As recently as at the turn of this century, a young colleague of mine, reporting from a remote village in Thane district, had a sensational story – a local Maulvi had issued a fatwa banning television in Muslim homes. Consequently, television sets were abandoned by the Muslim families, some outside their homes, others in the village dump.
The story was tickling enough for all newspapers to rush their reporters to the village. They found a television in every home,
none in any dump yard. When they visited the local police station, the senior inspector had the front-page report on his desk and an exasperated look on his face.
“You tell me where to find a single television set that has been abandoned. I searched all the dump-yards, I couldn’t find even one. And every family which possesses one is clinging to its television set. Moreover, we cannot find any mullah or maulvi who has issued such a fatwa!”
After half a day of investigation, both the cops and the reporters concluded the news was fake. When word of that got back to the editor of the newspaper that had published it, there was first a sense of disbelief, then growing conviction as the reporter brought in another manufactured story, then yet another whose facts did not stand scrutiny on cross verification.
Cross checking. That is the basic mantra of journalism that we were all taught at college. Do not believe just one source.
Multiple sources must confirm the facts before you deem them to be true and do not be in a hurry to put out a story not fully verified, we were told.
My young colleague was an exception at the time, like Janet Cooke, a Washington Post correspondent in the 1980s, who fabricated a story on a Black drug addict for which she won the Pulitzer. When other reporters failed to find that addict after she won the prize, she admitted she had made up the story. My young colleague though, remained in denial but his purpose was the same - to win accolades without ever having to work for it.
But both Janet Cooke and my colleague fabricated their stories for personal self-glorification and were individual aberrations who could be checked and corrected by more diligent editors.
However, what happened with a particular toxic television channel this week during a shootout at Jamia Milia Islamia was no aberration. The channel and its editor have made it a habit of misreporting, misrepresenting, misinterpreting and misinforming simply to poison the communal atmosphere and demonise the Muslim minorities of this country.
But what took the cake on Mahatma Gandhi's martyrdom day was that the channel threw all the basic principles of journalism– cross checking, reverification, cautious interpretation - to the winds and falsely identified the man who shot a student protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act as another protester out to get media attention.
When the man was identified for who he was, far from being apologetic, the senior editors at the channel blamed the protesters for bringing on the attack. A half retraction came much later but social media users captured the intransigence of the channel which continued with the falsehood for several hours after the establishment of the facts.
This was Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom day. Gandhiji was the biggest protestor of all times. Like his protests, these too were peaceful protesters causing no harm to anybody. Gandhiji never drew such retaliation by the mighty British, however much they may have been provoked by the sight of a stubborn man leading a march to the sea to break the law to make salt or even refuse to co-operate with their diktats whether in India or South Africa.
So, it is unforgivable for informed media houses to victimise the victims and lay the blame at the doors of innocent protesters.
However, this toxicity is not limited to this incident alone.
I have refrained from commenting on fellow journalists so far but I am increasingly beginning to realise they are no journalists but the stooges of a regime that is infusing more and more toxicity into the body politic of this country with each passing day. When a minister from a podium describes the protesters as traitors and calls for their shooting, (Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maro saalon ko), he should be acted swiftly against by the police and at least roundly condemned by the media.
Not doing so sends the wrong message to the people and brings about incidents like what happened at Jamia Islamia on January 30 and again on February 1, 2020.
I would go so far as to say that the failures of these journalists are not limited the processes of gathering news. Nor are they putting out fake or exaggerated reports merely in the interest of their self-glorification. It is deliberately aimed at vitiating the atmosphere in the country, victimising the other and reflects the biases and toxicity they themselves have been bred on over the years.
It pains me to think of how these channels are not just destroying the prospects of their reporters but also destroying the reasoning powers of their viewers.
An old neighbour who had been watching the channel in questions through the coverage of the shootout informed me very knowledgeably that radicalised protesters had now taken to guns and ought to be flushed out of their dens. When I informed her of his name, she at first refused to believe. “But it was on television,” she kept telling me as though that should have been the unquestioned gospel truth.
She was unhappy to learn the truth and I could see that despite her logical powers of conclusion she was willing to be persuaded otherwise. It explains to me why perfectly reasonable and educated people have begun to seem otherwise. My earliest editors had told us no matter what our biases, we would never make good journalists if we allowed the biases to take over our powers of reasoning and reporting the pure facts truthfully.
Today, most journalism in India has gone from being a mission to being about lies, falsehoods and untruthful interpretations.
The damage they are doing not just to the young generation of journalists but also large sections of people who believe them unquestioningly, is going to take a long time overcome.
I only hope the nation is not completely destroyed in the meantime.