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Photo-Shopping Words- Lies, Damn Lies And Journalism

This essay has become too long, because I wanted to quote the references. Still, I suggest you read it in full. I quote Scott F. Fitzgerald here, to explain why you should-

We want to believe. Young students try to believe in older authors, constituents try to believe in the congressmen, countries try to believe in their statesmen, but they can’t. Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism. It’s worse in case of Newspapers. Any rich, unprogressive, old party with that particular grasping, acquisitive form of mentality known as financial genius can own a paper that is the intellectual meat and drink of thousands of tired, hurried men, men too involved in the business of modern living to swallow anything but predigested food. For two cents, voter buys his politics, prejudices and philosophy.

It is an art to write Non-Fiction. It needs to carry the pretense of being objective and true, without being dull and boring. There is a wonderful book by Sol Stein he covers this part in great details. He talks about how dreary, factual piece of non-fiction can be brought to life with brilliant colors of life weaved around dead, soulless data. The writing in such case stands precariously on the thin boundary of fiction and non-fiction. I am an Engineer, or as they say, basically an Engineer. This essentially means I am not classically trained in the art of writing. This also means that my education in literature is ambiguous, arbitrary and essentially non-academic. My learning of writing is not limited by curriculum and my notes come from various sources. I came across the wonderful book Stein On Writing by Sol Stein in this process of trying to educate myself, which has this one full section on writing Non-fiction.

He mentions various techniques to bring impact and interest to dull reporting of plain data. He however, classifies as Literary Nonfiction. In the Indian context of media reports, almost all journalism is literary non-fiction. He writes- Literary nonfiction puts emphasis on the precise and skilled use of words and tone, and the assumption that the reader is as intelligent as the writer. 

However, in different context, it is also, at times based on the assumption that the reader is as dumb as the writer is smart. He says, “The nonfiction writer who becomes aware of the emotions elicited by cultural difference can use this power in representing people by well-chose class markers. Recently there was a big hullabaloo about noted journalist, who having seen the best days of adulation during Kargil, but now has come to  signify the worst of journalism to those who are termed as Right-wingers in Indian context, and who are largely kept out of public media, except for social media-Twitter, Facebook and  Independent Digital News media and blogs. This is what we usually call now media-spin or manufacturing the narrative- the class markers. She added to the description of Social media warrior, son of a headmaster to the reference she made to killing of Kashmiri terrorist, Burhan Wani, by Indian Forces. This is a perfect example of class marker.

The techniques of literary non-fiction cuts both ways. It serves the purpose of an interested writer by being present and at times, by being conspicuously absent. It creates interest, empathy, by being in the news and many times, by design, creates apathy and disinterest by deliberate absence. So while Burhan Wani was put into context, flesh and blood was rendered to a name, a terrorist’s name, Prashanth Poojary or Sujith, the RSS members (not termed as terrorist organization unlike Hizbul, which is a UN designated terror organization). They skip the details, the meat of the matter, and the victim is not humanized, thus the empathy neutralized, the concern is conflicted and the impact is numbed. It is not about lack of ability. The same set of big media houses manage both the stories, but the treatment they render to the two is totally different. If one really observes, it is pretty evident. There is no fault per se, in such blatant demonstration of leanings and biases, as long as one does not pretend to be unbiased and neutral. It is not the case of lazy reporting, nor is a case of lack of competence. How the other side of the reports are presented, tells us how the data is photo shopped to manufacture a narrative.

Going back to Sol Stein, he quotes a brilliant example, which I will take the liberty of quoting verbatim, before giving the example of media reports to bring the point home. He presents the report of heretic Queen of England, Mary Stuart’s execution. Here is how it would be reported in Indian media if in the current context, she were a Right wing supporter in India.

Mary Stuart came into the great hall, followed by her retinue. She climbed the steps to her chair, faced her audience, and smiled.

Now, using best of the techniques of literary non-fiction, here is how historian Garrett Mattingly writes the same even in The Armada:
She entered through a little door at the side, and before they saw her she was already in the great hall, walking towards the dais, six of her own people, two by two, behind her, oblivious to the stir and rustle as her audience craned forward, oblivious, apparently, of the officer on whose sleeve her hand rested, walking as quietly, thought one pious soul, as if she were going to her prayers. Only for a moment, as she mounted the steps and before she sank back into the black-draped chair, did she seem to need the supporting arm, and if her hands trembled she locked them in her lap, no one saw. Then, as if acknowledging the plaudits of a multitude, thought the hall was very still, she turned for the first time to face her audience and, some thought, she smiled.

This is so brilliant. The man who wrote it had not seen the event, had no way of interviewing anyone who had seen it. Still he creates a lively event, interspersing it with his biases, which no one technically can question. We look what various phrases tell and the truth and untruth of those sentences. The little door, walked before she is seen- She is a demure, helpless woman. We don’t have an unbiased, neutral account from the audience of that time. We tend to believe, that the writer here has. The woman is not only defenseless, she is also religious. We do not know which pious soul thought, but as per the writer, someone did think that it appeared as if she was going for a prayer. She is alone and proud (only for a moment did she need a supporting arm), scared but dignified and brave (if her hands trembled as she locked then in her lap, no one saw). We don’t know if her hands trembled, for no one saw, still it is reported. This is so amazing.

Now let us see how wonderfully (or not) it is applied by the journalists in today’s context.

I searched through the internet and here is how the hacking of RSS activist, 27-year-old young boy, was reported by leading media houses.
Times of India reported: “27-year-old RSS worker was hacked to death in front of his aged parents in Kannur district in poll-bound Kerala, triggering a blame game between BJP and CPM on Tuesday.” 
- Times of India:
What is most interesting is that the competing media house, reports the incident in exactly same words. 

- Hindustan Times

- Indian Express

What stands out here? There are three media houses, supposedly competitors, used the same writer to report the incident. All used exactly the same words. Is it is case of lazy reporting that the news is just passed on as received possibly from common agency. But then, see how they defined the victim. A 27-year old RSS worker- which person in this world is such a unidimensional personality. There is no name, we do not know if his smile traveled to his eyes (another masterpiece borrowed from Barkha Dutt’s description of JNU’s Kanhaiyya Kumar charged with sedition for calling to breaking up of nation and freedom of Kashmir, by violence), there is no description. We have just read the description of the Queen who was sentenced to death in 16th century. But, no, no one writes what Sujith looked like because as a writer somebody has decided that the reader ought not to feel for him. The headline ends with the mention of “blame-game” between BJP and Communists. It doesn’t even say the BJP has “charged” the communists with the murder of “young” man. While blame-game is scalar, charge is vector, directed to someone. It hovers in air for a while and quickly drops down in dust like a dead leave. A blame-game has no owner and places the responsibility on both parties, even on the victim, by becoming a ripe target for a worthy kill.

Compare what we know about Sujith with what we know about Rohith Vemula. We don’t even track his story, we track even his parent’s story. So in Sudipto Mondal essay, it begins 18 years back. Essay begins with summer afternoon and Rohith’s mother- sweet child of one, and one feels overwhelmed by the hardship such sweet child faces as an adult losing a young son. And then Rohith’s diary is quoted, gorgeous, sensitive writing. He laments being treated as a political tool. We feel sorry for the loss of such a sensitive, thoughtful soul. And Sujith- we don’t know if he ever had a diary. (

Another post in HT says about Rohith- He was a part of historical resistance by Dalit-Bahujan communities against oppression that erases our culture, silences our voices, takes over our lives and stigmatizes them. To call him a child is to deny this history.

Imagine borrowing the flow and erudition from aforementioned Rohith Vemula’s report to Sujith- He was a part of historical resistance to the subjugation of Hindu thought which Voltaire said was so peaceful and innocent, that it was equally incapable of hurting others or defending themselves, forcing it to shrink over the centuries across the globe, under the garb of conversions during Mughal and British rule and secularism in modern world. An attempt to position it as political killing is to deny this child this history, which he shares with the slain kids of the Sikh Guru.

We also find such marvels of brilliant journalistic fiction in the way they wrote about Kanhaiyya and his India-bashing group. Priyamvada Gobal wrote in Guradian how “Hindu” nationalist government faces challenge from Kanhaiya who somehow leads the “coalition of progressive forces”. Readers, readers, would you want to be a part of coalition of progressive forces or not? will yous still side with a Hindu nationalist government (as if this government did not take oath on the constitution with secular preamble)? Author is asking without appearing to be asking, insisting that you take side. .

Kanhaiyya was the band-wagon which everyone rode, from Shashi Tharoor to Barkha, given the opportunity it provided to the Zamindars of intellectual space and written pages to hit at Modi, but the cake was taken by DU professor, who wrote- Umar sees himself as a person without borders. He does not want to remain imprisoned by nationalities. He reminds me of Rachel Corrie, a young woman from the US who, oceans away from her home in Columbia, stood before an Israeli tank to save a Palestinian house from being bulldozed. 

The good professor pretends to have actually raised Umar Khalid as a child since he knows his self-perception, or to have acted as his psychiatrist. But then, let not the truth interfere with journalism. The idea is to do a verbal photo-shop, to manufacture a narrative, to carry and agenda. Most mentioned above are old news, old reports. However, what prompted me to write this was an article by Rakesh Ankit in FountainInk “History,as you like it. It poses as a report of a BJP event commemorating Syama Prasad Mookerjee. It actually is an opinion piece. It seeks to insult the BJP supporters, embolden BJP haters and drive the undecided away from BJP. It begins mentioning the event to pay respect to Syama Prasad Mookerjee as selfless patriot. The next sentence, writer says- whether he was either of the two, we need to examine. Syama Prasad had at least to careers, as lawyer and educationist besides becoming a lawmaker, he writes. The intent clearly is not to inform, rather to create an image of non-serious, non-committed politician for the late leader. He forgets that most Congress leaders were practicing lawyers and writers and newspaper editors those days, even if we do not go into the shell companies of Rahul Gandhi. He hints that the death of Syama Prasad was not a conspiracy, not even an accident. It was because he was a man unused to street struggle, landed, mistakenly, somehow in Kashmir’s unusual circumstances, resulting in his death. He could not bear the shock the alien land presented to the Bengali gentleman.

The lines are dropped, hints are made, carefully, smartly, surreptitiously. Prejudices are abound, though craftily covered. See this- These challenges by the manly Englishman to effeminate Bengali- he writes, hides quickly, saying he merely quotes, Mrinalini Sinha. Why? he doesn't stop to explain. He even writes, pompously that BJP, whose ideological forefathers had no role to play in India's freedom movement, are trying to claim the credit when none is due. Again, he doesn't explain why? Ideological link of BJP should stretch well to Lala Lajpat Rai, Malviya, Tilak and even Arya Samaji Ram Prasad Bismil. But then again, let us not allow fact to interfere with fiction.

For instance, I quote some very smart sentences, to help you sample how brilliantly the writer articulated a bias,

I gulp- what does Amit Shah read barring transcripts of taped conversations? Suddenly, I realize a policeman and a paramilitary shooter have taken position behind me.” He adds- “not out of interest in me but because the spot offers a 360 degrees view.” There is no pause. Still, the first part of sentence seems independent to the second, which is almost an afterthought. The idea of intolerance, arrogant power, lack of privacy (snooping), military state is immediately established. First sentence is a thought in writer’s mind, cannot be argued against on facts, second is false alarm, but still cannot be argued against as it is disowned by the author himself and discarded, once it has served the purpose. One immediately forgets that a reporter with such bile against the ruling dispensation is an invited get in a party function, which allows him to write a scathing piece and publish it in a well-circulated daily. Salute to the great piece of writing, criticizing something deeper than the Government, humiliating the ideology that makes the party in power. I wonder, if any right wing writer attended any Politburo meeting. If they did, Why did they not write like that? The line between truth and lie in today’s journalism is fairly thin, and gorgeous journalism is on one side of it, on the other is propaganda. There is no better name for it. 

Here is my tribute to Sujith, the young man hacked in Kerala and poorly reported by media (Click here to read)

My another write-up on similar subject - Nationalism and Intellectual Priesthood- Read Here


Capt Singh said…
I agree that the news we are fed now a days is partly fiction. When I go through either print or electronic media I get a feeling the journalism that once inspired a generation ceased to exist.

Everything is sensational and competition for TRP or securing bigger share for their advertisement revenue. It appears that media houses have patrons in politicians and industrialists and the storyboard is prepared suiting the interests of their patrons. It is hard to figure out the news that we are being fed is genuine or not.
Saket Suryesh said…
We only notice when it's in our face like fake cow-vigilantism case in Mumbai, many times it is subtle that no one notices. And the same bigots pose as neutral commentators. Thanks for reading the post.
Unknown said…
Use Photoshop to hide the defect or a bad frame, this is the real purpose for which was created Photoshop. People have learned to do bad things, false facts, staged scenes. Job Journalist difficult only when the journalist reveals the truth. I know many journalists who ask for help when writing articles. This one of them I do not believe that these people are bad journalists, they're just going to write a lie. Write a lie, it's a tough job.

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