India’s Shame

Pakistan’s military, Naxal insurgents, inequality, terrorism… these are not the biggest threats to India today, ignorance is.  We all know it: the Times of India is a perversion of journalism.  The problem is that everyone is afraid to say it.  Where is the inter-industry accountability like we saw with ABC News over the Benghazi “scandal?”  For me, recent events were the last straw.  Several blogs and newspapers I shopped this to were too weak to publish it, so I am resorting to my own blog.  It is sad that media can no longer confidently represent the interests of the public…

To the Times of India (TOI),

For the last six years I have been a follower of your newspaper.  Since I first came to India in 2007 to study at St. Stephen’s College until the present, I have read your newspaper with differing intervals of frequency.  I have done this because I have to, not because I want to.  For years, I have used your newspaper as the scapegoat for what is wrong with the media in India and would joke that, instead of a crossword, taking a red pen to your pages is a better way to pass time.  But your failure is no longer a cute quip or a way to engage with people’s emotions about how to make India better.  Your newspaper is actively hurting India’s democracy and should be stopped.

A few weeks ago, I read an article that your newspaper posted under the heading of “Entertainment” – the suicide letter that Jiah Khan wrote to Suraj Pancholi.  Further reading tells me that the mother found the letter in Ms. Khan’s things, meaning she had not sent it or desired to make it public.  Maybe she expected it to be found, but I will not try to understand her motives.  That is not the point.  What is important here is the editorial standards that would allow you to consider publishing the letter.  Or revealing the name of the Delhi rape victim.  Or all the other transgressions I have born witness to over the years.  Let’s not go through some Harvard-style intellectual breakdown of why you violate all of the tenets of journalistic ethics, let’s take this one to the people’s court: Wikipedia.

Four basic principles of editorial ethics are mentioned on Wikipedia, which I think is a fantastic source for an exercise like this because it is edited by everyone and is a collective understanding of what ethics should be, rather than using one industry body or another.  Here are the principles: Accuracy and standards for factual reporting, slander and libel considerations, harm limitation principle, and presentation.  For the first one, it is common knowledge that you build your content on a foundation of paid opinions and advertising disguised as reportage.  But “common knowledge” is like citing “experts” – who are these ivory tower inhabiting geniuses?  I have it on more than two reliable personal sources who have worked with or at TOI that stories are regularly paid for.  Where is your ombudsman?  Do you have one?  In the 2012 New Yorker article “Citizens Jain” by Ken Auletta, you admit that you will not give your readers complete information unless a brand or company named in the piece pays you.  You are “not in the newspaper business, we [The Jain Brothers (owners of TOI)] are in the advertising business.”  That is fine to say, but responsible publishing means you should call a spade a spade; you are not selling editorial content mixed with ads, you are selling a bastardization of the two.  That is not “thinking outside the box,” as you so originally put it in that same article, that is mislabeling the box and selling a false and dangerous product.  For such an enthusiastic purveyor of advertising, “false advertising” is a crime you are no doubt familiar with but choose to ignore when it comes to your own goods.

With regard to “slander and libel,” the current suicide letter is on the top of a tall pile of examples, but let us focus on this most recent infraction.  If I were Mr. Pancholi, my hands would be covered in ink from how furiously I would be penning a libel lawsuit.  I know, we all now think that he is the bad guy who caused the unfortunate death of Ms. Khan, but the truth is that none of us know the truth.  We do not know the details of their private relationship.  This letter is a circumstantial piece of writing coming from a woman so distraught with emotion that she took her own life.  My intent here is not to disrespect the deceased, or insinuate that her point of view is wrong – we just do not know.  In fact, one of Mr. Pancholi’s other girlfriends recently spoke out in his defense.  It is the responsibility of law enforcement and the justice system to determine the facts of this case and produce a verdict.  Yet, by TOI’s system of justice, Mr. Pancholi has already been tried, found guilty, and publicly executed.

For “harm limitation,” let’s just go down the list.  Under Wikipedia’s heading of the “harm limitation principle,” here are the subpoints:

Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Nope

Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief. No again.

Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance. No again (and I did not add the second sentence).

Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy. Granted, both involved are celebrities.  On this one front TOI is fine to be more revealing, as long as that information does not break every other standard on this list.

Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. Ugh, this is TOI’s DNA.  Guilty.  I am sensing a pattern…

Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes. Not relevant in this case but Delhi rape victim?  Guilty again.

Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges. Mr. Pancholi has been detained for questioning, but TOI’s publication of the suicide note happened before this and before any charges were filed, since none have been filed yet.

Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed. Were not to the point of a trial, so currently not relevant.

Finally, the last item on “The People’s List” is Presentation, or the style of English and correct use of language plus clarity and appropriate brevity.  As I stated earlier, the volume of errors in usage, style, punctuation, tense, and so on is mind numbing when reading TOI.  But in a model where only the number of eyes reading the paper or clicks on the website matter, who cares how the various words are connected?  As long as those words were paid for or are a sponsored brand name or beget more eyes and clicks.  Quality is not something I have ever observed as an obvious standard in your newspaper.

But here is the real problem and why I feel so compelled to write this letter now, after all this tolerating that I have endured.  With an election approaching, I truly feel that a publication like TOI masquerading as journalism could seriously harm India’s democracy.  Sensationalism as the guiding principle is not one that leads to better institutions, just more glittery ones.  Politicians, government bodies, companies, individuals… all they need to do is don a cloak that prints well in color ink on page 3 to get attention and support or avoid scrutiny.  I do not need to explain why journalism and media are such critical components of a healthy democracy… but, wait… actually I might have to.  That is the most depressing revelation here.  TOI is the highest circulating English daily in the world – this may be the greatest mark of shame on modern India.  Poverty, hunger, illiteracy, corruption: while shameful, these are large forces that require time and healthy institutions to solve.  Enormous circulation numbers for a glorified gossip column is the reflection of a daily choice by those with agency to make that choice.  That Indians allow themselves to be hoodwinked into buying this publication and using it to inform themselves is a travesty.  With this trend in place, the next Prime Minister of India will be the result of a popularity contest, not a popular vote.  That subtle difference in wording is critical and it is something you certainly would not read in TOI.

You may have noticed that I have shifted my subject to now be addressing the reader, rather than TOI, just like how Ms. Khan wrote her letter to address Mr. Pancholi (or no one) and ended up addressing the world.  I recently wrote a piece decrying Indian liberal arts education and my biggest regret with that piece was that it ended with a flimsy call to action.  “Feel guilty and go fix this” was what I said to readers – as the critic, I did not offer a solution.  That is different here.

I have been working for the past three years to create a digital publication of merit, but two years post-pilot I have yet to find investors willing to back the project.  I get enthusiastic head nods when I say that all of India’s publications are owned by large industrial houses, presenting an enormous conflict of interest, and I get laughs and I-know-exactly-what-you-mean’s when I describe the ABCD’s of Indian media: Astrology, Bollywood, Cricket, and Devotional.  It is not because of lack of interest in the idea by potential investors or a problem with our proposal (we have an A-list team) or lack of potential to make money, it really comes down to “Will anyone here really give a shit?”  That’s what one potential investor said to me.

We were sitting at the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai next to the swimming pool eating sandwiches and I was describing my vision for Dabba (my media company) and the main concern was whether anyone would read what we wrote or watch our videos or download our app.  “All India cares about is Chetan Bhagat – the demand for substance and good writing is gone.”  He said.  Inside, I knew he was wrong.  I fundamentally believe that there is an audience for real journalism and I pointed to Tehelka and The Caravan, two publications I love, as examples. “Tehelka has rich friends supporting it and The Caravan is backed by a wealthy publishing house.  They have niche audiences.”  Whether this is completely true or not, this was his belief.  I was stumped.  I took a bite of my sandwich and chewed for a minute on the food and what I should say.  I could tell that he agreed with me on the need – the social need – for something like Dabba, but he had defeat in his tone.

“That is the most depressing view of India I have ever heard.” I said to him, hoping that by throwing some guilt at him for such a bearish view of India’s intellectual demand from journalism, he would back down a little on his own and realize he was being too drastic.

“I know.” He said with a sigh. As if to say “No guilt, this is just the way it is.”

The Times of India, then, is really just a mirror of what Indians demand from their media and, by extension, from their public and private institutions.  Would I take corruption seriously if I were a politician and saw that my country’s newspaper of record was a farce?  Would I think twice about pilfering money if I knew that investigative journalism was a tattered banner and no one would fact-check my actions?  As consumers of news, we are sick and snoozing and we need to wake up.  Here is what I propose:

Boycott the Times of India.  Seriously, stop buying it.  Switch to another paper that does a better job.  This is an easy way for Indians to show en masse that we demand more.  Show your support for the boycott by going here and tell your friends to join in.

It is time to send a powerful message – to start a movement – one in favor of editorial standards and accountability to the public interest.  Because quality journalism is a key ingredient to democracy and ingredients need proper labeling, it is time to call the Times of India what it really is: a fraud.

6 thoughts on “India’s Shame

  1. I just dumped TOI last month and switched over to India Express and I could not express the reasons behind it better then you did here.

    These things have been going on in my mind since last few days and you know, I have been reading TOI since last 15 years but still could not see through it…

    I have been following your tweets also regularly and you are doing a great job. Keep up the Good work.

  2. Hi Richard, TOI like other news media outlets in India are plagued with low quality, biased and sensationalized journalism and plagiarism. The reason it has survived is because of a lack of unbiased journalistic news presentation and most Indians are unaware of the alternatives. I have always thought that India needs something similar to which NPR offers for the US. I hope you will be able to achieve it through “Dabba”.

  3. Some GREAT writing! I hope it will instill a movement for change. A true democracy is so dependent on relevant information, and only an informed mind can create these necessary changes.
    BRAVO!

  4. Recently I removed the times of India app from my phone mainly because of writing strange issues against a.kejriwal. I think even a 5 year old can recognise those articles were paid for to deface him.

  5. Over the last decade or so, TOI has become a tabloid of the worst variety. When the paper’s leadership equates selling newspapers to selling detergents, what else can one expect? I have stopped visiting TOI online. Indian Express is far better.

  6. well, if you go to any above mid level higher education institute in India, you will realize that no one actually reads TOI for absorbing info, it is just a spicy cheaper alternative ”to pass spare time” (so to say) You do not need to go to a place with leftist atmosphere like JNU to realize that students mostly praise The Hindu for its journalistic standards while at the same time also pointing out that they find it dull (at times) for daily reading. Don’t take TOI seriously and readers lightly.

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