On Matters That Matter

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

Is It Just The Front Page That Has Died!

with 3 comments

I read a dirge by famous columnist Vir Sanghvi—in a blog he maintains for hindustantimes.com—on the death of the front page over the last year or so. As a consumer of more than half a dozen newspapers I can also vouch for receiving some dead bodies on a daily basis. And here I mean not just the front page but that part of the bundle that goes to the heap in the storeroom with every crease in tact.

I buy different newspapers for different reasons and despite the recession some of them are part of an old habit while some of them are just for my neighbours to know that a journalist lives here and, therefore, buys more newspapers and magazines; never mind the fact that the world and he himself is recession hit.

This post is also an elegy, though the scope here is vast and encompasses much more than just the front page and tries to sniff if behind the death of the front page is the debris of the strongest pillar of the fourth estate; the institution of the editor. I don’t have extensive factual basis for such a nauseating inkling but then it has been that kind of a year where I am finding it difficult to believe that the six-letter title of ‘editor’ automatically means some simple ‘virtues’ like transparency, ethics, a basic minimum honesty, the competence to gauge the merit of a story and the most important quality to know what to do when confronted with an ethical dilemma.

“The newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation, must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free but facts are sacred.”—C.P. Scott, Editor, Manchester Guardian, May 6, 1926.

This is a time when the newspapers are competing with quality material that readers have access to much before the broadsheet comes out and that number is going to go up with the broadband coming, the economy growing, and the literacy rate climbing up. Quality is going to live and no matter where it is the interested reader will get to it.

That does not in any way mean that the bullshit is going to go away because a lot of people don’t know the difference and a lot of journalists cater to that market because they don’t know what else to do themselves; so all of it lives side by side. I have had some classic interactions over the years with the relatively-new as well as the senior old hands to have a decent first-hand experience of journalistic ‘copelessness’. The details are both horrifying and hilarious and some of them have even been on official channels; it is at best a subject for a book and not a long post.

The average marketing professional has his logic: “We’ve come up with a study that the market loves bullshit and we don’t understand why you can’t give more of it.” A story I read in livemint.com by Aakar Patel explores whether India’s high-growth can continue and says, “Nine half-literates are produced by our colleges, by Nasscom’s numbers, for every graduate of passable quality.” Mathematically then there has to be a probability for these semi-literates finding a way to the newsrooms. And also some probability of heading the newsroom. Also if there is just one literate for every nine semi-literates; it would be quite unsuccessful to cater to just 10 per cent of the population that is of passable quality.

So I come to my morning bundle and the Hindustan Times is the first paper I see on Sundays for the columnists I follow; on other days I look at its design and then go elsewhere to find something to read. I take The Indian Express for news as their reportage is excellent. The Times of India to see the pace and the direction that the market-leader is setting. The Economic Times for clean good copy that one can learn from and for some of their international business coverage that is unlikely to be found in any other paper. Last Saturday I took my first Crest and it was a pleasure; the edition was miles ahead of what any paper had on Tendulkar completing 20 years of international cricket. Three more daily papers that do not deserve mentioning serve some purpose or the other in my house.

When columnist Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe was forced out in June 1998 after having been found to have made up quotes, Andrew Marshall of the British newspaper The Independent had a go at his American peers in an article on June 23, 1998.

“British journalists have been smirking at two high-profile scandals involving two of their American peers who made up quotes and events in articles for two highly-respected publications. No, that sentence will not do. Since we are writing on the subject of journalistic accuracy, let’s be spot on. British journalists have been laughing hysterically, slapping their thighs and fighting desperately to retain bladder control. ‘We have long suspected that all this fact checking stuff was a charade,’ said a source close to me yesterday. ‘And now we know.’”

It is quite natural to think that lapses in journalistic accuracy would cause some major concern to our editors as well. And to point them out would not be considered as tantamount to being ‘the enemy of the fourth estate’ in India. As a journalist it is very heartening to know via the Medium Term that the heart of the Chairperson of a large newspaper house of the country is tilted positively towards the editorial aspect of the business. What is disheartening is that the hearts and minds of ‘some of the people’ responsible for editorial quality and journalistic ethics in the same newspaper house are not in their jobs. I’ll spare you the details but don’t be disappointed they will come up in the static pages once I have learnt how to organise the sub-folders.

On Saturday, though, the Hindustan Times did an exceptional bit of investigative journalism on a front page top box with a wonderful picture of Tendulkar under a good headline ‘The everlasting run machine’. I should not have been reading it as it was not a Sunday but I did; and so I found out.

“30,065 Runs scored in international cricket in both forms of the game (Tests and ODIs), the highest by any batsman. Ricky Ponting, again at second place has 24,057.” The numbers are wrong in both the cases; by 10 runs for Tendulkar and by 401 runs for Ponting. The sum total actually is in all three forms of international cricket where Tendulkar has played just one T20 international and scored 10 runs while Ponting has played 17 matches and 16 innings for his 401 runs. Although it is a very complicated error to achieve; it is understandable that this could have happened due to lack of communication.

Lets gear up for the investigative part now. “43 Centuries scored in Tests, the most by any batsman. Ricky Ponting of Australia comes second with 39.” This is an open insult in a country where cricket is a national obsession and the gap between the Little Master and the Tasmanian called Punter a subject of everyday discussions. Ponting scored his 38th Test hundred in the first Ashes Test of 2009 played in Cardiff beginning 8th July and did not manage a three figure score in the rest of the series. Who knows where he was caught scoring his 39th Test century after the series was won 2-1 by England and I signed off writing a post titled ‘A Sad Ashen Pundit’ after HT signed off with ‘A Sad Ashen Look’?

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3 Responses

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  1. Good post! I read that blog on HT as well. With the power of the internet the average layman, if he has some common sense & inclincation, can verify most news items on Google! A simple search on Cricinfo would have helped the author who wrote that article on HT! But they don’t care, because a lot of us still buy these newspapers nevertheless.
    I would think & hope the news papers will last the distance, but at some stage intelligent readers will start demanding more credibility from lame journalists. That probably applies even more to news media, but that’s a different topic!

    Cheers!
    Vasu

    Vasu

    November 25, 2009 at 1:49 am

    • Thanks for your comment Vasu. I don’t think there was an author as this was more of a picture cum graphic. I think the search may have been done on Wikipedia where even I saw the number ascribed as 39 and Cricinfo would have helped had it been consulted. Errors happen in all newsrooms and the only difference is that some publications strive to eliminate them while some of them are too indolent to care about what pap they publish. Lame journalism as you rightly pointed out.

      Deepan Joshi

      November 26, 2009 at 12:35 am

  2. A very well-written piece on a profession that I practiced for two decades before moving on. This line in your blog is telling: “That does not in any way mean that the bullshit is going to go away because a lot of people don’t know the difference.”
    I often say this to my college-going son: “If you don’t know, you can still learn. But what happens if you don’t know that you don’t know.”

    Uday Khandeparkar

    December 3, 2009 at 1:13 pm


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