It’s not often that the junior most reporter in the newsroom gets to question the editor-in-chief’s decisions, and from the publication’s turf at that. Most media organisations expect their journalists to do all the kraanti outside, but show the highest levels of docility within the organisation precincts. So credit where credit is due. Going a step further, you asked me to go “hammer and tongs against what or who I disagree with”. I’ll try my best to be irreverent. In any case, that’s a cornerstone of Outlook put in place by Vinod Mehta himself.
You recently published an opinion piece by JNU students’ union president Aishe Ghosh that discussed why JNU remains a top university despite all attempts to pull it down. Given your fanatical commitment to giving both sides a fair chance, you sought a piece from an ABVP or a BJP member. Now the principal disagreements I have to submit are regarding this decision but I’ll come to it later.
The piece written by the BJP youth leader broadly argues that JNU is a centre of academic excellence and it must get rid of anti-national forces to become a centre of cultural excellence too. You read the piece and okayed it for publishing. Within the piece, the author says that JNU students’ union was behind the attack on students in January this year and that Aishe Ghosh was seen on camera taking masked goons into hostels. These are lies. Aishe’s head was smashed. There is tons of evidence to prove that she was the victim of the attack, and none to suggest that she was the perpetrator.
When I flagged the fallacy, you said it’s so and so’s opinion. A lie is not an opinion. Plus an argument can not be mounted on lies and unsubstantiated allegations, which the piece is riddled with. We can not wash our hands of it by saying that it’s another person’s opinion. By publishing it, we gave it legitimacy. We normalised it. Amplified it.
Moreover, it’s not as harmless as some of us might think. In a sense, it’s dangerous. Let me argue. The proliferation of the idea that JNU students are anti-national endangers the students, at times their physical safety. I am not saying that a person reading that Outlook piece will go and attack a JNU student. But that piece certainly contributes to a project that vilifies the university in public sphere, throttles the university administratively, and creates an atmosphere where JNU students can be attacked, perversely booked for the same, and all of it be done with some public approval.
My violent contentions with the ‘both-sides’ policy now. When Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer ferrying cows was lynched in Alwar, Rajasthan home minister Gulab Chand Kataria said “both sides were at fault”, implying that Khan too had committed a crime by smuggling cows. In a fair world, it would be inconsequential whether Khan was doing it or not, but because the debate has plummeted to such revolting depths, it is important to record that Khan had purchased the cows from a cattle fair and had the receipts.
The 'both-sides' trope recognises and dignifies hate as a ‘side’. It works as an equaliser, often between a victim and a perpetrator. It ignores the power differential between the two and that’s the greatest oversight for an editor. It’s like inviting a wolf and a goat to a table and telling the audience, “Look here! We are going to have a very lively debate.” I realise the political compulsions of contemporary journalism and totally understand conceding for that reason. It’s only when you do it purely as an editorial policy that I disagree.
I also feel it is offhand to term the approach as objectivity. If we were discussing homosexuality in an issue, would you seek an opinion piece from a homophobe? Why wouldn’t you? Afterall that is a ‘side’, an opinion. If we were doing a story on national security, would you ask for a column from Hafiz Saeed or Bhavesh Patel – the latter was convicted for planting explosives in the Ajmer Dargah blast case? A Twitter user framed this thought comically, saying that all he sees these days are anti-corona stories. Why the balance-wadi editors are not carrying any pro-corona stories, he asked.
My only submission is that the spectrum of legitimate debate must begin where hate, discrimination and oppression end. Hate just cannot be an opinion. Of course, those opinions, if uttered by influential people, can be carried in news reports, sandwiched between facts and context, or they can be probed in interviews, but progenitors of such opinions can’t be given a carte blanche on the op-ed pages. Journalistic debate, just like journalism, has to revolve around ideas of justice, kindness, progressivism, secularism, rationality, and as much as the word is frowned upon in journalistic circles, activism.
To quote Joseph Pulitzer, “Above knowledge, above news, above intelligence, the heart and soul of a paper lie in its moral sense, in its courage, its integrity, its humanity, its sympathy for the oppressed, its independence, its devotion to the public welfare, its anxiety to render public service.”
You have often asked who will define the moral sense? Of course, the top editors. Why is there a doubt at all? You might say you believe in taking a non-judgmental route to journalism but how is that possible? You are making judgments every single moment. From choosing what stories to do, when to do them, what stories not to do, which reporters and editors to hire, to choosing the font for the text – each of these involves judgments of ideological and political nature. How can the opinion section exist in a silo?
The collective consciousness of the society, one learned professor told me, has so far been shaped by poets and artists – he did not mention editors but I feel they certainly have a role. By no means, he added, it was limited to the celebrated giants living in big cities speaking for the entire country. The local poets and artists of every small town, the editors of local magazines, they all shape it. That social media is eroding this tradition is besides the point. But why should editors shy away from this responsibility? When they realise it, I am sure, they will desist from publishing ‘opinions’ that squeeze or endanger the weak and the marginalised, be it farmers, be it religious minorities, be it oppressed castes, or be it oppressed races.
Look at the controversy over Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s opinion piece in the New York Times (NYT) earlier this month. The piece argued for deploying US military to quell the demonstrations – at places violent – by enraged citizens against the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a police officer. In the face of strong criticism, the editors did a review of the piece and concluded that it fell short of their standards and should not have been published. The NewsGuild of New York called the publication of piece “an irresponsible choice” and stated that “invoking state violence disproportionately hurts Black and brown people.”
Responding to the controversy, Bret Stephens, a columnist for NYT with a conservative bent, noted that the value of Cotton’s Op-Ed doesn’t lie in its goodness or rightness. “It lies in the fact that Cotton is a leading spokesman for a major current of public opinion. To suggest our readers should not have the chance to examine his opinions for themselves is to patronize them. To say they should look up his opinions elsewhere — say, his Twitter feed — is to betray our responsibility as a newspaper of record,” he wrote.
Cotton’s views could have been explored and contested in an interview. But what Stephens suggests is inclusion of the ‘major current of public opinion’ in op-ed pages. To put it blithely, it asks for calibrating the editorial standards to the majoritarian sentiment. That is a dangerous proposition. It calls for dilution of justice and kindness in the editorial exercise, and accommodation of prevailing opinions that are advantaged perhaps only by their numerical heft. Again, a vast section of people could be homophobic. Would you publish their views?
I think it’s time to get down from the pulpit and go back to my job of an ordinary reporter. That brings another thought. An ordinary reporter, even in the most ordinary stories, does an estimation of truth. Editors certainly do it and do it all the time. This estimation does not have to be suspended while taking calls on opinion pieces. There is a good possibility we’ll never get too close to the truth about the JNU incident. An utterly compromised police force can only be trusted to write third-rate fiction. The courts … well, I am quite fine in my lowly existence and do not wish to invite a contempt case.
But with all the reportorial evidence on the attack, it is not difficult to identify the victim and the perpetrator. The confession about attack and his association with ABVP by Akshat Awasthi in a sting, the identification of masked woman with rod as ABVP’s Komal Sharma, the injuries of Aishe Ghosh and others, clearly reveal the truth for anybody who is willing to see. So to give space to somebody who peddles falsehood, and argues with ideas rooted in hate, power and cultural supremacism, I think, is not fair.
There are a million things to fault JNU for. But to discuss whether JNU is anti-national or not is to allow ourselves to fall for a faux binary created by pogrom-enabling TV channels. Not only does it contribute to systemizing discrimination against JNU, but it also does not advance or enrich us critically. My reservations about publishing that piece, however, stem chiefly from the former concern. The range of debate must always exist in the realm of justice.
(Salik Ahmad is Special Correspondent, Outlook)