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.

'Mantra sciences' is just poor fantasy

I don’t know how the author of a piece in the Times of India managed to keep a straight face when introducing a school based on Vedic rituals that would “show the way” to curing diseases like cancer. Even the more honest scientific studies that are regularly accompanied by press releases proclaiming “the paper is a step in the right direction of curing cancer” tend to be unreliable thanks to institutional and systemic pressures to produce sensational research. But hey, something written many thousands of years ago might just have all the answers – at least according to Jaya Dava, the chairperson of the Rajasthan Sanskrit Academy. Excerpt:

Proposed in 2005, the Rajasthan government’s research institute to study the science of ancient Hindu texts, the first-of-its-kind in the country, is all set become operational soon. On Monday, the Research Institute of Mantra Sciences (RIMS) or the Rajasthan Mantra Pratishtan, under the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University (JRRSU), called for applications from eligible candidates for various posts, including that of teachers. The then education minister, Ghanshyam Tiwari, had first proposed the institute in 2005. While presenting the concept, inspired by ‘Manusmriti’, the ancient Hindu book of law, Tiwari had quoted a verse from the text, ‘Sarvam vedaat prasiddhyati’ (Every solution lies in Vedas), in the state assembly.

So the RIMS is being set up to further the ideals enshrined in the Manusmriti, the document that supposedly also talks about the caste system and how anyone trapped in it has doomed all their descendants to never being able to escape from its dystopian rules. Second: apart from having been mooted by a state’s education minister, the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University is a state institution utilising public taxes for its operation. Don’t the people get a say in what kind of magic-practising institutions their government is allowed to set up? Hogwarts was at least entertaining and nicely written.

I’m just anguished about the Hindutva brigade’s poor imagination when it comes to epic fantasy. For example, according to Dava, “reciting verses such as ‘Achutaya Namaha’, ‘Anantaya Namaha’ and ‘Govindaya Namaha’ have helped in treating cancer patients.” Helped in what way? If we had a quantifiable measure that other people could try to replicate, we’d be working towards having an internally consistent system of magic – but no.

Also, in a world without cancer, is anybody even thinking about the numerous emergent possibilities? For starters, by 2020, we’re going to have $150 billion left unspent because cancer drugs are going to be useless. And India’s B-grade film industries are going to have to come up with new ways to make forlorn ex-lovers spurt blood and die. And David Bowie and Alan Rickman would still be alive. And chanting hippies would be the new millionaire oncologists. The possibilities are endless. More, according to Rajendra Prasad Mishra, who headed RIMS for a decade from 2006,

“The answer as to how a simple line drawn by Lord Ram prevented the mighty king Ravana from crossing over lies in Vedic science. This ancient wisdom, if discovered, can safeguard India from our enemies by drawing lines across the borders. The chanting of mantras, with the right diction, pronunciation and by harnessing cosmic energy, can help in condensing vapours and bringing rain. This can solve the major problem of water scarcity.”

But conveniently, this wisdom is considered “lost” and has to be “found” at a great cost to a lot of people while the people doing the finding look like they’re doing something when they’re really, really not. Maybe its writers wrote it when they were 20, looked back at it when they were 40, figured it was a lot of tosh and chucked it into the Saraswati. I’ve no issues with magic myself, in fact I love fantasy fiction and constantly dream of disappearing into one, but I sure as hell don’t want to exist in a realm with infinite predictability shoved down everyone’s throats.

Notice also how people are completely okay with trusting someone else who says it’s a good idea to invest a lot of money in a scheme to make sense of which very few people are supposed to possess the intellectual resources, a risk they’re willing to take anyway because it might just them more powerful – while they actively stay away from cryptocurrencies like bitcoins because they suspect it might be a Ponzi scheme? Indeed, the powers that be must be vastly more resourceful in matters of the intellect than I to be able to resolve this cosmic cognitive dissonance.

Featured image credit: stuarthampton/pixabay.

‘Mantra sciences’ is just poor fantasy

I don’t know how the author of a piece in the Times of India managed to keep a straight face when introducing a school based on Vedic rituals that would “show the way” to curing diseases like cancer. Even the more honest scientific studies that are regularly accompanied by press releases proclaiming “the paper is a step in the right direction of curing cancer” tend to be unreliable thanks to institutional and systemic pressures to produce sensational research. But hey, something written many thousands of years ago might just have all the answers – at least according to Jaya Dava, the chairperson of the Rajasthan Sanskrit Academy. Excerpt:

Proposed in 2005, the Rajasthan government’s research institute to study the science of ancient Hindu texts, the first-of-its-kind in the country, is all set become operational soon. On Monday, the Research Institute of Mantra Sciences (RIMS) or the Rajasthan Mantra Pratishtan, under the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University (JRRSU), called for applications from eligible candidates for various posts, including that of teachers. The then education minister, Ghanshyam Tiwari, had first proposed the institute in 2005. While presenting the concept, inspired by ‘Manusmriti’, the ancient Hindu book of law, Tiwari had quoted a verse from the text, ‘Sarvam vedaat prasiddhyati’ (Every solution lies in Vedas), in the state assembly.

So the RIMS is being set up to further the ideals enshrined in the Manusmriti, the document that supposedly also talks about the caste system and how anyone trapped in it has doomed all their descendants to never being able to escape from its dystopian rules. Second: apart from having been mooted by a state’s education minister, the Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University is a state institution utilising public taxes for its operation. Don’t the people get a say in what kind of magic-practising institutions their government is allowed to set up? Hogwarts was at least entertaining and nicely written.

I’m just anguished about the Hindutva brigade’s poor imagination when it comes to epic fantasy. For example, according to Dava, “reciting verses such as ‘Achutaya Namaha’, ‘Anantaya Namaha’ and ‘Govindaya Namaha’ have helped in treating cancer patients.” Helped in what way? If we had a quantifiable measure that other people could try to replicate, we’d be working towards having an internally consistent system of magic – but no.

Also, in a world without cancer, is anybody even thinking about the numerous emergent possibilities? For starters, by 2020, we’re going to have $150 billion left unspent because cancer drugs are going to be useless. And India’s B-grade film industries are going to have to come up with new ways to make forlorn ex-lovers spurt blood and die. And David Bowie and Alan Rickman would still be alive. And chanting hippies would be the new millionaire oncologists. The possibilities are endless. More, according to Rajendra Prasad Mishra, who headed RIMS for a decade from 2006,

“The answer as to how a simple line drawn by Lord Ram prevented the mighty king Ravana from crossing over lies in Vedic science. This ancient wisdom, if discovered, can safeguard India from our enemies by drawing lines across the borders. The chanting of mantras, with the right diction, pronunciation and by harnessing cosmic energy, can help in condensing vapours and bringing rain. This can solve the major problem of water scarcity.”

But conveniently, this wisdom is considered “lost” and has to be “found” at a great cost to a lot of people while the people doing the finding look like they’re doing something when they’re really, really not. Maybe its writers wrote it when they were 20, looked back at it when they were 40, figured it was a lot of tosh and chucked it into the Saraswati. I’ve no issues with magic myself, in fact I love fantasy fiction and constantly dream of disappearing into one, but I sure as hell don’t want to exist in a realm with infinite predictability shoved down everyone’s throats.

Notice also how people are completely okay with trusting someone else who says it’s a good idea to invest a lot of money in a scheme to make sense of which very few people are supposed to possess the intellectual resources, a risk they’re willing to take anyway because it might just them more powerful – while they actively stay away from cryptocurrencies like bitcoins because they suspect it might be a Ponzi scheme? Indeed, the powers that be must be vastly more resourceful in matters of the intellect than I to be able to resolve this cosmic cognitive dissonance.

Featured image credit: stuarthampton/pixabay.