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Betwa Sharma

Betwa Sharma

Posted: November 30, 2010 01:54 PM

The jury is still out on whether Indian journalists engaged in political lobbying or if the things they said were acceptable in the course of haggling for information with their sources.

The media controversy has led to attacks and counterattacks but it has bypassed serious introspection on the lines reporters can and cannot cross. One such meeting was organized in New Delhi by the Foundation for Media Professionals but it doesn't satisfy the public's appetite for a vigorous debate with consequence.

More than a week after the scandal broke, journalist Barkha Dutt who has defended herself on twitter and her website till now, appeared on television to explain herself -- probably because the people are pissed this time ... really pissed. (Read what happened)

Recently, several tapes were leaked in connection with a $40 billion corruption scandal. Conversations between several journalists and a corporate lobbyist have led to allegations that they were trying to land a top job for a politician and doing the bidding of billionaire tycoons.

The journalists have argued that reporters sometimes say things to get their sources to open up. Much of their tete-a-tete falls squarely within that explanation but one particularly jarring line from Dutt is "Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them (Congress)? Tell me what should I tell them?"

"As a matter of record, I never passed on any message to any Congress leader ... ultimately, I did no more than humor a source who was providing me information during a rapidly changing news story," said Dutt in a statement.

With a few exceptions, the mainstream media stayed deafeningly mum on the scandal for a long time. The question now is what impact this hullabaloo will have on the shadowy nexus of journalists with lobbyists, politicians, and industry, and whether the rules of engagement will be rewritten and enforced.

Many prominent journalists have slammed the political-media muck but they haven't suggested ways to hose it down ---what happens if more such revelations pop up? Was this enough to get someone fired or suspended and is there some external media authority that can bring down the hammer?

While prematurely firing reporters doesn't help, something on the lines of MSNBC's brief suspension of Keith Olbermann for making political donations would have kept faith alive in media institutions, which are now in the doldrums of public opinion.

Internal investigations, however, were never within the realm of possibility since the respective media organizations of concerned reporters leapt to their defense or kept a distance.

The real rot lies in the absence of accountability and rules -- ethical or otherwise -- for the Indian media. A watered down version of journalism tenets from the West are at play but these too are flexible on the home field.

Like everything else in India, the end result is not all bad and the title "vibrant media" is not undeserved. But there is no pressure or incentives to clean out the filth that erodes its reliability.

On October 18, one of the country's most widely circulated magazines, India Today, published a "Letter from the Editor" by Aroon Poorie. Parts of the letter had been lifted from an article in Slate Magazine written by Grady Hendrix.

The original article ran on Slate's website on September 27 was called "SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth! The biggest movie star you've probably never heard of."

"Jackie Chan is the highest-paid actor in Asia, and that makes sense ... But the No. 2 spot goes to someone who doesn't make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986," Hendrix wrote.

Poorie sent a letter of apology to Hendrix and explained to David Plotz, the editor of Slate, how the mistake had happened. "I greatly regret this error," he said, noting that an apology had also been issued in the subsequent edition of the magazine.

A short apology from the editor of a major magazine in the U.S. would not have been enough to get her off the hook. The India Today/Slate episode didn't even make a dent in the journalism landscape in India.

Hendrix, who wasn't happy with the apology, wrote, "Any man can apologize, but only the millionaire CEO of a multiplatform media company who is also editor-in-chief of a major news magazine can write an apology that is defiantly non-apologetic."

Comments on blogs and Facebook echo a similar frustration about the measly debate that has followed the publication of the transcripts. This time, public fury has solely pushed the discussion a little further. In another few days, the outrage will subside and this too shall pass.


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