Monthly Archives: January 2008

Heat, dust, haze, noise, fireworks & damp squibs

MATHIHALLI MADAN MOHAN writes from Hubli: Breathless chatter and cacophony have become the leit motifs of the modern Indian media echo chamber, regardless of the issue on hand. But is there any illumination when the fireworks go off in the studios? Do we know anything more than we did? Or is it all dust, haze and hype?

A good example is what has been dubbed the paryaya row in Udupi.

For close to a month, we were subjected to end-is-nigh coverage. Articles, pictures, interviews, piece-to-cameras, studio discussions, speculation, rumours, were all dished out in a dizzying flurry by newspapers, TV stations and websites such as this one. The day of reckoning, January 18, has long come and gone. Are we any wiser?

The paryaya row was and is a matter pertaining essentially to the Ashta mutt, the family of eight mutts in the temple town, who, according to a more than 700-year-old tradition established by the proponent of the dwaita philosophy Madhwacharya, get a turn by rotation every two years to perform the pooja of Lord Krishna.

The issue was whether Sri Sugunendra Swamiji of the Puttige Mutt, whose turn it was to assume the peetha in continuation of the tradition, had earned the disqualification to do so because of the foreign trips he had undertaken, which is a taboo for the ascetics belonging not only to dwaita but also to adwaita and vishisthadwaita schools too.

In a manner of speaking, it was a family matter. It was up to the family members to sort out the issue, since it involved the interpretation of the code of conduct for the ascetics.

Besides it concerned only one Brahmin community, namely the followers of Madhwacharya, since Udupi happens to be lone pilgrim centre where Madhwa traditions are followed. The resolution of the issue either way would have hardly impinged on the right of the visitors to have the unhindered darshan of Lord Krishna.

But wittingly or otherwise, the media went for the overkill and the proactive stand taken by it blew up a small matter into a major controversy, distorting it beyond imagination.

It got projected into a blazing controversy over the issue of foreign travel of the seers per se, and/or as a tussle between the Puttige seer and the venerated Pejawara swamiji, Sri Visvesha Teertha, who, as the seniormost of the pontiffs, was trying to voice the opposition to maintain the tradition.

Efforts were also made to paint the venerable nonagerian swamiji, the most visible face of the social reforms in the community, as the villain of the piece, who was trying block the Puttige seer’s ascension by sticking to outdated traditions. This was persisted with even after the swamiji made it repeatedly clear that sticking to tradition in the performance of the pooja at the Krishna temple had nothing to do with social reforms or modernism.

The upshot of all this was a public debate that raged across the State and beyond the seas, with everyone beginning to offer gratuitous advice to the swamijis.

May be the campaign was aided and abetted by the protagonists and antagonists of the Puttige swamiji. But was the media justified in swallowing everything hook, line and sinker, and allow itself to be used by the interested parties?

A few direct questions to the Puttige and Pejawar swamijis, could have put the matter in proper perspective, would have pricked the bubble of the controversy. But the media with its fetish for keeping the controversy alive was certainly not prepared to give up the opportunity, deliberately or otherwise.

When the Puttige swamiji suo motu assumed charge in wee hours of January 18, with the seers of the remaining mutts staying away, even as a couple of swamijis including the Pejawar seer ended the three-day hunger fast on the afternoon of that day, the media went to town describing the event as historic, and as a victory for the dogged Puttige swamiji.

But in reality it was not so. The Puttige swamiji has not been able to touch the idol, which was the bone of contention, and has been performing the pooja from a distance, with some colleague-seers pitching in to help him out in the performance of the duty. But you don’t hear too much of that in the media, do you?

The media has never been known to admit that it has tripped. Undeterred, it has now turned its spotlight on the efforts to bring about a written code of conduct among the swamijis. The outcome of such efforts has hardly any bearing on the people visiting the temple-town. But the media remains unwavering in its pursuit of one more headline.

Also read: Should swamijis go abroad?


What does your choice of font say about you?

Handwriting experts decipher personalities by looking at signatures. The Boston Globe looks at the choice of fonts chosen by the American presidential candidates to decode what it says about them.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: “far from fresh… it projects recycled establishment. The type has a tired feeling.”

Barack Obama: “contemporary, fresh, very polished and professional…. Young and cool. Clearly not the old standards of years past.”

Read the full article: What font says ‘change’?

‘The first casualty of a cosy deal is credibility’

The Times of India group’s decision to make strategic investments in mid-level companies, in return for guaranteed advertising and editorial exposure in the group’s publications and media vehicles, through the quaintly named “Private Treaties“, has had several other media houses following suit.

Hindustan Times is said to be well on its way to establishing a similar division. Television majors like NDTV and CNBC are following suit. And as if to show that language publications are not lagging behind, influential Hindi groups like Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran are also off the blocks.

SALIL TRIPATHI, the London-based journalist, formerly with India Today and The Indian Post, and whose work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Far Eastern Economic Review, and International Herald Tribune, among other publications, writes of the damage these wheels-within-wheels deals cause.



Most serious and professional newspapers recognize the need to separate editorial and advertising. The Wall Street Journal goes further, separating fact and opinion. So do other major US newspapers, but WSJ‘s distinctness stems from separate management structures for both.

At the convention of the South Asian Journalists’ Association (SAJA), New York Times editor Bill Keller said that the management structure of the edit page and news pages at the NYT, too, were separate. Which is how it should be, but all newspapers don’t have the luxury of such a roster of writers and management structures.

When editorial and advertising blend, the first casualty is credibility. A reader simply cannot know if a particular company, product, or an idea being promoted is because there’s a mass base of support for it, or because some experts like it, or is it because of financial considerations.

The Times of India‘s new business concept, Private Treaties, is audacious, innovative, and breathtaking. And incredibly underwhelming. It trades advertising for equity in companies.

As described in its poorly-designed, shoddily-edited, and jargon-filled website, it creates intangible value for companies in which the TOI group has a stake, by highlighting its intangible qualities, through the medium of TOI‘s publications.

If all that it means is a promotion restricted to discounted rates for advertising in the TOI, that would be simple enough, and acceptable to most purists in journalism. But with the Times you are never sure. In the past, it has encouraged its reporters to go on junkets to tourist resorts, and not always revealed the nature of the hospitality received.

When the Times group has launched its own businesses such as music, entertainment and so on, using prominent Indian performers, the newspaper’s page 1 has to give way to stories about that event, as though it is the most talked about event in town, if not the only event in town.

I recall in the mid-1990s, there were days of reporting on a modern ballet called Yes!, being staged under the choreography of my classmate from college in Bombay, the gifted dancer Shiamak Davar. The editor-in-chief would call senior Times editors to get hold of writers who’d say nice things about Yes!

A tax raid on TOI‘s owners in the 1980s got barely a mention in the newspaper.

When things got tough, the Jain family’s tax battles with the Indian government were cast as a human rights issue. A writer on the TOI edit page went on a junket with a European pharmaceutical company, and wrote an edit page piece extolling the medicine. Nothing wrong with a story about health on the TOI‘s edit page, but something was rotten in the state of Bori Bunder, if such a story appeared out of the blue, and no rival brand got similar coverage, or even comparison in that piece.

Then, the Times went the whole hog, with features like Impact and Spotlight, when news articles appeared on news pages, which were essentially advertisements.

When a plucky blog, Mediaah! ridiculed some of the practices at the Old Lady of Bori Bunder, the Times‘s legal eagles threatened to sue the website. Pradyuman Maheshwari, the spirited journalist who kept it going, decided to close shop. It is, therefore, refreshing to see Times‘s Gautam Adhikari writing that his paper believes in publish-and-be-damned liberalism.

It is against this background that the Private Treaties are highly suspect.

However much the Times might claim that it keeps editorial and advertising separate – when we know that’s not really the case—there will be an impact. A reporter chasing a story against a company in which the Times group has an equity stake will feel obliged to go softly. A reporter chasing a scandal involving a film star whose music is marketed by the Times group, will view the release of the CD differently.

It is so obvious, that it does not even need stating.

A property scandal, or a scam, involving a company that advertises in the newspaper may be problematic for some editors; how much more complicated it can get when the Times group has an equity stake in that company? And wouldn’t the negative story drive down the value of the investment?

There are sound reasons why across the world, editors try to keep editorial and advertising separate, to enhance the credibility of the editorial matter. When I worked with a US-owned magazine (Far Eastern Economic Review) and wrote an extensive piece on conflict of interest within some leading US investment banks, even though those banks were prominent advertisers in my magazine, at no stage did any editor tell me to go easy on that story.

At the Dow Jones group, reporters cannot own stocks in companies they write about. Other major US papers have similar codes.

In my reporting days in Bombay in the 1980s, I’ve seen, with great dismay, financial reporters of several leading Indian dailies rushing out of a press conference where a company has declared its results, to make phone calls to their brokers to buy or sell shares (there were no cell phones then).

Mint, the new business daily launched by the Hindustan Times group, has transparently placed its code of conduct on the web. It also recently declared to its readers how it would publish advertorials, and how they would be distinct from edit pages, and how edit staff would not be involved in preparing them. (The International Herald Tribune and other American publications do likewise).

Unless the Times institutes similar safeguards, it would seem that Private Treaties marks another step in the journey the Times—“the leader [that] guards the reader”—has taken, transforming the nature of journalism.

In the late 1980s, the Times group had begun distributing promotional products in a plastic bag, together with the magazine, Illustrated Weekly of India, which the Times used to publish. We used to throw those products away, preferring to read the magazine. Now the magazine is gone; the toothpaste remains.

Hopefully, the Times, in its drive to enhance the value of companies it invests in through this innovative mechanism, will also attach some value to its readers.

Disclosure: I write frequently for Mint, and the Wall Street Journal‘s international editions; often for the International Herald Tribune, and on rare occasions for the Times of India. But this is not a case of sour grapes.

Photograph: courtesy

Also read: SUCHETA DALAL: Forget the news, you can’t trust the ads either

Change when you are on top, not at the bottom

La Vanguardia, the leading quality newspaper in Spain, has had a fine year after it “changed without changing.”

In 2006, Innovation International Media made several recommendations on how to go about the change. Juan Antonio Giner, the founder-director of Innovation, lists the lessons learned from the exercise.

1) Change when you are a leader

2) Don’t rush

3) Lead the change from the top

4) Involve all your staff

6) Don’t change what doesn’t need to be changed

8) Devote more space to new issues

9) Go full colour, but don’t make the paper look like a comic

12, 13, 14) Improve and expand your infographics, foreign news, columns,

16) Don’t downgrade your content

18) Fight for your city

19) Improve the reporting, reporting, reporting, and editing, editing, editing of your newspaper

Read the full article: Good news from La Vanguardia

Why Rajdeep and Barkha must decline Padma Shri

ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from Madras: Now that CNN-IBN’s editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai and NDTV’s managing editor Barkha Dutt have become the first television journalists in the history of independent India to get the Padma awards, they must do three things.

1) They must revel in the high honour. They must thank everybody including the viewers who silently saluted their successes and withstood their excesses, and not forget to include Prannoy Roy in their prayers.

2) They must send thank-you SMSes to friends and admirers who have been greeting them, send sweets to their guests and interviewees, and thank their colleagues and employees.

3) And, thirdly, then they must call up Rashtrapati Bhavan and politely decline the Padma Shri: “Thank you for recognising us. We mean no disrespect to the honour or to the other awardees, but we have to say no.”

Make no mistake. The Padma Shri is not be sniffed at. It’s the nation’s fourth highest civilian award. For Rajdeep to get it at 43, and for Barkha to get it at 37 making her “the youngest journalist to receive it,” as her channel has been crowing since last night, is a significant feat in their very fine, individual careers, whether you like them and their channels.Or not.

But they must still say no.

Reason No. 1: They must say no, because working journalists who are still at the peak of their careers must decline any kind of honour from the government of the day. Yes, the Padma Shri comes in the name of the President, but it is the government which tells her who she should give it to.

Rajdeep and Barkha may argue that the Padma Shri is not a freebie, that scores of print journalists, many of whose contributions are a mystery even to this day, have walked away unquestioned. So, why should we decline? Answer: to stray off the beaten print path, set a TV trend, and tell the government that journalists are only doing a job.

Journalists are not hermits. But if they must accept prizes, awards, and honours, it must be from professional organisations, not from the government. And if they must accept it from the government, it must be after they have hung up their hair blowers, and are no longer in positions of power as journalists.

A bit like Vinod Dua, the third television recipient to get the honour this year.

Reason No. 2: Both CNN-IBN and NDTV have borne the brunt of a relentless attack from the BJP and the rest of the right wing, who have parodied the alleged pseudo-secularism of the channels. The attack has been petty, baseless and has usually come from those who have no understanding of the true role of journalism and journalists.

Rajdeep and Barkha must say no not to spite the saffron brotherhood but to show that they were not hankering after awards while reporting what they did.

The Padma Shri comes from the Congress-led UPA government in its final if not penultimate year in office. What the honour does is to expose them and their channels to the unfair charge of being recipients of the largesse of an outgoing “pseudo-secular” government.

You can very well imagine the shouting brigade of the lunatic fringe dining on this crumb for days and months to come, especially in an election year.

Neither Rajdeep Sardesai nor Barkha Dutt can prefix their names with Padma Shri, but even if they could, they are better off declining it. Since both are television people, they will realise the TRPs that the heroic act of saying no will fetch them not just in tonight’s bulletins but for a long time to come in the eyes of the viewers.

Photographs: courtesy Indian Embassy, Greece; CNN-IBN

Cross-posted on churumuri

Padma Shri VD, Padma Shri RDS, Padma Shri BD

Three Indian television journalists have been included in this Republic Day honours’ list, marking a coming of age of the medium in a country where print journalists have traditionally hogged the limelight.

Independent television consultant Vinod Dua, CNN-IBN founder and editor-in-chief Rajdeep Dilip Sardesai, and NDTV managing director Barkha Dutt are among the 71 awardees being decorated this year with the nation’s fourth highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri.

If our reporters are sloppy, what about theirs?

PRITHVI DATTA CHANDRA SHOBHI writes from Oakland: Each time a foreign correspondent moves to Jorbagh and begins her South Asia Bureau chiefdom, the West rediscovers the essence(s) of India.

If caste and Hinduism were the old Orientalist inventions, as time has gone included into that list are some new ones: Bollywood, cricket, Taj Mahal, IT, chaotic traffic, elections and a functioning democracy.

Hegel would have been proud.

The Washington Post‘s Emily Wax returns to caste and untouchability today, in two companion stories. The first story “Iron Castes” focuses on caste discrimination, educational opportunities and upward mobility for lower castes. The second story is on Kancha Ilaiah’s new illustrated story book on caste discrimination. While there are no obvious factual inaccuracies, look at her narrative and the sloppiness in the narration.

So let us look at the human interest hook in the first story:

A lower caste boy wants to study but has to wash dishes at a restaurant, where his boss would tie him to a radiator at night. Of course, the boy couldn’t escape his destiny, until a foreigner rescued and turned him into “a star pupil with a voracious and ever-changing appetite for activities including yoga, photography and film directing.”

“His (Ramu’s) school, Ramana’s Garden, is just one of many progressive, mostly private institutions that have begun trying to dismantle the barriers of India’s caste system, a centuries-old pecking order under which higher castes have access to quality schools and jobs and lower castes remain largely poor and illiterate.”

Now, I am not sure how to understand this sentence.

How is time understood in the present continuous tense usage ‘trying’? Has this been happening in the last year or decade or century? Has caste too remained the same? Is there class based discrimination, in addition to caste discrimination? Moreover, have only been progressive private schools (largely funded by the Post reading westerners) been at the forefront of social change? How about government schools, colleges and universities? How is this story representative of what has happened and is happening allover India?

Questions that rarely get answered. Not doing nuances is a new national pastime.

Anyway, the story has a happy ending. Ramu now even begun his own business: selling postcards of photographs he has taken!

Sloppiness continues in the second story too.

“It has been called essential reading for every Indian child, a lively illustrated storybook aimed at raising youthful awareness of the injustices of the country’s caste system, much as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” exposed the indignities of slavery to white America.

“Kancha Ilaiah hopes his book, “Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land: Dignity of Labour in Our Times,” will change the way young people see farmhands, barbers, leather workers and others whose jobs are viewed with disgust by upper castes. The social activists who have lauded the book hope so, too.”

I tried to figure out how these two sentences are related to each other but couldn’t. Wax’s misleading comparison to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is undermined by Ilaiah’s hope, which is to uphold the dignity of labor, as opposed to indignities suffered by lower caste artisans.

Also, who has called it essential reading? Who are the social activists? Why not name them? Others too

I have no interest in doing Washington Post copy editing. Also, others, including Indian born journalists working for western newspapers and news bureaus, are guilty of such sloppiness. Anyone who has read Somini Sengupta in the New York Times will know what I refer to here.

Recently, Dileep Premachandran wrote a provocative and somewhat critical Guardian blog posting on the extreme and one sided response by the Indian media. But the title “India: where truth is up for grabs” didn’t make any sense at all. The headline undermines his argument by characterizing India as subscribing to a less than absolute notion of truth.

Worse, he seems to be suggesting India actually cedes truth to those who make a play to grab it and are powerful enough to pull off such a trick. It doesn’t take much effort to point out the hypocrisy of Indians, but clearly Dileep is belaboring that point way too much.