Media

Backstory: Uri and After – What Worked, What Didn’t

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s Public Editor.

File photo of an Indian patrol near the Line of Control in Kashmir. Credit: Reuters

File photo of an Indian patrol near the Line of Control in Kashmir. Credit: Reuters

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.

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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.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in

  • Usha Raman

    Thanks for this! It’s particularly important for young people who are entering the digital journalism space with a definite cynicism about “mainstream” media. In the search for a new, nuanced lens of media critique that adequately takes into account the push-pull of the news cycle and the reading habits of a transitional generation, we need to keep in mind that some of the standards cannot change, even when they have been set aside by some of the more visible outlets.

  • Anjan Basu

    Persuasive and poised: this is what a Readers’ Editor/ Public Editor should be, and Pamela Philipose has earned our gratitude by being that and more. Indeed, this is as elegant a critique of editorial practice as I have read in a long time. She is of course right when she says that editing a media product is not for the faint of heart, and readers like me ( and we are not, I would like to think, very few in number) admire The Wire precisely because it has managed to swim against the tide in quite turbulent waters. Hence the disappointment when some of The Wire’s contributors provide somewhat ham-handed treatments of very sensitive issues. What was disquieting in some such pieces was just that tone in much of ‘mainstream’ media that has so deeply alienated many of us. It is the triumphalism implicit in these pieces that The Wire chose to carry only after Uri that worried me. But, of course, I trust the editorial team at The Wire to continue to give us nuanced and mature journalism going forward. The Public Editor can surely provide the steadying nudge, if need be. Grateful that we are in such good hands!

  • Jugu Abraham

    Kudos for a well-written assessment.

  • Vineet

    While editor’s reference to Mr Basu’s comment hails such folks desire to have a balanced and unbiased objective view of the situation, Mr Basu’s comment are biased in the first place. His primary concern comes from the fact that India’s reaction are to be advised and based “on behalf of a state like Israel that has been systematically, relentlessly pushing generations of Palestinians to a vast, open grave”. Well, whatever might be Israel’s strategy with regards to Palestinians, the Palestinians themselves have quite a bit of linen to wash in public – from destabilizing Jordan and Syria to unabashed support for HAMAS. Be that as it may, Israel – Palestinian conflict should have no bearing on what we ought to learn and adopt from Israel in counter terrorism. Israel has been consistently successful in protecting it’s citizen from barbaric attacks from nearly three direction (fourth being sea) and learning from such encounters is not equivalent of doing anything “on behalf” of Israel. If an opinion is expressed by a security expert (and not a Twitter warrior) like Raghu Raman, classifying it as jingoism is pompous to say the least. Democracy thrives on ideas, whatever they might be and wherever they come from and thank god we are not living under HAMAS.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Congratulations and hope that balanced reporting as well as accommodation of all opinions for and against the topics will prevail in the future. If the exercise helps in establishing peace in Kashmir, that would be a great accomplishment. Condemnation if Uri attack is as important as analysis of the horrible conditions in Kashmir where more than eighty persons were murdered by armed forces. The circumstances that led to Uri attack should also be analysed impartially so that every point of view is accounted for.