Kashmir – A filtered reality presented to us

“The first thing a man will do for his ideal is lie.” – Joseph Alois Schumpeter

About two and a half decades ago, in the pre-internet era, when the agitation for the Ram temple at Ayodhya was at its peak, there were numerous eminent journalists informing the readers of major newspapers that the case for the construction of the temple was laughable. The reason provided was that since Ram was assumed to be a mythical figure, the existence of a temple buried under the existing mosque at the disputed site was out of the question. But when the site was dug up, incontrovertible evidence of a pre-existing temple was unearthed.

So, what did the historians who were advising the government on the matter do? They simply suppressed these facts and behaved as if they’d never encountered any such evidence, till the bluff was called out a few years later.

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But regardless of the unscrupulous behaviour by the historians, the intellectuals who wrote about the affair never bothered to check for hard facts or even the opinions of the people on the other side of the ideological divide and therefore, did their bit to strangle the truth.

Let’s fast forward to 2016. The news stories coming in from Kashmir over the last few days have been distressing and not just because they are stories of violence and bloodshed. One of the things that many people have been struggling to come to terms with is the tone, tenor and content of the reportage and the way in which prominent journalists have been freely preaching their rather ill-informed personal takes on what may arguably be the most complex geopolitical problem in the world today. As we shall see, in doing so, they tell us more about themselves than they do about the ground situation.

Headline in Bangalore Mirror

Journalism is a delicate job. It takes considerable skill and rigorous training to be able to report a version of events that is as close to reality as possible. But equally, if not more, tricky is medicine or engineering, where a minor shake of the surgeon’s hand or a slight miscalculation by the engineer makes all the difference between life and death. However, the error by a doctor or engineer does not go unnoticed and is often paid for heavily by the individuals in question, while the same is not true for those in the business of reporting and opinion-making. In other words, doctors and engineers have their skin in the game and journalists don’t. Eric Hoffer wrote in 1979:

One of the surprising privileges of intellectuals is that they are free to be scandalously asinine without harming their reputation. The intellectuals who idolized Stalin while he was purging millions and stifling the least stirring of freedom have not been discredited. They are still holding forth on every topic under the sun and are listened to with deference. Sartre returned in 1939 from Germany, where he studied philosophy, and told the world that there was little to choose between Hitler’s Germany and France. Yet Sartre went on to become an intellectual pope revered by the educated in every land. [1]

What is common between the columnists writing about the Ram temple affair, journalists reporting on Kashmir and Jean Paul Sartre speaking about Hitler’s Germany, other than all of them being in the wrong, is that they believe that it is their moral responsibility to pontificate about things they have little idea about. It must be remembered that reporting from ground zero does not relieve the reporter of the responsibility of understanding the nature, history and genesis of the conflict being reported. In the absence of such an understanding, even the most honest endeavour to report would be heavily influenced by the reporter’s peculiar notions, biases and prejudices. In short, the final presentation of facts would be forced to fit the ideology that they subscribe to and truth would be the first scapegoat in their endeavour to preserve and propagate their ideal.

A very common response to the distorted narratives spun by prominent journalists is name calling and labelling them as paid agents of someone or the other. Unfortunately, such a response has two serious flaws. One, all sides of the ideological spectrum accuse the media of favouring their opponents and two, criticism of this kind severely limits our understanding of the problem and doesn’t help us get better at detecting such spins, which are, in fact, the staple component of what we call news. Instead, we must get better at understanding the psychological forces at work that drive journalists to take liberties with truth or at best, not see the truth where most honest people would find it. [2]

Selective samples

While reporting from ground zero, the role of the journalist is to synthesize an intelligible description of the events being reported from all the relevant data collected by them. But sometimes the data points to a reality that they fail to explain within the constraints imposed by their worldview. The only way in which they can fulfil their role of being the superior intellectuals that they think they are, is by selectively using data and building their argument around a small subset of the total available data.

Rahul
Rahul Kanwal’s tweet

In the above tweet, Rahul Kanwal demonstrates how one can explain away the most complex problems in the world, such as widespread acceptance of terrorism by a certain section of society, by transforming it into an economic problem. Ingenious as it may sound, the theory fails to explain why the youth from other states of India, faring worse in employment record, haven’t picked up guns. Nor does it seem able to explain the difference in the levels of anger in the youth from other parts of the same state like Ladakh and Jammu. Further it completely fails to take cognisance of the viciously circular relationship between violence in a region and its economic prosperity. Sadly for him, even the so-called separatists have clearly said the issue is not about jobs or economic development

Suppressing facts

Sometimes journalists come across very harsh facts of life that grossly violate the ideal that made them choose their line of work in the first place, for instance, the propagation of a vision in which people of different religions co-exist peacefully as “one big happy family”.

Rajdeep
Rajdeep Sardesai

In this tweet, Rajdeep Sardesai is unabashedly declaring that if it were left to him, he would report stories of ‘human bonding’ and leave out evidence that points to the contrary, which in the case of Kashmir is overwhelming. What this results in is an obviously rosy narrative that is forced upon Rajdeep’s four million followers on twitter. What it does to their political understanding is anybody’s guess.

Fictitious people

Everyone is aware of the incessant media campaign against Narendra Modi in the decade following the Gujarat riots. This is perhaps the most glaring example of creating fictitious people in the recent political history of India. This is similar, in design, but opposite, in effect, to how the communist propaganda machinery of North Korea creates a hero out of a tyrant in their supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.

Barkha
Barkha Dutt’s tweet

Above is a soft attempt at creating a fictitious victim out of a real terrorist. By filling this nugget with irrelevant information about the profession of his father, Barkha Dutt is subtly influencing her four million followers into cutting some moral slack for the slain terrorist. In an unbiased account, the family of a killed criminal, no matter how distressed by the loss of their kin, would never figure in the headline (or a tweet) simply because it is not important for the reader to know his personal background. If twitter allowed more than 140 characters, Barkha would’ve probably also informed us of Wani’s favourite sports team and the brand of Jeans he preferred to wear.

Verbal cleansing

As journalists are trained to be good with words, they tend to use this skill to influence society into conforming to their vision of how the world must be, even when this compromises their legitimate but inglorious role in society of honestly informing the public about what’s going on in the world around them. In the service of this endeavour to influence society, they discard words that have acquired a certain negative connotation over time and sneak in other words to replace them in common parlance. In the context of Kashmir, by calling hardcore terrorists like Yasin Malik and Farooq Ahmed Daar aka Bitta Karate as ‘separatists’, the media has slowly helped them transform from dreaded names of terror into sought-after political commentators. The very first picture in this article from Bangalore Mirror is another example of this ploy.

Objectivity vs Impartiality

No individual can claim absolute objectivity in their personal views and yet when engaged in a scientific pursuit, the ‘rules of procedure’ preclude the possibility of ideologically conditioned error in an analysis. Not so with journalism, where no such rules are ever made or followed. As a result, journalists in their attempt to pass off ideological judgement as fact, often seek refuge in the argument of subjectivity. This narrative is further strengthened by intellectual fads like post-modernism that profess that everything around us is a social construct and that there is no objective reality.

NL
A story on Newslaundry.com

The author of the above piece examines all stories from Kashmir and then draws a contrast between the treatment of the subject in the national and local press. Thus she proves that the local press is much more humane in its treatment of the street violence as the reports they carry mention names of people as opposed to mere numbers reported in national media. A distinction is drawn between their reality and ours by subtle appeals to subjectivity. Although the author conducts meticulous analysis to reaffirm her hypothesis, she spends no time to discuss why such a difference is there in the first place, leaving the reader wondering about the need for such a dreary analysis to arrive at what most people would consider common sense.

Also, it is interesting to note that the author or the outlet showered no such praise for the local media of Uttar Pradesh when their reports from Kairana (as shown in the pic below) clearly contradicted the narrative put out by the national media.

Kairana
The Kairana story

The reason is simple. Kashmir fits well with the ideology of ‘state vs minorities’ that they endorse and earn their bread promoting while Kairana is an inconvenient aberration that must not be given too much attention. If only impartiality was as actively endorsed in journalism schools as media activism.

Conclusion

With the awareness of the above-mentioned reality filters that journalists freely employ, it would be easier for the reader to systematically look for them in all stories they watch and tweets they read. It can’t be said enough that name-calling and accusations of paid journalism, even if correct are not applicable to most of the reportage but the conflict between the reporter’s preferred ideology and empirical evidence on the ground influences every single word we read.  To arrive at a more dependable picture of reality, even when the mainstream media is the only available source of news, we must recognize these common filters and look for them before making up our mind about things.

 

References:

[1] Before the Sabbath – Eric Hoffer
[2] Intellectuals and Society – Thomas Sowell

Ashish Dhar, a Mechanical Engineer and an entrepreneur, lives in New Delhi. He is the co-founder of Pragyata, an e-learning portal dedicated to Indic knowledge systems.

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