Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Current Events 10: Jaundiced Journalism (Guest Post - Chitra Raman)

A new post in the series - Current Events 


Much is being said and written about media these days -- Indian media, world media, print media, broadcast media, social media, all media. The line between news and views has almost eroded, as many in the field of media studies have repeatedly said. Consumers of news are increasingly expressing suspicion, distrust and even anger toward the media. 

Since venting out frustration when reading a newspaper or watching TV news at home doesn't really help, there is a need to constructively engage with some of the issues concerning media bias and reporting. Today's post is about that.

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I am happy beyond words to host on my blog today a very dear friend and a brilliant writer, Chitra Raman. I should warn that my introduction of Chitra isn't a short one, it simply can't be. Why? Read on and you will know why.

Chitra and I first connected about 15 years ago via an online discussion group, and through our passionate discussions on various topics related to India, Indian society, Indian women, living as Indian-Americans and everything else under the sun and moon, recognised each other as sisters from some past life. And when we finally met in person, our sisterhood got confirmed even more. Then we met again, and again, and again....we are actually a threesome with another soul-sister from the same online group, but more about that in some other post. This one is for Chitra.

Chitra lives in Metro Detroit area in the US and is proud mother of a musically gifted young woman with autism, a writer and a special education advocate. Her publications include analyses and commentary on culture, the human condition, Hindu philosophy and special education. As a writer she has an incredible gift for creatively blending substance and style, heartfelt and humorous, analytic and astute, pretty much everything I admire in a writer. She recently participated in a live storytelling stage show called Listen to Your Mother where she presented her piece - Autism, Served Sunny Side Up. I can't wait for the video to be made available online, so that I can see my friend doing what she does best! Make her readers/listeners laugh, tear-up, reflect and ponder, all at once through her words.

Some readers of this blog may also remember Chitra for the fabulous review she wrote for my book on Indian Education.

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Now, a bit about this post....

Image source

Chitra is a regular reader of New York Times, but more importantly she is a keen observer and thoughtful critic of NYT's reporting and writing on India and India-related matters. For years many Indian-American readers of NYT have been expressing their concern about the biased coverage of India-related news in this leading American newspaper which holds considerable power in shaping the narrative on India in the West and also a significant section of English-speaking elite in India. That's what motivates conscientious Indian-Americans like Chitra to stay on top of all that this is written in this newspaper.

Chitra never misses a chance to let the editors of this US-based powerful media house know where they have been prejudicial and biased in their pieces, where they have totally missed out on facts and where they are so far off in their analyses that it doesn't even make sense. She presents her viewpoint strongly and clearly, and is one of the very few people I know who can write rationally and objectively and yet ground their interpretations in direct personal experience.

Today's post is a perfect example.

Chitra recently read a review in New York Times, of a theatrical performance, titled "Nirbhaya." Yes, about that Nirbhaya.

I will let Chitra tell us now about her response to this review.

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I thank Beloo for her overwhelmingly generous introduction and the privilege of being featured on this page.

The thing about news reportage is that what you know about the unseen depends on who is given voice to speak about it.

When the New York Times bestowed the honor upon India of dedicating an entire  section titled “India Ink” to news and views from there, I was delighted and signed on immediately for updates. But as I was to write later to them, the section might more appropriately be called “India Stink.” The paper began to regularly feature content about India that was dismissive, derogatory, and derisive. And they go by it by cleverly publishing Indian commentators eager to amplify NYT’s preferred narrative. That way, if  challenged, they can always say – Hey, it’s not us, your own people don’t think too highly of  your country.

One of the lowest examples of that kind of writing in my view was an opinion piece written by a scientist *employed by Government of India* who, instead of highlighting the unique and admirable elements of the Mars mission that even a conservative news source like the Wall Street Journal covered in great detail, went off into ridiculing the so-called “superstitiousness” of Indians. I was so incensed that I tracked down his email and wrote directly to him. He did not respond.

I say all this by way of preamble because I feel strongly about *fairness and balance* – you know, the values they taught us in Journalism School which so many seem to toss in the trash on their way out. Objective criticism is one thing – relentless pursuit of the negative is quite another. And over time I can see a distinct hardening of stereotypes about India and Indians reflected in the online comments under many of these articles. More of us *must* speak about what we know, regardless of whether it is published or not.

Now to the review of the play "Nirbhaya, a Lamentation and a Rallying Cry for Indian Women." I reacted to one particular passage:

(QUOTE) There’s a chafing sexual friction among these bodies in motion, hovering on the edge of violence. We are, we are told, in bloated, heaving New Delhi. And it is a place where simply riding a bus, for a woman, is to be “passed from one pair of groping hands to another,” to feel that “you’re everyone’s, every day.” (END QUOTE)

NYT published a condensed version of these remarks:

Now I wonder if it's just me, but I find this incredibly offensive. Yes, women in Delhi have to ride crammed buses and endure the possibility every single day that they will be groped by some cowardly slimebag. But what gives the playwright the idea that Indian women have no choice but to weakly submit to being "passed" around and feel like they are "everyone's every day"?

I can remember an instance from my own experience when a creep tried to press himself against my shoulder when I was seated and he was standing holding on to the bus handrail. I was carrying a leather satchel, which I picked up and jammed down between my shoulder and his fly with such force that he sprang back, glaring at me. But that made everyone look at him, so he didn't dare say anything. Times have changed, and even if it is true that the number of sexual predators has increased, the idea that Indian women passively and fatalistically submit to this as some inevitable burden of being a woman, is *infuriatingly* absurd.

The reviewer titles his piece a "lamentation and a rallying cry for Indian women." If it is a rallying cry, it is both late and superfluous considering the outpouring of rage from women and men alike who thronged the streets of Delhi after Nirbhaya's ordeal in some of the largest demonstrations seen in the capital. It is also astounding to me that nobody including Indians would find it obscene that the Nirbhaya case, horrific as it was, is made emblematic of an entire culture, as though the victimization of women and the opportunistic lechery of men were somehow uniquely Indian!

I would have respected this work if it were presented as universally representative of womanhood anywhere in the world. Because it is. Pretending that it is somehow exclusive to "Indian women" is nice for people who can afford to shell out for a theater ticket followed by dinner at a fancy restaurant. The 80-year-old wealthy lady of European descent whom I befriended while we both watched my daughter at a school playground would disagree. She told me stories of how her husband would beat her and rape her when he came home drunk – and then leave a lavish amount of spending money on the table the next morning by way of apology. He did it right up to the time when she got her cancer diagnosis. And how did she take revenge? Did she walk out on him and sue him blind for alimony? No. She was taking care of him then, as he was growing progressively more incapacitated by Parkinsons's.

Life is complex; culture is complex; people are complex. Which is why I detest facile stereotyping of any kind.


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