Tehelka: Shoma's problem is her journalism of outrage

if you indulge in journalism of outrage, ensure that your tracks are not open, and keep in mind that your posturing will hunt you back. And that it will be a terrible sight.

G Pramod Kumar November 23, 2013 12:39:57 IST
Tehelka: Shoma's problem is her journalism of outrage

If Shoma Chaudhury is the one who took the biggest hit in the Tehelka sexual harassment scandal so far, it’s not only because her boss is hiding, but also because of the “journalism of outrage” that she has been posturing to practise.

When the same bleeding heart liberal, identifiable by her rhetorical sensitivity to an impossible range of issues, appeared to be a boorish woman who had no sense of law or human rights when faced with a scandal at home, it shocked and infuriated fellow journalists and others.

Tehelka Shomas problem is her journalism of outrage

Shoma Chaudhury

The person who always asked tough questions with a righteously outraged “tonality” sounded exactly like the people she had targeted as a journalist -- brusque, insensitive, contradictory and sometimes even incoherent, with responses to the same question changing overnight.

On Thursday and Friday, most of the commentators on TV slammed her more than they did Tejpal, who they thought will soon be in the police net. The discussants in social media, particularly on Twitter, were hard on her. And the reason for their anger was her apparent double standards - one for herself and the other for public consumption.

Repeated references to her as a champion of women’s rights and what she has done to defend Tejpal loudly played out on TV screens. And it was hard to ignore that she indeed had betrayed doubled standards.

The problem is not with Shoma alone, but all those who have been riding on the easy way of “journalism of outrage”, which should not be confused with investigative journalism as they practise in America. Investigative journalism is not shoving sting cameras on people.

Here, in its limited sense of the term, it’s journalism practised by expressing outrage.

It’s not investigation, but a practised exercise of theatrics - in your writing, in your editorial monologues in front of the camera. You don’t need to work hard mining data, spreadsheets or statistical softwares and analyse facts, but dish out emotions, clever phraseologies and percentage figures that are mostly whimsical approximations. You just need the optimum display of emotions and concern for the marginalised.

It’s a huge industry with an enormous international market of conferences, books, awards and annual reports. Many years ago, it was mainly the well-heeled NGO-activists from the third world countries such as India, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and many Latin American and African countries who made a virtue of this. Civil society activism was a standalone discipline and the same people circulated year after year.

But soon, journalists in these countries mastered how to mix this “activism” with what they reported or wrote. Thus was born a new breed of activist-journalists who were distinctively different from the “development journalists” of the 1980s. They claimed they had a certain politics (often Left or Left of Centre) and they believed in polemic.

They appeared to genuinely stand up for the never depreciating constituency of the marginalised, wearing multiple hats - that of reporters/writers, activists, commentators and even interlocutors. They started presenting papers, attending conferences and writing books that once would have boggled even trained development economists and specialists. With the international development market and the portfolio of causes and scholarships expanding, it was indeed a windfall for the new breed of activist-journalists.

This is where the expression of outrage became a heady ingredient.

One very common emotion that this breed consciously expressed was that of outrage. Whether in writing or in front of TV cameras, they were permanently outraged by the conditions of people and the state-of-play. The causes swung between corruption, conflicts, human rights, public health and rape, but their practised expression of outrage remained the same. And language - a hybrid of wordplay, controlled aggression and convenience of easy facts - was the main tool. No wonder, many of them also doubled as writers and literary critics. With development jargon more easily accessible, terms such as “social capital” and “human agency” became standard stuff.

Looks like Shoma fit this bill well and a lot of people seemed to like her. As Tehelka profiles her,  “she has won several awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Chameli Devi Award for the most outstanding woman journalist in 2009. In 2011, Newsweek (USA) picked her as one of 150 power women who “shake the world”. In May 2012, she also won the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting.”

This is where she should have been careful. When you are known for a certain brand of work that requires a certain ethics and personal belief, you should at least feign them in real-life situations. Unfortunately, when her boss was accused of sexually assaulting a younger colleague and gross misuse of authority, her avowed principles were nowhere in display.

If her critics thought this was a clash of double standards, what they didn’t realise was that it was only now they saw it openly. This constant interplay of double standards (one for me and other for the world) has always been there because it’s an inherent contradiction of this brand of journalism in media practice.

At the 16th World Editors’ Forum, she said "contrary to some of the optimism on this panel, I think journalism in India is in a pathetic state” and that “journalism has become "a corporate rather than a political act.” Doesn’t Tehelka take corporate funding at all? How does it run its festival Think in Goa, let alone run its magazine?

On another occasion, she wrote:''India's political, corporate and media establishment sounds like a mobile cocktail party, gliding, champagne glasses in hand, in and out of each others' drawing rooms, television studios, boardrooms and award ceremonies like actors in an elaborate charade.’'

This was clear outrage; isn’t she a part of the same circuit? She seems to be a regular in “literary festivals” that seek to convert the personal and private world of letters into public orgies with enormous corporate benevolence; studios of corporate-backed televisions and award ceremonies. She is even one of the principal impresarios of her magazine’s “Thinkfest” against which there are serious allegations, ranging from alleged funding by “dubious corporates”, excessive lifestyle indulgences and highly priced tickets and even siding with cartels accused of environment violation as this report indicates.

Not surprisingly, it is the same place where Tarun Tejpal allegedly attempted to rape her junior staffer, who was incidentally doing a hospitality-housekeeping job instead of journalism. Is chaperoning  a VIP guest part of the Terms of Reference of journalists in Tehelka? Ironically, a session that Shoma chaired was on rape, the format of which was the favourite of the third world outrage-specialists - story telling of survivors and collective crying.

Shoma’s outrage against rape and the violations of women’s rights - in her columns in Tehelka, TV shows or Twitter and stage shows, are legion now. In this Tehelka article, she is at her rhetorical best: "There are, therefore, three reckonings this horrific rape forces upon us now. How can India change its endemically diseased mindset about women? How can strong deterrences be built against rape? And how can contact with the police and justice process not be made to feel like a double rape?”

These are the same questions that the Tehelka sex scandal raised that Shoma was unable to answer with conviction. On Friday, she was struggling for words and logic to explain her behaviour, that was diametrically opposite to what she had called for her in her public posturing of the last few years. In her interview to NDTV, she even mentioned the financial implications to her organisation, which, at least for a moment, appeared to be one of the underlying reasons.

Anyway, the long and short of it is this: if you indulge in journalism of outrage in India or elsewhere in the poor world, ensure that your tracks are not open, and keep in mind that there might be a situation when your posturing will hunt you back. And that it will be a terrible sight.

For obvious reasons, fellow journalists too have to be careful not to use the same tool of outrage while reacting to her, which unfortunately they are doing now.

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