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.

A photograph of Jeffrey Epstein in 1980. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Toppling Epstein’s intellectuals network

While there have been no other high-profile exits from the MIT Media Lab after Ethan Zuckerman and J. Nathan Matias submitted their resignations, the lab’s students had been demanding its director Joi Ito to resign over his ties with Epstein. While it is ridiculous that Ito pled ignorance in his August 15 note where he admitted he had received money from Epstein for the lab as well as as investments in his personal projects, tweets by Xeni Jardan and others only made his ignorance more implausible.

Peter Aldhous and his colleagues at BuzzFeed subsequently used tax filings to track down many of his elusive grantees in one frighteningly long list that includes biologists Martin Nowak and Robert Trivers as well as the publisher of Nautilus magazine.

According to a new set of updates that hit the news over the weekend, Ito had been letting on less than he knew, and he knew that Epstein was a convicted sexual offender who had preyed upon young, vulnerable women for his sexual pleasure as well as that of a bevy of celebrities (including Marvin Minsky, the cofounder of the Media Lab). The following articles – led by Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker, who apparently published the first article based on whistleblowers at MIT who had known of Ito’s and others’s (non-ignorant) ties with Epstein but whose notes the New York Times had turned down, possibly because Ito is on the Times‘s board of directors – have all the details:

  1. Jeffrey Epstein’s Donations Create a Schism at M.I.T.’s Revered Media Lab (NYT)
  2. How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein (NYer)
  3. Director of M.I.T.’s Media Lab Resigns After Taking Money From Jeffrey Epstein (NYT)
  4. The Epstein scandal at MIT shows the moral bankruptcy of techno-elites (The Guardian)

There is also this…

… and this (the whole thread is excellent):

Farrow goes into great detail in his story but the most revealing paragraph to me was this:

… the lab was aware of Epstein’s history—in 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of solicitation of prostitution and procurement of minors for prostitution—and of his disqualified status as a donor. They also show that Ito and other lab employees took numerous steps to keep Epstein’s name from being associated with the donations he made or solicited. On Ito’s calendar, which typically listed the full names of participants in meetings, Epstein was identified only by his initials. Epstein’s direct contributions to the lab were recorded as anonymous. In September, 2014, Ito wrote to Epstein soliciting a cash infusion to fund a certain researcher, asking, “Could you re-up/top-off with another $100K so we can extend his contract another year?” Epstein replied, “yes.” Forwarding the response to a member of his staff, Ito wrote, “Make sure this gets accounted for as anonymous.” Peter Cohen, the M.I.T. Media Lab’s Director of Development and Strategy at the time, reiterated, “Jeffrey money, needs to be anonymous. Thanks.”

While it was already ridiculous at the time of Ito’s first indication that he accepted Epstein’s money without knowing of Epstein’s crimes, it is absolutely certain now that Ito spent many, many years knowing what Epstein had done and expressed regret for his actions only when the heat became unbearable.

What’s more, MIT and the Media Lab are guilty of the same thing, descending to the moral cesspit occupied by universities around the country , and the world, that harboured exploitative professors who harassed their students, and purchased their employers’ silence with scientific expertise – whatever that stands for – and federal grants. This outcome also supports the view that without the right sociological safeguards, the naked scientific enterprise is hugely vulnerably to being instrumentalised to achieve extra-scientific goals. And Cesar Hidalgo, a former associate professor at the Media Lab and then its first and sole Hispanic member, said in a thread recounting his experiences that Ito had done just this, in his own way.

(Aside: Whenever a scientist is informed that he or she is a suspect in a crime in the TV show Elementary, their first response is often along the lines of: “But I’m a scientist!” I tend to burst out laughing at this point. It is fascinating how many people believe scientists are to be perceived as incapable of committing crimes by virtue of being scientists, as if they are not people too and – more importantly – as if they are people enslaved to the diktats of the natural universe and whose directions they follow in an unbiased and unemotional manner.)

Earlier, on August 22, Evgeny Morozov published an intriguing article in the New Republic, in which he shared an email he received from John Brockman in 2013 that showed Brockman knew about Jeffrey Epstein’s criminal activities as he continued to associate with him, and even tried to recruit intellectuals to interacting with him.

Brockman runs Brockman Inc., a literary agency that represents the who’s who of intellectual authors and writers, including Morozov himself, and now helmed by his son. More importantly, Brockman is the man behind the Edge Foundation, which runs Edge.org, an internet salon of sorts where he invites some of the world’s more renowned scientists and philosophers to discuss their ideas. Edge also hosts an annual event for the world’s billionaires, called ‘The Billionaires’ Dinner’.

Morozov’s contention was that Brockman has been awfully silent about his ties with Epstein, even though it has come to light that many of the intellectuals in Epstein’s orbit were launched there by Brockman, as well as that Epstein donated $638,000 (Rs 4.5 crore) to the Edge Foundation between 2001 and 2015. Morozov apparently fired Brockman Inc. as his literary agency until the man could clarify what his relationship with Epstein was, and emailed the notice to Brockman’s son, who currently runs the company, and shared that email on Twitter on August 26:

Morozov also encouraged other Brockman clients to speak up, and sever ties if need be with him, his agency and/or his foundation. While only a few people answered his call, it is to the whistleblowers’, Farrow’s and the Miami Herald‘s credit that being or having been associated with Epstein is finally acknowledged as a problem that isn’t subject to individual moral codes but is being recognised as an incontestable evil. I hope it is only a matter of time before more scientists recognise this, and subsequently that greater participation from their own ranks in the efforts to understand S&T’s role in society is the best way to keep such Epsteinian affairs from recurring in future.