The climate change of bad news

This post flows a bit like the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. As one friend put it, “It starts somewhere and then goes in a different direction.”

This year hasn’t been beset by the same old steady drizzle of bad news we have every year – but has borne the brunt of cyclonic storms, each one distinctively episodic and devastating. The latest of these storms is l’affair Rukmini Callimachi. To the uninitiated: Callimachi is a reporter with the NYT who shot to fame from 2015 or so onwards for her inside reports of the Islamic Caliphate; she later dramatised her efforts to produce these stories in a podcast called Caliphate. And in this time, she raked up four Pulitzer Prize nominations (although I don’t set much store by prizes in general).

I haven’t read or listened to her work, so when a friend shared a link to the NYT’s own report, by its media columnist Ben Smith, discussing the charges against Callimachi and their newfound, but evidently delayed, efforts to reevaluate her work, I wasn’t guilty of not having criticised her myself. (If you think this is a tall order: the headline of Jacob Silverman’s review of this storm for The New Republic describes, in a few words, how quickly her house of cards seems to fall down.)

However, these days, a successful journalist is two things: she is the producer of stories that have changed the world, and which continue to live lives of their own, and she is a role-model of sorts. Her output and her resolve represent what is possible if only one tried. An even greater example of such work is that of the journalists at the Miami Herald – especially Julie Brown – who exposed Jeffrey Epstein and brought on, among other changes, a reckoning at various universities around the US that had knowingly accepted his money and overtures.

But now, with Callimachi’s articles seemingly teetering on the brink of legitimacy, both the things she stood for are on the edge as well. First, the good thing: her stories, which – if Smith’s account is to be believed – Callimachi seems to have composed in her head before moving in to report them, often, if not always, with the spiritual and material support of many of NYT’s senior editors. Second, the bad: her legacy, such as it is – erected as a façade at which we could all marvel, at least those of us who unquestioningly placed our faith and hope in the greatness of another. This is the guilt I feel, a fractured reflection of what Callimachi’s coverage of the Islamic Caliphate at the NYT is itself going through right now.

However, I will also be quick to shed this guilt because I insist that as much as I’m tasked – by my employer, but the zeitgeist, so to speak – to be wary, cautious, skeptical, to fact-check, fact-check, fact-check, to maintain cupfuls of salt at hand so I’m never taken for a ride, just as much as I’m behooved to stand on guard, I’m also fortifying an increasingly small, and increasingly precious, garden in a corner of my mind, a place away from the bad news that I can visit in my daydreams, where I can recoup some hope and optimism. Today, the winds of l’affair Callimachi blew away her articles and podcasts from this place.

Make no mistake, I will still call out everything that deserves to be called out: from the multiple red-flags Silverman spotlighted to the anti-oriental undertones of Callimachi’s methods, of her claims and even of the self-recrimination bubbling up around her, to a lot of which Rafia Zakaria has (repeatedly) called attention. I’m only saddened, for now, by the unstoppable eradication of all that is good, such as it is, and by the guilt for my part in it. As a political being, in this moment I deem this march upon ignorance to be necessary, but as a human one, it is deeply, and to my mind unforeseeably, exacting. A cognitive dissonance for the times, I suppose, although I’m sure I will cope soon enough.

Fortunately, perhaps in a counterintuitive sense, the Callimachi episode is personally not very hard to recover from. While it is true that what Callimachi and her collaborators have (still largely allegedly) done is quite different from, say, what Jonah Lehrer did, they were both motivated by a common sin: to print what could be instead of what is (and even these words might be too strong). More specifically, reporting on war brings with it its own seductions, many of them quite powerful, to the extent that some – as Zakaria implied in her piece for The Baffler – may choose to believe Callimachi et al’s failings are still the failings of an institution vis-à-vis conflict journalism. But no, the problem is pervasive.

However, looking on this shitshow from not-so-distant India, two bells have been quick to go off. First, this is very old wine in a new bottle, in which, to borrow Zakaria’s words, “the greed for catching terrorists” is pressed into the service of making “white journalists’ careers”; you could replace ‘terrorists’ with anything else that has been touched, at any point in its history, by a colonist or invader. Also read Priyanka Borpujari’s 2019 essay in the Columbia Journalism Review, in which she writes:

The title ‘foreign correspondent’ has long been synonymous with whiteness, maleness, and imperialism—journalists fly in from North America, Europe, and Australia to cover the poverty and wars of the non-Western world. In recent years, a push for diversity has meant that more women are pursuing stories in what was once the domain of men—conflict zones and fractured democracies—or in traditionally private female spaces. But the opportunities for journalists in non-Western nations to tell their own stories in international outlets have not been as great. Overwhelmingly, foreign reportage still relies on a model of Western, and largely white, reporters hiring local journalists in subservient roles.”

And thanks to biases in the way technology is constructed, used as well as located around the world, the problem extends to the consumption of journalism as well. To quote from an older post:

Where an app [that amplifies content] was made matters because nobody is going to build an app in location A and hope that it becomes popular in faraway location B. Pocket itself is San Franciscan and the bias shows: most recommendations I’ve received, or even the non-personalised trending topics I’ve spotted, are American. In fact, among all the tools I use and curation services I follow, I’ve come across only two exceptions: the heartwarming human-curated 3QuarksDaily and Quora. I’m not familiar with Quora’s story but I’m sure it’s interesting – about how a Q&A platform out of Mountain View came to be dominated by Indian users.

I notice a not insignificant number of articles and essays, in English, to this day emerging from blogs and publications in Central, South and Southeast Asia, South America and of course Africa that will never go viral on Twitter, make it to the list of ‘most read’ articles on Pocket or be cited by even the most quirky columnist – even as the same ideas and arguments will virtually ‘break the internet’ the moment they emerge from The Atlantic or New Yorker a few months later.

None of the writers of The Atlantic or New Yorker can be blamed, at least not most of the time, for something quite hard to discover in the first place, but that doesn’t mean Big Tech isn’t distorting our view of who is doing good work and who isn’t. And many Indian journalists and writers are often at the wrong end of this discovery problem.

In this light, what Callimachi and the NYT did is not new at all but in fact further widens, or accentuates, the divide between being non-white, non-Western and being white and Western. This is a divide that I and many others, perhaps especially the others, have been habituated to ignore – especially when the crime at hand appears to be victimless but in fact quietly sidelines those who have already been historically, and today structurally, displaced from the ‘mainstream’.

On the other hand, what the NYT has perpetrated here is akin to what many in India (myself included) have done and, to different degrees, continue to have a part in. Specifically, the second bell that goes off has to do with my privileges, one product of which is that I will always be a parachute-journalist in my own country – a member of the top 1% who claims to understand the problems of the 99%.

Journalism professor Justin Martin gently defended parachute journalism in a 2011 essay, deeming fluency in “one of the main local languages” to be a prerequisite of parachuting well. I am not likely to speak any other languages than the four I already know, and less literally, I can never know, in any meaningful sense, what it means to be poor, transgender, tribal, of a lower caste; that lived experience will stay out of reach, and my assessment of what is right will always be inferior to those of, say, a desperate job-seeker, a transgender activist, a member of a tribe, a Dalit scholar when, for example, the topic at hand is poverty, gender, Indigenous people’s rights and caste.

As Martin also admits, “Hiring correspondents who live in the countries and regions they cover … is ideal”, and my higher social status in India does place me in a country other than the one I’m writing about. Although I may not be guilty of allowing information sources I haven’t vetted enough to feed exaggerated stories that I can’t prove in any other way to be true – that is, although we may not all be Rukmini Callimachis ourselves – the composition of our newsrooms means we are only one illegitimate source away, only one moment of weakness for what could be in place of what is away, from creating the next storm.

Caste, and science’s notability threshold

A webinar by The Life of Science on the construct of the ‘scientific genius’ just concluded, with Gita Chadha and Shalini Mahadev, a PhD scholar at HCU, as panellists. It was an hour long and I learnt a lot in this short time, which shouldn’t be surprising because, more broadly, we often don’t stop to question the conduct of science itself, how it’s done, who does it, their privileges and expectations, etc., and limit ourselves to the outcomes of scientific practice alone. The Life of Science is one of my favourite publications for making questions like these part of its core work (and a tiny bit also because it’s run by two good friends).

I imagine the organisers will upload a recording of the conversation at some point (edit: hopefully by Monday, says Nandita Jayaraj); they’ve also offered to collect the answers to many questions that went unanswered, only for lack of time, and publish them as an article. This was a generous offer and I’m quite looking forward to that.

I did have yet another question but I decided against asking it when, towards the end of the session, the organisers made some attempts to get me to answer a question about the media’s role in constructing the scientific genius, and I decided I’d work my question into what I could say. However, Nandita Jayaraj, one of The Life of Science‘s founders, ended up answering it to save time – and did so better than I could have. This being the case, I figured I’d blog my response.

The question itself that I’d planned to ask was this, addressed to Gita Chadha: “I’m confused why many Indians think so much of the Nobel Prizes. Do you think the Nobel Prizes in particular have affected the perception of ‘genius’?”

This query should be familiar to any journalist who, come October, is required to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for that year. When I started off at The Hindu in 2012, I’d cover these announcements with glee; I also remember The Hindu would carry the notes of the laureates’ accomplishments, published by the Nobel Foundation, in full on its famous science and tech. page the following day. At first I thought – and was told by some other journalists as well – that these prizes have the audience’s attention, so the announcements are in effect a chance to discuss science with the privilege of an interested audience, which is admittedly quite unusual in India.

However, today, it’s clear to me that the Nobel Prizes are deeply flawed in more ways than one, and if journalists are using them as an opportunity to discuss science – it’s really not worth it. There are many other ways to cover science than on the back of a set of prizes that simply augments – instead of in any way compensating for – a non-ideal scientific enterprise. So when we celebrate the Nobel Prizes, we simply valorise the enterprise and its many structural deformities, not the least of which – in the Indian context – is the fact that it’s dominated by upper-caste men, mostly Brahmins, and riddled with hurdles for scholars from marginalised groups.

Brahmins are so good at science not because they’re particularly gifted but because they’re the only ones who seem to have the opportunity – a fact that Shalini elucidated very clearly when she recounted her experiences as a Dalit woman in science, especially when she said: “My genius is not going to be tested. The sciences have written me off.” The Brahmins’ domination of the scientific workforce has a cascading set of effects that we then render normal simply because we can’t conceive of a different way science can be, including sparing the Brahmin genius of scrutiny, as is the privilege of all geniuses.

(At a seminar last year, some speakers on stage had just discussed the historical roots of India being so bad at experimental physics and had taken a break. Then, I overheard an audience member tell his friend that while it’s well and good to debate what we can and can’t pin on Jawaharlal Nehru, it’s amusing that Brahmin experts will have discussions about Brahmin physicists without either party considering if it isn’t their caste sensibility that prevents them from getting their hands dirty!)

The other way the Nobel Prizes are a bad for journalists indicts the norms of journalism itself. As I recently described vis-à-vis ‘journalistic entropy’, there is a sort of default expectation of reporters from the editorial side to cover the Nobel Prize announcements for their implicit newsworthiness instead of thinking about whether they should matter. I find such arguments about chronicling events without participating in them to be bullshit, especially when as a Brahmin I’m already part of Indian journalism’s caste problem.

Instead, I prefer to ask these questions, and answer them honestly in terms of the editorial policies I have the privilege to influence, so that I and others don’t end up advancing the injustices that the Nobel Prizes stand for. This is quite akin to my, and others’, older argument that journalists shouldn’t blindly offer their enterprise up as a platform for majoritarian politicians to hijack and use as their bullshit megaphones. But if journalists don’t recast their role in society accordingly, they – we – will simply continue to celebrate the Nobel laureates, and by proxy the social and political conditions that allowed the laureates in particular to succeed instead of others, and which ultimately feed into the Nobel Prizes’ arbitrarily defined ‘prestige’.

Note that the Nobel Prizes here are the perfect examples, but only examples nonetheless, to illustrate a wider point about the relationship between scientific eminence and journalistic notability. The Wire for example has a notability threshold: we’re a national news site, which means we don’t cover local events and we need to ensure what we do cover is of national relevance. As a corollary, such gatekeeping quietly implies that if we feature the work of a scientist, then that scientist must be a particularly successful one, a nationally relevant one.

And when we keep featuring and quoting upper-caste male scientists, we further the impression that only upper-caste male scientists can be good at science. Nothing says more about the extent to which the mainstream media has allowed this phenomenon to dominate our lives than the fact of The Life of Science‘s existence.

It would be foolish to think that journalistic notability and scientific eminence aren’t linked; as Gita Chadha clarified at the outset, one part of the ‘genius’ construct in Western modernity is the inevitability of eminence. So journalists need to work harder to identify and feature other scientists by redefining their notability thresholds – even as scientists and science administrators need to rejig their sense of the origins and influence of eminence in science’s practice. That Shalini thinks her genius “won’t be tested” is a brutal clarification of the shape and form of the problem.

Bollywood, Kollywood, etc.

Southern India is fertile territory for film-makers. Its 260m inhabitants are richer than the national average, and prefer content in regional languages to Hindi, Bollywood’s lingua franca. Ageing cinemas bulge to breaking-point: audiences turn into cheering spectators and drown out the dialogues. Living superstars have temples named after them; fans bathe huge garlanded cut-outs of actors with milk to pray for their film’s success. Pre-screening rituals include burning camphor inside a sliced pumpkin before smashing it near the big screen to bring good luck. It is unsurprising that five of Tamil Nadu’s eight chief ministers have been film stars or scriptwriters.

This is from an article in The Economist that touches upon a point highlighted most recently by Kabali but not as much as I’d have liked, although this line of thought would’ve been a digression. The article remarks that Bollywood has been in a bit of a “funk” of late, having “recycled” the same stars repeatedly. It’s not just that. Notwithstanding the vacuous rituals, South Indian cinema, at least Tamil cinema, has also been more comfortable taking on touchy topics, and plumbing depths that are both sensitive and nuanced (as opposed to dealing with full-blown controversies), a sort of privilege afforded no doubt by an audience able to appreciate it. This isn’t to say Tamil cinema doesn’t have any problems – it has its share – as much as to point out that it has been able to touch upon societal ills more often and better than Bollywood has been able. For further reading, I recommend Karthikeyan Damodaran’s assessment of Kabali (which includes an instructive review of the caste-focused hits of Kollywood). If you have more time, Vaasanthi’s wonderful book Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine Stars: The World of Tamil Politics is a must-read. It takes great pains to document the seeding of political power in the aspirations of Tamil cinema. A short excerpt:

Once the country attained freedom and the Congress came to power in Tamil Nadu as well, puritans like [C. Rajagopalachari] and Kamaraj who were at the helm of affairs, completely disowned the contribution of cinema to the movement. Rajaji’s rival Satyamurthy, a Congressman of great imagination and vision as far as the visual media’s impact was concerned, had in fact built up a very powerful group of artists. With the rapid electrification of rural areas under Congress rule, cinema halls and films became accessible to the rural population. Thanks to touring cinemas, even the most remote villages could soon be reached by this medium.

The Dravida Kazhagam activists, many of whom were talented playwrights, recognised cinema’s potential and very deftly used it for their purpose. At first they were scriptwriters working for producers and had no control over the medium. But they could project their ‘reformist’ ideas and insert dialogues critiquing Brahmins, religious hypocrisy, untouchability and other controversial subjects. They rode on the popularity they earned from cinema as scriptwriters and saw in the medium potential to spread their message. [R.M. Veerappan] recalls that Annadurai thought ‘the revolutionary ideas of Periyar should be told through plays. And decided to write. He as an actor himself and expressed great affinity towards fellow artistes and supported and praised them in public. The Congress, on the other hand, only made use of the artists like K.B. Sundarambal, Viswanath Das and others, but their status was not enhanced. All theatre artistes including S.G. Kittappa, who was a Brahmin, were looked down upon and were not respected.’

Featured image credit: Unsplash/pixabay.