A fortnightly column from The Wire’s Public Editor.
First, some questions. Is a public editor really necessary in a digital age when the term “public” itself is being rendered fuzzier by the day; when the clock on the town hall of the Habermasian public sphere appears to have lost its chime? Is such an institution really imperative at a point when almost everyone has an opinion and is willing to let you have it for free? How useful is it to have an officious (possibly), not-always-perspicacious (certainly), busybody stand between readers and the content they peruse in these columns?
All that can be said in one’s defence is that this idea of public editorialising or, to put it another way, editorialising for the public, is not mine. It emerged from the collective wisdom of the team that brings you The Wire, which saw value in factoring in a moment of pause, a space for occasional rumination, self-correction, introspection and reflection, even as the unrelenting cycle of news carries on apace. So it is in that spirit that I welcome you, the reader, to the ‘Backstory’, a fortnightly column that will also take on board the views of readers on the content put out by The Wire.
There can be no getting away from Uri and the whiff of grapeshot that has hung in the air since September 18, which saw the assault on an Indian army camp and the killing of 18 soldiers. The prospect of war has traditionally been staple fare for producers of news, many even perceiving it as a great marketing opportunity to bolster flagging bottom lines. The infamous retort made by newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst over a century ago comes to mind, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”. The media in India, most notably those functioning out of television studios, have more than their share of professionals schooled in the Hearst brand of journalism and never more so than when Pakistan is in the crosshairs. Anchors in pretend flak jackets, one-time diplomats speaking in loud voices and carrying big sticks, generals – retired but not retiring – can together talk up a war on any given night.
It is precisely in moments like these, when recklessness and muscularity of media discourse appear to become synonymous with national interest and patriotism that there is need for that steady hand at the rudder of editorial decision making. Typically, the most voluble and out-of-whack opinions get their airing on television. By the time the morning newspapers are slipped under the door, temperatures are markedly lower, but it still takes a day or two before more measured and informed assessments emerge in cold print. Online news portals like The Wire, inhabiting the space between these two legacy giants, have features of both – the real time advantage of television and the more expansive space of the newspaper. This has its own specific challenges, especially in situations where all the information at hand is closely controlled by the political-military establishment.
So how did The Wire fare on the Uri story with all its developments and its very long tail, the end of which is still nowhere in sight? Over the 12-odd days since the Uri attack, The Wire has put out nearly 25 pieces, including news reports, independent analyses, and tangential commentaries relevant in the Uri context. By and large the reports, most of them in-house generated and value added, were responses to the breaking news cycle – useful for readers wanting to catch up on the details of a developing story but only as good as the information available at that point of time since The Wire’s capacity for independent information gathering is still quite limited.
The Wire’s analytical pieces, however, at their best, can be considered a valuable addition to the current public discourse and have emerged as a source of opinion making, both at the individual and institutional level. Take that crunch juncture of September 29, after the briefing on the ‘surgical strike’ launched by the Indian army on Pakistani soil. Amidst the blitzkrieg of triumphalist television coverage, The Wire commentary underlined what was really new about this development: “the public – and political – affirmation of such a strike” (Uri Aftermath: Retaliation, With De-Escalation Built In) and the danger that “having upped the bar by launching strikes and publicising them, the public clamour for even more decisive army action is bound to follow the next terrorist incident, no matter how small it may be in comparison to Pathankot or Uri” (Indian Surgical Strikes against Terrorists in Pakistan: What We Know, What We Don’t Know). The news reports of September 29 were useful reads, one highlighting how the Pakistani media was responding to the event, while the other – on the plummeting markets and rupee – worked well as a reminder of the economic costs of such an operation which was, incidentally, headlined by one newspaper in the vocabulary of a wildlife shoot: ‘4 hours, choppers and 38 kills: How India avenged the Uri attack’.
Looking back on The Wire’s coverage of Uri as a whole, one discerns the pull-push aspect of the larger media buzz. The first headline on Uri, for instance, prominently featured Ram Madhav’s quote: ‘‘Jaw For Tooth’ Says BJP’s Ram Madhav as Militants Kill 17 Soldiers in Uri, Kashmir’ (September 18). Does a subjective statement like Madhav’s have a place in a headline for an introductory news report of this kind that sought to establish the full facts of the attack? Certainly, the copy can carry the quote, but should the headline do so? I would say not.
The Wire editors, in their response to this critique, acknowledged that the point is well taken but that the headline had in fact evolved between 12:18 and 15:51 on September 18, with the first version being the more direct, ‘Seventeen Soldiers Killed in Militant Attack on Uri Army Camp’. They added: “One of the luxuries of the online world is the ability to revise a story and headline, but that is also a curse as Google News indexes new stories higher than old ones. Our story was revised as new facts came in, and the headline reflected this, the logic being that in the world of breaking news and social media feeds, most readers already know soldiers have been killed at Uri and are looking for the latest development. Since Ram Madhav’s quote seemed to be setting the stage for a muscular attack, we settled on that as the final headline.” I am only partially convinced by this explanation. I still feel giving Ram Madhav’s words the prominence of headline space provided heft to what was an extremely unfortunate turn of phrase.
While Ram Madhav grabbed got a lot of media attention with that quote, it was Ajit Doval who emerged larger than life in the Uri narrative, not with his words – he is discreet to a fault – but by just being there. He was present at all primeministerial meetings; he was, we were told, the chief surgeon during the planning and execution of the ‘surgical strike’; he was also there beaming at us from pages and screens. But did The Wire have to carry the same PTI photograph of him twice over two consecutive days?
Commentary from foreign experts is always useful, in that it also reflects international concerns. Both ‘The Waiting Game After Uri’ (September 20) and the excerpt from Not War, Not Peace?: Motivating Pakistan to Prevent Cross-Border Terrorism (September 19), fall in this category. But the foreign angle is not always appropriate. In the piece titled, ‘Tackling Terror: Lessons for India from the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre’ (September 20), a false equivalence is made between Israeli action in the wake of Munich and what India should do after the Uri attack. The most conspicuous difference between the two situations being, of course, that the first involved civilian casualties. The article provoked a spirited reply from a reader who made no attempt to hide the disquiet it had provoked: “We have had our fill of puerile chest-thumping on ‘mainstream’ media these past few days, and lay readers like me come to The Wire not for an additional dose of the same mindless belligerence, but for saner, balanced perspectives. I hope we can continue to read The Wire, and not get deflected by the strident tone of many of its contributors.”
The appeal, I am sure, is not lost on the editors of The Wire, but there is always the pressure of accommodating both sides of the argument, especially when it is an issue that evokes such volatile responses as India-Pakistan conflicts invariably do. Editing a media product is not for the faint-hearted – it is, as someone once observed, a bit like placing a seashell to the ear and being overwhelmed by the persistent and ominous rumble of the world.
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