Journalism's four 'I's

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 31/10/2013
Between Pierre Omidyar's Greenwald-fronted venture and the assertions relating to changes at The Hindu, older values of journalism are being tested,
says SEVANTI NINAN. PIX: Glenn Greenwald

Sevanti Ninan


It has been an eventful fortnight for journalism both abroad and at home. In the US, eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar announced that he is investing $250 million in a start-up journalistic venture to be fronted by Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian columnist who broke the US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance story.

Greenwald has never been a career journalist. He has been a professional litigator, businessman, blogger and a columnist for Salon magazine and then The Guardian. The surveillance story he broke was a blockbuster of an investigation that is still creating ripples. While betting on him, Omidyar was quoted as saying that "trust in institutions is going down" and now "audiences want to connect with personalities".

That has prompted a debate in the establishment press on what the future of journalism is going to be like. In a long piece in The New York Times, titled "Is Glenn Greenwald the future of news?", columnist Bill Keller featured an extended online exchange between himself and Greenwald on the new values in journalism. Keller could not resist asking, with reference to Omidyar's statement: "So he is building a constellation of stars, passion-fuelled soloists, crusading investigators?" 

What, he wanted to know, would the relationship be between journalists building themselves as brands, and the institutions which provided valuable support for investigative journalism? As The Guardian did for Greenwald? Where would editors, fact-checkers and graphics designers who knew how to make the most of a database, fit?

To the three 'I's of institution, individual and investigation, you could add a fourth: ideology. Keller and Greenwald debated how much ideology and personal predilection should inform one's journalism. When is it important for a news consumer to know a writer or editor's personal beliefs, they asked? 

The Omidyar-Greenwald venture promises to "throw out the old rules". So Keller in effect revisits them. The nub of the argument is, should personal beliefs dictate one's editorial judgement and reporting and appear to do so, or should there be an effort (Greenwald would say pretence) of objectivity. Keller argued that when journalists set aside personal opinions to follow facts, the results are more substantial and credible.

Greenwald countered that to the extent that all reporters have personal opinions, it would help a news consumer to know what they are. He gave the example of The New York Times reporter John Burns, who reported the Iraq invasion for the paper and later admitted that he had personally believed that the US forces would be liberators and avenging angels, and had not anticipated the carnage that would ensue. If he had known Burns's views, Greenwald said, he would have taken them into account while judging his reporting.

Meanwhile, all four 'I's were being revisited in India the same fortnight which saw an upheaval at The Hindu, with its editor Siddharth Varadarajan being abruptly re-designated as a contributing editor and columnist. He quit. The board resolution that was passed (with a casting vote by the chairman of the board meeting) said in effect that the institution of The Hindu had seen a deviation from its "core values" under the non-family professional editor and chief executive. This was later spelt out as "editorialising in the guise of news coverage", "unfair and exaggerated reporting" and "banning or downplaying the coverage of certain personalities with personal preference and prejudice". (All quotes are from N. Ram's reply to dissenting board directors of the company.)

The charges against Varadarajan were that he was influencing the news to reflect his own preferences and prejudices, particularly with reference to the way the paper has covered the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. In a subsequent interview to Tehelka magazine, Varadarajan spelt out his rationale for dictating the way political rallies and individuals will be covered in the run up to the elections. He gave the example of a negative photograph that he held back, one in which BJP leader L.K. Advani turns aside as Modi is attempting to touch his feet. He also said he thought there was no need to front-page rallies "unless something fresh or unusual was said". Both the photo judgement and the assertion are debatable.

Fact: The Hindu was the only paper that did not think Modi's speech in Delhi at Shriram College of Commerce this year was front-page news in its Delhi edition.

Fact: Varadarajan's tenure saw far more investigative reporting and more varied views on the editorial page than in the immediately preceding years under Ram.

Fact: When Ram was chief editor, The Hindu did its share of shutting out of some kinds of news. In its coverage of events in Tibet in February and March 2009, for example. And again in the case of the violence in Nandigram in West Bengal in 2007. Some commentary has recalled these facts after Varadarajan's exit.

So if you were to look at the four 'I's in this case-institution, individual, ideology and investigation-would you say the paper gained or lost credibility under the owner editor,  or  under the professional editor? 

Reprinted from Mint, October 31, 2013


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