New York Times' irresponsible coverage of Mumbai terror
I had stopped blogging and was not missing it. Last year and a half has been busy in other worthwhile pursuits. If this is not a one-off but is the start of something new, I will blog about blogging and what kept me away. As of now, a one off.
Listen, I am in a terribly angry and betrayed state of mind right now.
Of course, the tragedy which has unfolded over the last four days has kept me awake. This is not about that. I personally am unable to feel the rage which is raging within most Indian (and many foreign) hearts now. Terrorism is something we are closely acquainted with and while I wish it goes away, mere wishing will not make an iota of difference to it and I know that.
I also do not have many words to offer on the tragedy, at least not anything which would make sense in public. I am trying to undergo catharsis by reaching out to a few friends and mostly, I have been reading and thinking. Some of the blogs I like, mentioned in my blogroll, have had similar thoughts like mine and have expressed them well enough. Read them. Again. I don't wish to add to that noise when I don't have anything new or elegant to say. I'd also recommend reading Tehelka's September issue on terror for what Indians are really thinking, whatever Shobha Dutt and Barkha De might allege otherwise. At least, this is what they ought to be thinking.
As I said, this is not what this post is about. This post is about betrayal. Over the last two years, I have fallen in love with the New York Times. It started with the Minimalist food column, went on to Travel pieces, then Sports and finally, on to the entire Politics and Opinion sections. Now, I see myself reading their real estate ads as well. I loved how their opinion pieces were full of rich, provocative yet succinct opinions (of course within the confines of what a daily newspaper can produce). The Freakonomics guys were there. I loved that the liberals shouting in even shriller voices than conservatives (I haven't heard any US talk radio yet but can imagine what it sounds like). I fell in love with Dick Cavett and his stories from a bygone era. I... I can go on but I must stop.
I have fallen in love and got jilted enough number of times to realise that shit happens. However, this one is still shocking. I have been dumped.
Incidentally, NYT has mostly been cliched and uninsightful on India over the duration of my love affair. I never thought of this as an issue. I brought that to the relationship anyway. NYT stuck to picking off harmless topics and writing about them from a perspective, which is banal at worst and mildly amusing at best. That worked for me. A thin reporting team and a few stringers, if at all, can only go so far. I did think the piece on Mukesh Ambani was okay, though not particularly illuminating for any Indian. Sometimes, my expat friends here have raved about some of the recent writing in it. I could not participate in the rave. My friends share a set of cultural experiences with the writers, which is difficult for me to penetrate. I can only nod and give up the argument after a while. After all, what if they question me deeply about the relationship that I share with Dick Cavett?
Today, however, it's different and in true jilted lover and diligent blogger fashion, I want to take apart an article. It's in the Week in Review section and it's full of callous and casual tripe. While the events in Mumbai are not yet over and thus the story is still unfinished, Anand Giridhardas has indulged himself in what a friend calls, "a romanticization of a tragedy devoid of a factual basis."For those of you who are new to NYT, the Week in Review is different from the Editorial or the Op-Ed page. Quoting from an internal memo:
As the main news pages become more analytical, the Review has to continually develop new ways to remain distinctive, finding interesting angles of entry to the week's news without toppling over into the more opinionated writing that is the proper job of Op-ed. More than most sections, the Review depends on the ability of its editors to entice original thoughts from overworked staffers on tight deadlines, mostly in their free time, by challenging them or provoking them or engaging them.Remember both the points. 1) This is not an opinion piece but merely a distinctive, interesting angle of entry into news. 2) Most writers are overworked on tight deadlines when writing this and editors entice original thoughts. Since Anand Giridhardas has written only one prior piece in the IHT this week, I'd imagine he wasn't particularly overworked. In any case, even if he was overworked, it would not give him an excuse to
The title is, "The Special Sting of Personal Terrorism." I suggest you go to the site and read the story once and form your own opinion first. It'd take a few minutes. I had so much to say that I had to copy Anand's entire attempt in order to do true justice to it. And what an attempt!!
If Anand does not get nominated for the Man Booker and the Pulitzer (for journalism and imagery, if there's a category like that) for this piece of writing, I would be surprised. It might not make for coherent reading though.
This was not terror — not as Indians understood it. This was war.India over the last seven years, has seen gun battles just outside the Parliament, hundreds gunned down in Kashmir, many butchered with cleavers and swords in riots, most notably in Gujarat, five cities bombed in the last five months and terrorist attacks on buildings of greater symbolic importance. India has also been affected by many wars - Kargil battles are of relatively recent memory. India knows how to differentiate between war and terror and understand terror well enough. In case you still don't agree, read this. Six years ago, 33 killed and 70 wounded by two terrorists, armed with automatic machine guns and grenades, over a fourteen hour ordeal, after which the NSG commandos managed to kill them. Sounds familiar? Does this look like war? Or does it look like terror?
The killers stormed the streets of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, with machine guns and bags of grenades. They did not strike with the terrorist’s fleeting anonymity. Their work was fastidiously deliberate. It went into a second day, then a third. They took time to ask your nationality and vocation. Then they spared you, or herded you elsewhere, or shot you in the back of your skull.They didn't spare anyone. They did not spare anyone. Spare. Anyone. Did not.
Besides the personal stories that many of us have heard, a cursory glance at statistics itself would show that the above conjecture is lazy and completely false. They might have taken time to ask a few people's nationality and vocation, might have separated them - I don't know. Then, they killed everyone anyway.
They never herded anyone elsewhere. Except for the purpose of killing.
The only thing Anand gets right is that the work was fastidiously deliberate, but even here, he indulges in a redundant adjective.
As a surprise attack became a 48-hour struggle, the burden of responding transferred from the police to soldiers. The language was of war: television anchors spoke of buildings “sanitized” and “flushed out,” of “final assaults” and “collateral damage.” Helicopters hovered over Mumbai, and commandos dropped onto roofs. The grainy television imagery suggested not so much a terrorist attack as the shapeless, omnidirectional chaos of Iraq.Language more of Public Works Department, entrusted with clearing the plague in Surat and of Die Hard films and not necessarily of war. Maybe Anand has been tippling over war movies and could not differentiate between his old DVD collection and the Hindi TV channels reporting on the attacks, while martial soundtrack played in the background. I can forgive Anand for the latter. It has happened to the best of us.
However, I hate to say this, having invested in a brand new television as symbolic gesture in these days of declining worldwide consumption - I would have loved it if the television imagery (especially the images exposing operational details) was grainy. Instead, we were watching reality TV.
While the hostage situation endured, more was unknown than known. Rumors flew, unconfirmed. Did you hear? They shot all the women at the hotel switchboard. Did you hear? They executed a young mother and her children. Did you hear? They sent a hostage out of the building to get food for their attackers. Truth was complicated; everything blurred.Do I need to point out, Anand, that truth, in such situations, has always been complicated? And rumours always fly? Everything need not be blurred though. This is where journalists come in.
Perhaps Anand wants us to indulge in the three rumors that he had heard personally, in the narrow gap between Die Hard with a Vengeance and Rambo V. Hence, he wrote this paragraph.
He can now lend the paragraph out. It would fit in anywhere in any of the articles about the last four days. Generic drivel, but at least, this fits in with the usual NYT Indian
But what slowly became clear was that this was an attack of especial barbarism, because it was so personal. It was unlike the many strikes of the last many months, bombs left in thronging markets or trains or cars: acts of shrinking cowardice. The new men were not cowards. They seemed to prolong the fight as long as they could. They killed face to face; they wanted to see and speak to their victims; they could taste the violence they made.Huh? Personal? Tasting the violence? Give me six months of training, grenades and an AK-56 and I can indulge in acts of 'non-shrinking non-cowardice'. In fact, if Geoffrey Boycott was here, he would have said that even his mum could have done it.
Pardon my silly cricket metaphor thrown in for the local Indian effect. I have got carried away by the most utterly irresponsible set of words about this incident.
Mindless conjecture (spot the slight redundancy?) has met its match in an insane adjective. Personal. Now the headline makes sense. Not.
A good story has characters, and a terrorist attack without characters tempts a society to forget. A wave of recent Indian attacks, more anonymous and less dramatic, offered little focus for public opinion."Give me an example of a life-or-death question quickly?"
For better or worse, the public has its characters now. As the weekend arrived, it was not clear who the men were, even as India’s government hinted at Pakistani connections. But even without learning their names, it was so easy to imagine them this time, combing the hallways, asking life-or-death questions, pulling women and children from their rooms at midnight.
"Which country you are from and what occupies you?"
"Ah! Now this makes sense. How does the last line make sense?"
"It's an evocative metaphor, Dhoomketu! Silly Dhoomketu!.... Slimy Dhoomketu! Not even giving credit to Anand for not inserting Bollywood between 'A' and 'good' while you indulge in cricket metaphors."
In fact, now that we have characters, can we please name them as well, just to make it easier on me? 12 terrorists won't do. Can we call the Blue T-Shirt and Cargo pants Afzal Guru and the ugly grey T-shirt and ill-fitting trouser guy Praveen Togadia? Now, it's even better! Names, which no one would ever associate with terror, have now been added into the mix. Will sharply etch the characters in public opinion. Bring Focus where there was an empty stage before. And helps us imagine them better. Now we know what was missing all this while: characters!
For a country with no dearth of terrorism in its past, it is perhaps the fleshy immediacy of these men and their deeds that makes this a defining assault — one that separates all attacks of the past from those yet to come. In the television studios, on the roads, in the anguished phone calls of friends to friends, Indians said the words again and again: This is our 9/11.If I was Ravi Shankar Prasad, I'd not have mentioned 9/11. Or at least put it that way. Now, the opposition (BJP) would need to ally themselves with government missives, under the umbrella of patriotism and national security. BJP should also forget about winning any elections next cycle.
“It is an Indian variant of 9/11, and today India needs to respond the way America did,” Ravi Shankar Prasad, a member of Parliament from the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party, said on television.
"Slimy Dhoomketu! You are taking it out of context. It is an Indian variant of 9/11." '11/9/01' anyone? DD/MM/YY.
Hindi TV wins this one. Was it Star News? Or was it Aaj Tak which came up with this ridiculous metaphor? The only good which has come up out of all this is that someone has stolen a thunderous metaphor from Anand, who would have thought it up anyway.
Notice how, with the words 'fleshy immediacy', Anand has also thrown his hat into the Bad Sex Award ring as well. Could it be a sweep this time? Should we throw the Oscars in the mix, considering the state of the Best Director race till now?
But if this was India’s 9/11, it seemed so only to certain citizens, and not, apparently, to their government.I can't wait for what follows. Would NYT suggest that Dr. MMS copy GWB? Perhaps with Cheney, Rumsfeld et al out of jobs, we can outsource some of the next steps to them? This would also create American jobs, thus helping Barack's dream? Is Anand on to something that mere mortals can only gape at?
It took 18 hours for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to come on television. He is a reflective, decent man. But he was emotionless, his mouth moving and nothing else. He knows all too well the history of blaming Pakistan and its militants for attacks, only to come up short on evidence. He said the attacks “probably” had a foreign hand. His most specific idea was “police reform” and the “tightening” of laws to close “loopholes.” He called for “peace and harmony.”What? Now we need evidence? Specific ideas? So soon after '11/09/01"? Next you would ask Dr. MMS to find WMDs as well. Actually, maybe this can be outsourced to India. We're good at finding credit card numbers from databases. Which some say could turn out to be the next driver of global economic crisis. This would make every bad credit card number a WMD in itself. QED.
Also, it's a pity that Dr. MMS didn't become misty-eyed or angrily incoherent. The Director would have wanted that. The Oscar seems to be slipping out of grasp!! In fact, just for this plot twist, 18 hours into the attack, while encounters are still going on, should Dr. MMS not have spent an hour getting into specifics of closing the naval borders? Or, perhaps, shared the contents of twenty chapters of the last report on absence of crisis management system in the country? Poor Dr. MMS. Walking between an incredible plot twist and method acting. Trying desperately to hang on to his character. Ending up in neither boat.
His temperateness helped to keep the ever-present threat of religious riots at bay. But it also seemed to misread the mood of a country that wanted it to be 9/11 — if not in the sense of war and conquest, then in the sense of instant clarity, of the simple feeling that an era had ended and that enough was, at last, enough.This seems strange now. I can almost see a pattern. "He has a good feel for character. But he is terrible in theatrics." Watch the last two paragraphs that Anand has come up with. If a prime minister can help keep the threat of riots at bay, in a country with a history like ours, I would imagine it deserves more than one line. Especially one followed by a 'but'.
Also, can we take a moment here to categorically state that India did not want it to be '9/11'. No country in the world would want it to be a 9/11. Definitely not within the first 18 hours, 8 of which most of the country has spent sleeping. We didn't wake up and say, "I wish this would become our 9/11."
No body in their right mind, would come up and say, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You have only killed 100. Can you please make sure you kill another 100 and blow up a few buildings as well, so that we can get a sense of instant clarity?"
Let's call it for what it is, shall we? I'd not say that people are not saying 'enough is enough', though other than
Still, Indians do feel this sentiment. In fact, every terrorist attack, except for those in Media-dark places like Guwahati, is followed by that exact statement. Mostly, it is a statement about the soft state and the slow and opaque judicial process, or about Pakistan and the terrorist camps within them, or the nuclear option and possible war, and taking back PoK from Pakistan or at least teaching the terrorists a lesson through hot pursuit, or lack of systems or any other related topic.
In fact, now that I think about it, Indians probably have said this statement the most number of times in the world, over the last 50 years, given our English speaking population and the lack of better metaphor-al ability.
However, the point which Anand completely misses - and why would he not, staying within the confines of Youtube and the internet? - is that people in India have been saying 'enough is enough' about a whole lot of things and none of those include 'instant clarity'. I am yet to hear even
One of the things, which is different this time, is that people are shocked about the slow and late response to the crisis. In fact, this time, we did not even recognise how big the crisis was till it was too late for some of our best and brightest. By using the last phrase, I show solidarity with USA and Vietnam War, a term that erudite and well-read Anand would recognise. Also, this paragraph can probably fit into many places in this rant. I can do it too!
When the video of Mr. Singh’s address was posted on YouTube, many said online what others were saying on the ground. He was “expressionless,” a “brilliant teacher but no leader,” an “ineffective puppet.” One user wrote: “He should have given a strong warning and threat to terrorists and those who support them. Unfortunately he is too soft.”If I can use three anecdotes the way Anand uses YouTube as a barometer of the nation's sentiments (a country with 3% internet penetration, mind you), I'd reveal the conversations with my mother's friends, all housewives in Delhi, the conversations at the polling booth in Delhi today which focused on this issue and the words of Harsha Bhogle speaking on NDTV. I'd not waste your time with unreliable human interest flavour though.
Nor did the government’s retaliation inspire. The commandos who came at long last and saved the day were heroic, working room by room to retake the two besieged hotels. But India learned thereby that Mumbai, with its 19 million people, lacks commandos of its own. They were flown in from the capital, New Delhi.It's a shame that Mumbai does not have NSG posted there. Yes. Tragic.
Meanwhile, “army sources” leaked to the press that they had warned the government of an impending attack days before, only to be ignored, as usual.
“The scale, intensity and level of orchestration of terror attacks in Mumbai put one thing beyond doubt: India is effectively at war and it has deadly enemies in its midst,” The Times of India, a leading English-language daily, wrote in an editorial published Friday. “The question now,” it added, “is whether the nation can show any serious degree of resolve and coordination in confronting terror.”
Anand finally states a fact. But anyone who follows national defence in India would realise that the same happened in Akshardham a few years back. A lot of informed India knew that NSG is stationed just outside Delhi. I personally do not know why?
The bigger pity, of course, was the delay of nine hours till the NSG arrived. In Akshardham, in Ahmedabad, not very far from Mumbai in terms of air distance, they had taken six and a half hours. Here, it took nine. Facts on the reason behind this could have been uncovered through research, showing a distinctive angle.
A question could have been posed to defence experts on the causes behind the additional delay and reason why Mumbai does not have a NSG unit. However, what benefit research when we have YouTube comments?
And don't get me started on the use of one paragraph on TOI's credible editorial voice in the middle of all this.
The government, in its defense, walks a fine line. Show too little resolve, and attacks happen. Show too much, and you galvanize hatred domestically and exacerbate tensions abroad, notably with Pakistan.............
I didn't get you. Sorry.
"Foolish Dhoomketu! You can't see the binary choices here, separated by a fine line, which the government walks 'in its defense'? Foolish, foolish Dhoomketu!"
“It is extremely important to understand that the criminal activities of a minuscule group, even if it turns out to have home-grown elements, say nothing about Indian Muslims in general, who are an integral part of the country’s social fabric,” Amartya Sen, the Harvard economist and Indian-born Nobel laureate, wrote in an e-mail message. “Even if it turns out that the Mumbai terrorists had a base in Pakistani territory, India has to take full note of the fact that the bulk of Pakistani civil society is an ally, not an enemy, in the battle against Islamist terrorism, for they too suffer greatly from the violence of a determined minority based in their country.”Ok!
Amartya Sen is here.
Now, what to fear?
I am sure Amartya Sen wrote more and hopefully made a few points which would have been relevant to this story. Or was he replying to a questionnaire that Anand sent, in which case even the Nobel Prize could not defeat GIGO? If I take away this paragraph from the article, what message would I miss? Why would that message be relevant here? Not that this is the only paragraph one can say this for.
However, as a saving grace, these at least, are a few simple English words. I can understand Amartya Sen while I was finding it tough with Anand. As I said before,
Amartya Sen is here.
Now, what to to fear?
Is Anand, having won nominations from Man Booker, Pulitzer, Bad Sex and Oscars, now trying to get a Nobel by proxy?
See, I agree with the basic gist of what Amartya Sen is saying. Indian Muslims in general have been a part of Indian social fabric (of course). In fact, Hassan Gaffoor, the Mumbai police commissioner, has been in the forefront of the actions and a cursory glance at the list of casualties would reveal that these terrorists scythed indiscriminately (did you see that phrase?!!) through the Indian social fabric. I also agree that the bulk of civil society anywhere would be an ally against terrorism, Islamist or not. Having said that, knowing Amartya Sen's opinion on this does not shed light on how people here are actually feeling. It's only a sermon on how people should feel. Which, considering this is this 'week in review', is kind of strange.
In fact, one of the things preventing communal outbreaks this time are the politicians themselves (other than the massive army presence in the city).
In fact, I have been quite relieved by the fact that people have found politicians of all colours to blame, though perhaps YouTube Comments or Rediff Messageboards won't reveal that yet. Narendra Modi, of course, contributed to this by appearing in full glory and by preposterously announcing compensation to a widow whose husband his political party was slamming last week. The Thackerays contributed by staying hidden away in their homes. The Prime Minister helped the cause by seeming helpless and the President helped matters by remaining invisible. Shivraj Patil contributed by being his natty self. Incidentally, did anyone notice whether he changed clothes this time?
None of this features in Anand's YouTube and Rambo fuelled report, of course.
On Friday, Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, agreed to send the powerful chief of his country’s intelligence services to India, to receive any evidence, as a gesture of good will.By the time this went into print, Gilani had completed his about-turn.
When Gilani announced it, Indians had started plotting and YouTube comments promised hell to the chief of ISI when he turns up, and the Pakistani parties, opposition and ruling party alike, had frowned upon this. Then, Gilani changed his mind, appearing quite furtive in the process. What is he hiding, anyway?
The about turn does not fit this narrative and hence, is conveniently ignored. We should do the same now that we are reviewing Anand's script.
Also, are my eyes playing tricks, or keeping with the tone of the article, am I missing a word (apparent, ostensible) somewhere in front of either gesture or good?
People purporting to be the attackers have said they belong to a group called the Deccan Mujahedeen, and have claimed to be waging a war in Islam’s name. It was uncertain whether they are of domestic or foreign origin.Much water has flown below this bridge as well. Again, none of it fits into this narrative.
Whichever it is, they have crossed yet another line with these attacks. Islamist militants in India have in recent years lived somewhat apart from the global Islamist struggle. They bombed and killed, but their enemies were Indian Hindus, not “Jews and crusaders,” and their targets were markets and cinema halls that drew Indians, not foreigners.Who reported this preference? When? Have we learnt anything new since then? Can we do arithmetic? Percentages? This is a relevant angle for NYT, of course. Otherwise the papers would not have flown off the rack in their markets, but now that we are into the 'week in review', can we recognise the indiscriminate killing by a few men, trained in a sophisticated manner by a the Islamist terror infrastructure, for what it is? At the least, that's the prevalent theory now. Isn't it?
This attack, in contrast, went after five-star hotels, a popular restaurant and a Jewish community center. The gunmen were reported to show a preference for Britons and Americans as hostages.
Further facts can change that story, but at least can we be objective enough and mention the most likely theory first? Can we stop looking for different angles, for the heck of it? Definitely not the patently false and the tremendously cliched ones that the newspaper has been mouthing over and over.
Even Nicholas Kristof writing in the opinion column, has brought a few facts to bear. Is it too much to expect this from Anand and NYT's frontispiece? A couple of real interviews. A couple of moments of introspection. I have seen better in Twitter. Anand, you have written a disgraceful piece.
With their brutality, their sophistication, their links to the ideology of terrorism elsewhere, these attacks seemed, then, to usher in a new day. Late in the week, as the gunfire crackle trailed off, many Indians appeared to long for a sign that this attack would muster new will.I am genuinely outraged and disgusted. It's seven o clock in the morning and I have tried to collect my thoughts for the last three hours and have not succeeded. Just look at the last paragraph, will you? What does the last line mean? Is he trying to be ironic when he mentions America's history? Or not? Or is he leaving it to the reader, as a true novelist does?
A text-message moving among Mumbaikars expressed the uniqueness of the now: “Brothers and sisters, it’s time to wake up and do something for the country — however little — related to this or not — start today and continue it through the years — do not forget as easily as we are used to forgetting.”
Many told themselves and each other that this time would change things, just as Americans had told themselves after 9/11. But they knew their own history, and America’s, and they seemed, even as they spoke the words, to disbelieve them already.
I also want to ask Anand one question. Who is disbelieving this sms, shallow though it is, already? If we switch on the TV, people seem far too gung-ho in their belief.
If you would have cared to ask around, you would have met a few reasonable voices, who have also concurred that this time would be different - though maybe not in terms of the narrow scope in which Anand and NYT frame the issue.
Personally, I do not think terror threat or the LeT would go away or that Pakistan and India would stop sabre-rattling or that the opposition party would hold on to its criticisms and politicking till the attack finishes next time this happens. In fact, most people I know, fear the next big one in a few years, if not months. However, for the first time, there seems to be a deeper consciousness of our weak response abilities. Simple procedures were missing. Equipment was outdated. People were not trained well. Some of this can change quickly and need to change. These are the classic 'no-regret moves'. A lot of people I met have said 'enough is enough' in this context, and do not want to forget unless these actions are taken. They are ready to speak, if only you ask them.
Anand and NYT, unfortunately, have been in their room, bottled up with YouTube, TV channels, TOI and an internet connection. They have refused to talk to anyone in India. And it shows in their 'Week in Review'.
Let's call this for what it is, shall we? In a friend's words again, "a cheap attempt at scoring lit points .. what does he offer us in 'review' except inelegant turns of phrase." I could not agree more. Enough is Enough.