. In case of the Brits, this professional hubris is largely confined to tabloid journalism, variously known as the ‘pack’ (as in a pack of wolves) and ‘paparazzi’. The British arrogance stems not so much from their professional excellence which they themselves admit does not go beyond the crotch level. It comes, instead, from that particular brand of journalism, the tabloids alone can flaunt, called the cheque book journalism.

The practitioners of this trade hardly need any provocation to flash their cheque book every time they come across a worthy news source – a princess with a juicy past, a remorseless child molester, or a soccer legend turned junky. All that the Pack want is the story for any price their cheque book can draw. “If you’ve got the story, we’ve got the money. Vomit the story and take the money”. It’s as simple as that.As someone who worked for both the British tabloids (Daily Mail and Today) and the American upmarket broadsheets, including the Washington Post, I used to vouch for the fabled American professional integrity. I was sure they would not be as crass in shortchanging their readers as the British gutter press. After all, I convinced myself, while the British media could only win minor trophies like a sundry minister, John Profumo, in the early sixties, or a Ron Davies or a Peter Mandelson in the 90s, their American cousins could flaunt the scalp of one President (Nixon) and the body parts of another (Bill Clinton).

In all seriousness, the Watergate scandal was no exception but the rule when it comes to the fierce headhunting qualities of the US media that their democracy often and rightfully boasts about. For every Nixon and Clinton caught out, there could be a dozen potential sleazebags in the US establishment who behaved only thanks to the vigilanteism of the US media hounds. However, lest we should forget, for every Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, there’s also a Janet Cook and a Stephen Glass. Cook was the brilliant Washington Post reporter who had won in 1981 a Pulitzer Prize for her story about an 8-year old heroin addict. The Pulitzer Committee was unanimous in choosing the young Black reporter the prestigious prize. Her story, the Committee claimed, was the most shining example of investigative journalism that year.

It was only later that the judges found out that Ms Cook’s story lacked one minor essential called the truth. The prize was withdrawn, the reporter sacked by the Post and excommunicated by the world at large. Later, an otherwise unforgiving American media treated it as an unfortunate aberration. A few more ‘unfortunate aberrations’ later the Americans themselves ‘accepted’ it as an unavoidable professional hazard or a fault line inherent to a profession like journalism. A defence even a Clarence Darrow would be proud of. And, as expected, Janet Cook and a few more aberrations like her failed to breach the mighty ramparts of credibility that the US media had built around it over the years. After the Cook episode, there was this NBC ‘scoop’ that proved on camera that General Motors had made trucks with ‘explosible’ gasoline tanks. The NBC camera showed one of the trucks actually explode; a dramatic incident which later turned out to be a hoax.

Then a newspaper in San Jose carried a series of ‘investigative’ articles to prove that the CIA was behind a deadly epidemic among the Blacks in Los Angeles which again turned out to be pure fiction. But, as I said, none of these was strong enough to give the Americans a complex. That’s when Stephen Glass swaggered along and not just breached the ramparts but brought down the whole goddamn edifice of the Great White Hope called American journalism.

In 1998, The New Republic (TNR) magazine shocked the world with the revelation that the 26-year old Glass, the former Chief Reporter of the prestigious right-wing magazine, was the greatest fabulist the global media ever saw. The Washington-based political journal made a candid confession that two-thirds of the Glass stories, including the quotes therein, published in The New Republic were just stories with little or no truth in them. TNR is not the only magazine that Glass used as a wing to fly his fantasies. A regular writer for several other equally respected magazines like Rolling Stones and George, the latter a political glossy published by John F Kennedy (Junior), Glass, in fact, succeeded in making the redoubtable American media read like a comic strip.But even Stephen Glass, immortalized later through a globally successful film called Shattered Glass, could not shatter the great myth built around the American media’s invincibility. That happened later with a scandal that came to be known as the Tailwind Episode. It happened when the mother of all magazines, Time and the mother of all networks, CNN jointly did a mother of all investigative stories that claimed that the US army had used poison gas on its own soldiers found defecting during an operation in Laos in 1970.

The story was later withdrawn as ‘unsubstantiated’ by the two media giants with a matching apology. Significantly, both the withdrawal of the story and the apology came after the Pentagon and the rest of US establishment reminded the editors of the two organizations that the report would do more harm to the American sensibilities than any glory it might earn for the US media.What a stark contrast to the way the Indian media behaved during the Balakot operation!During the Spanish-American war of 1898, the legendary American publisher, William Randolph Hearst, sent his artist cum photographer, Frederick Remington, to Cuba with an assignment to send pictures of the war. ‘But there’s no war here’, Remington wrote back from Cuba. Prompt came Hearst’s message, “you furnish the pictures, I will furnish the war’.

The US journalists, till date, seem inspired by the great Citizen Kane. Maybe, they don’t always furnish the war. But they promote facts at the expense of truth so that when there’s no war there will be one sooner than later, like when they report on Kashmir which is always ‘a disputed territory between India and Pakistan’ or when they describe the BJP as the ‘Hindu nationalist party’. That Kashmir is disputed is a fact, but the truth is that it became disputed only after the Pakistani Rangers, in a sneak attack, occupied what was a part of India in 1948. That the BJP has a Hindu majority following is a fact, but the truth is that it is not an exclusive Hindu religious party or organization.

It is for the great Pulitzer Prize-winning and aspiring American journalists, many of whom are working out India, to decide whether facts are more important than truth or vice-versa; whether they want to follow William Randolph Hearst who would manufacture a war for the occasion or Thomas Jefferson, their third President, who said that if he had to choose between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he would choose the latter; because, he believed in truth being told as truth and not as facts.

With the United States emerging as the New World leader and with Donald Trump preparing to be the world’s curator, all that we can hope for is that the new world’s chief communicators don’t promote facts sacrificing the truth, don’t furnish wars to fit their pictures.

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P. P. Bala Chandran
Worked at Gulf News, Reuters, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Asia Week etc. Reporter, Editor, Managing Editor, Columnist, Author etc
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