Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On "Elite" Indian Journalism

I've been reading the Times of India and the Economic Times for the last three months in Mumbai, both papers with a long and honorable record of excellence in journalism.

It's not been a happy experience.

Back when I used to write for the TOI from New York in the early 1990s it was a serious paper; it is now a mishmash of shockingly low editorial quality.

Both the TOI, in full color, and the ET on salmon paper, are attractive in design and layout. They look professional; but both seem to be caught in the same strange cultural warp as the latest Bollywood song and dance numbers in which leggy blonde dancers cavort alongside the Indian hero and heroine. The print equivalent is the use of photographs of Western models to illustrate news stories on everything from carcinogens (a blonde chomping on a hamburger), to the revenue expectations of the Finance Ministry (a blonde with deep cleavage). Rarely, it is possible to see a semblance of wit (half-wit?) in the selected graphic; the ET had the photograph of a shapely white woman to illustrate a story entitled "CEO, CFOs Asked to Explain Reasons for Low Tax Payments." But generally the only justification for these pix seems to be to titillate male sensibilities shaped by Western advertising agencies.

(Except for an image of a man kissing a woman's foot, which the TOI used to illustrate an article that made reference to effeminacy, all the eye candy is female.)

The fixation on curvy blondes in the most widely circulated gerneral-interest and special-interest English newspapers in India would be no more than an aesthetic foible if it did not reflect a more serious phenomenon, the lack of a coherent national perspective in either paper. Other than report New Delhi's international interactions, neither seems to have any notion of what is important for Indians to know in world affairs.

The TOI's international coverage is a stupefying exercise in irrelevance. Its daily page of "Trends" and column on "Around The World" offer a bizarre selection. One recent "Around the World" column had the following items: Palin's daughter gives birth to son. Terminator added to US National Film Registry. Slumdog Millionaire honored by the American Film Institute. Kylie Minogue (who is evidently a celebrity in Australia) to sell her house at half price. A British school teaches its pupils how to blow their noses. "Fireman breaks down door of the wrong house in Hamilton". (No mention of the country in which that happened.) "Imbruglia plans comeback." (Natalie Imbruglia, an Australian singer I've never heard of, is shown in a revealing lace shirt, hands at the hip, index fingers pointing to her crotch.)

The opinion columns of both papers make more of an effort to cater to their Indian readership, but there is a brainwashed quality in what the editors choose to offer. The TOI devoted much space to the latest James Bond movie, treating it as a significant cultural phenomenon. It carried an article on expectations from the Obama presidency, written by a Brit, which offered up the hope of stricter adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an instrument that Delhi has long decried as grossly prejudicial to Indian interests.

At a time when the United States effort to move out from under its mountainous debts has set off an international crisis with profound implications for India, neither paper has done much more than print agency coverage of developments as they occur.

When the resident pundits of the TOI do venture an opinion on international affairs, they have an alarming tendency to miss the wood for the trees. Swaminathan Aiyar headlined one recent column "26/11: Buying Opportunity, Not Economic Disaster." It told how foreign institutional investors had followed "Nathan Rothschild's maxim that the best time to buy shares is when blood runs in the streets." Foreigners had bought $159 million net of Indian stocks and bonds on 28 November; in December there had been a net inflow of $589 million. He concluded that if indeed "the attack aimed to hit stock markets and foreign confidence in India, it failed dismally." It was as if Aiyar was providing cricket commentary for a football match. The game afoot is not about investors making a quick buck; it is about India's image as a stable and secure country, a place where investors can park their money in times of economic crisis in the West. The 26/11 attack revealed to a watching world just how insecure India really is, how unprepared its government is to meet threats or even protect its own people. (And by the way, can you imagine anyone in the United States labeling 9/11 a "buying opportunity" weeks after the event?)

TOI commentaries on the death of Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor who authored the 1993 Foreign Affairs treatise on "The Clash of Civilizations," provide another example of quantum incomprehension. Swapan Dasgupta, in a piece titled "There's a Clash, Don't Deny It," wrote of Huntington as a latter-day Cassandra denied by "politicians, international bodies and the interfaith industry." The epitaph of the man who had anticipated "the barbarians at the gate," Dasgupta wrote, would be "In your mind you know he was right." An anonymous TOI editorialist (30 December 2008) was less approving of Huntington's thesis, but in explaining why, got it spectacularly wrong. He/she saw Huntington as "pessimistic because from his point of view, the only antidote to conflict would be if each civilization were to retreat into itself and stop interacting with the rest of the world. Only like should interact with like; that's a static and boring view of global geopolitics." Huntington said none of the above; his interest was continued Western domination of world affairs.

Neither Dasgupta nor the editorial writer seemed to be aware that Huntington was a long-standing mouthpiece for American military interests, a role he claimed with his first book, "The Soldier and the State," which argued that democracies were ill-suited to conduct foreign policy without the guidance of men in uniform. It was written in the wake of President Harry Truman's famous confrontation with an uppity General Douglas Macarthur over Korean war policy.

The "clash of civilizations" thesis was not brilliant academic prognostication; it emerged from a seminar that brought together a hush-hush list of Washington movers and shakers, people representing what President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 dubbed the "military-industrial complex." That nexus of interests profits enormously from global tensions and conflict; it needed new enemies after the end of the Cold War, and Huntington's seminar identified them. In all the controversy that followed the publion of his essay, no one paid much attention to the fact that the "bloody borders of Islam" he highlighted -- Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan -- were the result of deliberate Western policy. (Incidentally, Fareed Zakaria, currently Newsweek International editor, was the rapporteur of that seminar.)

A general assumption in India's English-language media seems to be that the country is destined to be a global Power. That was never more naively expressed than on the front page of the Economic Times on 5 January: an all-caps headline over-the-masthead screamed "INDIA, THIS IS YOUR CENTURY. JUST GRAB IT WITH A BILLION HANDS AND HAND IT HEROICALLY AND HANDSOMELY TO HISTORY." Under the masthead another all-caps headline proclaimed "THE INDIAN CENTURY: LET'S ALL GO TO BAT FOR OUR COUNTRY," followed by an even larger line of type that said simply "GATEWAY TO THE WORLD," presumably referring to a photograph of the reopened Taj hotel. Under the photograph was more squirm-inducing text. The terrorists who attacked Mumbai on 26/11 had tried to destroy the "IDEA OF INDIA. By maiming and mutilating our bodies. How poorly ignorant they were. How abysmally little they knew. They didn't know every Indian carries within him an undying idea. An idea alive with numerous possibilities. Together on this foundation of a billion ideas, India builds itself anew every day. Ideas swirling, ideas speaking. Ideas skirmishing ideas squabbling. But they all coalesce to form THE IDEA OF INDIA. In this grand dance of ideas, India retains not only its footing but takes the global center stage."

Right alongside that blather was a sober piece by Sunil Khilnani, Director of South Asia Studies at the Johns Hopkins University and author of The Idea of India (written on the 50th anniversary of independence). In stark contrast to the editorial call for action by a billion people, he argued the need for "political realism." That would require "the accurate identification of the threats, external and internal, that a political community faces; the creative pursuit of power in order to combat such threats; and a balancing of the claims of identity, the requirements of justice, and the compulsions of security in order to further the ends of individual freedom." Elite Indian media have a critically important role in identifying the threats of which Khilnani writes, but there's little indication they're aware of that responsibility at the Times of India or the Economic Times.

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