Backstory: Journalism of Cherry Picking

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

A fortnight is an extremely long time in media politics. The last few days have brought with the monsoon winds a distinct hint that the media in India are existing on the sufferance of the powers that be. The CBI raids on the country’s oldest television establishment – and one of its more independent – strongly recalled the “midnight knock” of the Emergency, the anniversary of which will come around later this month. Since most readers would have only a hazy idea of what transpired during that notorious interregnum, it may be useful to quote Coomi Kapoor’s account of how it felt, as a young newspaper professional, to have the hot breath of a vindictive government on one’s back, from her book The Emergency A Personal History:

“Meanwhile, we at the Indian Express lived in constant trepidation and felt we were walking a tightrope. In October 1976, we watched with apprehension as officials of the MCD, accompanied by a large posse of police, forcibly seized and sealed the Express printing press in the basement of the Express Building, on the grounds that municipal taxes were in arrears.”

If the attack on the Indian Express in 1976 was an unconcealed display of executive intimidation, the CBI raids on NDTV were of a similar stripe. The Wire, in one of its rare editorials, has pointed out that this intimidation affects not just NDTV but the entire media universe (‘An Undisguised Assault on Media Freedom’, June 6), and urged all media actors to come together in resisting “such undisguised assaults on press freedom”. While the sentiments are salutary, there is a certain anachronistic ring to them because the media in India seem to have changed so utterly from the days when they may have taken such counsel seriously. Today, far from strongly decrying the undisguised assaults on press freedom, many are in fact enthusiastically joining in the demolition job themselves, even discarding any pretext of independence. Far from wanting to unite against the government, each entity seems to be looking for how best to inveigle itself to power.

If this sounds overly cynical, then consider some of the developments over the last few days. The first relates to evidence of influence peddling in one of the major newspapers of the country (‘Leaked Message Throws Spotlight on Finance Ministry, Conflict of Interest of TOI Editor’, June 9). The secret quid pro quos, the discreet barters and trade-offs, the little games of settling matters to mutual satisfaction will perhaps never be fully known to the readers and viewers of various publications and channels, but it has a hugely unsettling impact on the credibility of the information being put out.

The Wire editorial rightly points out that such arrangements make for a highly uneven playing field, leading to those media entities that refuse to play ball being treated with hostility even as favours are extended to others. It also raises some important questions, “To what extent is media lobbying and the practice of trading favours prevalent in the current NDA government?…If editors from the Times of India and other newspapers have the ability to push for personnel changes with government ministers, do these ministers, in turn, have the ability to push for editorial changes in these newspapers?”

The answer to the last question is easy: they can, they do. The tougher question is this: does any of this really matter if readers and viewers fail to critically engage with the media content they absorb?

Consider the modus operandi of the big bully boys and girls of television who nightly tar and feather as “anti-nationalists” anyone they so choose. Much like gau raksha vigilante groups on the streets, they and their praetorian guard of commentators pounce on the sacrificial lamb of the day, represented invariably by a few straw men and women whose interventions are quickly drowned out in this rumble in the jungle.

A few days ago it was the turn of The Wire to be “it” for daring to publish an anti-national piece on an anti-national subject by an anti-national “so-called intellectual” (‘In Kashmir, India Is Witnessing Its General Dyer Moment’, June 2). It was precious to witness two television platforms on the same night, caught up as they are in a deadly race for relevance, try and outdo the other in appearing the bigger patriot, even as their ticker displays declared that each was the biggest show in town; the top trending debate on Twitter. As these platforms competed, so too did their guests in the attempt to fling the largest handful of mud. If one termed the subject “anti-Indian,” the other painted it as a “Pakistani agent,” a third insisted that “Mir Jaffer” would be a better description and a fourth spat out the words “fifth columnists”. All this took place amidst a great deal of fingers being wagged and clicked, and heads being shaken so vigorously as to unsettle coiffured hairstyles.

Television news as television noise has been around for awhile now, but competing patriotism on Twitter is now making for a worryingly addled news sense. The Wire piece appeared on June 2. Why did it take three days for these two channels to zero in on this precise theme on the very same day? Is it evidence of some insider leaking of newsroom leads within these establishments? Also, why should arguments made by a professor, largely unknown outside academic circles, and appearing on a news portal that was described by at least one of these anchors as “decrepit”, “little-known” and unworthy to engage with, be even considered a prime time theme? Why would media platforms, which are ostensibly committed to media freedom, shrilly demand the censorship, even the removal, of other media platforms?

Could this choice of subject have been driven by the need to be “more loyal than thou” to the Union minister of Information and Broadcasting Venkaiah Naidu, who had tweeted a little earlier: “Shocked to know that one online news portal compared the rescue of polling staff from stone pelters by Major Leetul Gogoi to the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Every patriotic Indian should condemn this.”

But apart from their eagerness to prove their patriotism to the minister, what is striking about our smartest anchors is their ability to tweak any subject to create riveting television for their viewers who are possibly not as smart as them. They do this by culling information selectively, interpreting it selectively, and presenting selectively to confirm a pre-decided hypothesis (all the better if it happens to be an emotionally charged one). The hypothesis in the current case was that the professor who authored this piece is an anti-national/Pakistani agent/Fifth Columnist, and in order to make him appear so his arguments were cherry picked and then presented as the whole. The original argument made in The Wire piece is that there are “chilling similarities between the justifications advanced for the actions of the British Indian army in Punjab in 1919 and those being offered today, nearly a century later, in defence of the acts of the Indian army in Kashmir” (my emphasis). It was presented as “an anti-India tirade”; as an argument that equated India’s army chief with General Dyer, who had butchered thousands of unarmed innocents in Jallianwala Bagh.

Such biased interpretations have extremely negative impacts. They wind up individuals to such an extent that they sent in stink balls as mail: “Hey Editor/Wire…I would like to p—s on you and your opinion writers…Please let me know how can I pass it on to you, which address can I parcel it to?” This incidentally is one of the more polite responses. Whenever television platforms remind viewers that their debate is trending on Twitter, we must realise that bilge of this kind is being generated on an industrial scale. How, in such a scenario, can rational debate survive in a land that Amartya Sen famously termed as that of the “argumentative Indian”, while remarking on India’s “long tradition of public arguments, with toleration of intellectual heterodoxy”?


For public editors, the shoe is sometimes on the other foot. While being alert to the faults of others, one is seldom completely alive to one’s own. So here’s my mea culpa. In my last column (‘Backstory: Balloons and Bunting for the Three-Year-Old’, May 27), which dealt in passing with the touchy subject of fact-checking, I put out wrong information and was roundly called out for that. It is Pankaj Jain, not Vishal Dadlani (as appeared in the column), who is behind the website, Social Media Hoax Slayer. Jain was gracious enough to accept my apologies even as he iterated the point that as an “established media commentator” I should go the extra mile to check my facts. Point taken, Pankaj!

  • ashok759

    Difficult to generalise, but print still has a level of sobriety and balance. Not so many of the channels. One often wonders who could possibly wish to view Republic TV.

  • alok asthana

    The political powers of today are quite pure unadulterated criminals. The way they are behaving makes one wonder why shouldn’t all of them be made to be ‘tadi paar’, and not just their leader.

  • Jai

    Who inserted the word “socialist” in the Constitution ? Indira Gandhi right, and you know Congressis were always in romantic view of socialist USSR . Their romance almost ended with 1991-92 BoP crisis but the vestiges remained even then. Why can’t a nation-state be neutral in its ideology?
    “Neutrality of the government”- good virtue. But they know that it will be suicidal: if they do so, they will be kicked out of power by the same media and people.
    My friend, know the untold rules of running governments irrespective of the political party in power: they run by taking practical imperatives into consideration and not by virtues.