The NYT's Modiphobia: bias masquerading as fact

Reportage by the western media has always been a bit jaundiced. With the rise of Modi in the Indian political landscape, even the NYT is barely able to conceal its biases

hidden March 28, 2014 16:59:39 IST
The NYT's Modiphobia: bias masquerading as fact

By Sandeep Balakrishna

As several commentators have observed, the campaign for the 2014 general elections began almost immediately after Narendra Modi’s third consecutive electoral victory in Gujarat in 2012. With it, the media coverage on Modi only intensified. And that includes international media as well.

For the most part since independence, India has not really been an object of high interest in the western media – and especially the American media. And when there was some interest, the coverage was mostly perfunctory, if not slightly biased. One cannot discount the possibility that Nehru’s conscious rebuffing of at least two US presidents had a role to play in strengthening this disinterest/bias. And then Indira Gandhi took this rebuffing to a new level, which led to a near-closure of access to western journalists reporting on India. Besides, interest in India waned significantly after the country consciously chose socialism and made all the wrong economic choices.

The NYTs Modiphobia bias masquerading as fact

Associated Press

By the mid-1980s, as Koenraad Elst mentions in his seminal Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, an India stint was not really high on the list of any western media major’s journalists. At one time, an India stint was the equivalent of a “punishment posting”. Western journalists posted here would typically spend most of their time in Delhi and undertake little field work even on crucial, burning issues. They would content themselves with inputs from their Indian counterparts who themselves belonged to a power elite and had their own blind-spots.

There’s really no other way of putting this. Most of our Delhi-based journalists have had a track record of fawning over these “punishment posting” western journalists. Perhaps the elevation of William Dalrymple to some sort of a cult status in Indian journalistic and literary circles best exemplifies this phenomenon, as explained so powerfully by Hartosh Singh Bal. Foreign reporters stationed here churned out reportage and analyses based precisely on such biased inputs with predictable consequences: a distorted coverage of India in the West, which in turn influences perceptions of India in their respective countries. Of course, this phenomenon has been on the decline in recent years with the greater penetration of the Internet, both in India and abroad, but it still persists.

Today, in a vastly changed geopolitical situation, western – and more, specifically, American - interest in India has noticeably increased. Yet a few things have remained the same. The same biased reportage still exists among Indian media houses, with our English TV channels leading the charge. And the same fawning-over-western-journalists syndrome continues to persist. And here’s where we get to notice that there’s another side to western reportage of India.

Enter the New York Times.

Of all the adjectives one could apply to the NYT, “venerable” is certainly not one of them. “Veteran” maybe. “Liberal,” definitely, as NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan confessed last year, qualifying her statement to say that her paper’s liberalism was “nuanced.” So it is worth examining exactly how well it has adhered to its self-confessed nuanced liberalism. But, more fundamentally, how well has it adhered to what we can consider reasonable standards by which one can judge the NYT or any media house: factuality, fairness, and objectivity?

A survey of 11 pieces covering mostly political themes - both reportage and opeds - reveals that they are characterised by an undisguised undertone of what in India has become infamous as 'pseudo-secularist discourse.

A 2011 piece by Manu Joseph doesn’t even make any pretense at objectivity: it is a straight out personal attack on Sri Sri Ravishankar and even Rabindranath Tagore, for good measure. It is nobody’s case that anybody should be above scrutiny but that scrutiny must be based purely on facts, not personal likes or dislikes.

An even older report by Somini Sengupta claims that Hindu outfits’ opposition to missionary conversions was what led to Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati’s murder in Kandhamal. However, she omits mentioning the social and cultural havoc that conversions in the tribal areas of Odisha have caused. More crucially, she fails to mention the evangelism-caused horrors set out in vast detail in the Niyogi Commission Report on conversions, a government document. Also, Arun Shourie’s 1999 investigative essay provides the complete picture of the kind of consequences that unbridled conversions have wreaked in that tribal state.

This then is a mere sample of NYT’s India reportage. But it gets interesting when we examine its record of covering the BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi. Here, the NYT seems to have adopted a template: nothing that Modi says or does should be shown for what it is. It has to be shown in negative light. And so this templated approach to Modi coverage is hinged on one, or several, or all of these angles:

-          Accused of presiding over the 2002 communal riots which left more than 1,000 killed, majority of them Muslims

-          The Supreme Court appointed SIT has cleared him of all charges, but...

-          His popularity has risen over the years but he remains a polarising and deeply divisive figure

-          Muslims don’t trust him

-          He is authoritarian, is described as a fascist, and thrives on hate

-          His model of Gujarat’s economic development is flawed

-          He encourages only big industrialists and has largely ignored the SME sector

Of the 11 stories surveyed, pick any of the seven pieces (linked above) dedicated to covering Modi, and you will note that these are the common threads around which the coverage is woven. Of course, a leader who is eyeing the Prime Minister’s chair needs to be deeply, ruthlessly and critically scrutinised. His/her flaws along with the good points need to be examined and exposed, and Modi should be no exception to this. But, has the NYT done this?

Worse, the author of most of these pieces, Gardiner Harris, has gone on to make what can only be called wild accusations. In at least two pieces, he claims that Modi has been “linked with a secret police assassination squad” that “mostly” targets Muslims. This is not journalism by any standard - to put it bluntly, it is the journalistic equivalent of a hit job.

And if that was not enough, the NYT has fudged facts not once but thrice. A 2013 editorial had claimed that Muslims were poorer in Gujarat compared to elsewhere in India, a lie that several people in social media quickly called out, forcing the NYT to publish a corrigendum.

The self-same Gardiner Harris had also claimed that the Muzaffarnagar riots were triggered after Modi was announced as the PM candidate, whereas the riots had begun much earlier than 13 September 2013. In yet another piece by Gardiner Harris, the NYT issued yet another corrigendum for overstating “what is known about a 2002 train fire in Gujarat state.”

Once is a mistake. Twice raises doubts about competence. Thrice raises suspicions about integrity. It is impossible to believe that a global media giant like NYT can consistently get facts available in the public domain wrong three times. And this, apart from that secret police assassination squad bit.

And our own journalists share a part of the blame because these pieces acknowledge the reporting contributed from their Indian counterparts. These counterparts could have pointed out what I have done.

Among others, it was the New York Times which had once led a campaign against what it termed was the yellow journalism practised by Hearst’s New York Journal. An apocryphal instruction that Hearst gave his artist, Remington, goes like this: “you furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” The NYT of today seems to have followed the textual equivalent of this instruction in the case of Narendra Modi.

In the end, this is much less about Narendra Modi than about the New York Times, which seems to be on a single-minded mission to demonise him even if that means throwing some simple journalistic ethics to the winds. The NYT is certainly entitled to be biased against Narendra Modi but it needs to at least keep up the pretence of fairness in exercising its bias.

One is forced to conclude that at the root of it all may not be just bias, but an irrational fear of Narendra Modi. Modiphobia, in short.

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