Coy Headlines and Gratuitous Ones: Accuracy and Fairness Be Damned
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
In a 'report' on Rediff on the Net, Suleman Din repeats verbatim an Associated Press story that appeared in March 2000. The story, which appears on the Indo Link web site, has the headline, 'California Muslims criticize plan for Gandhi statue'. It is a piece of straightforward reporting about how the 4, 000 strong Muslim community was opposing the installation of a Gandhi statue in Riverside that was proposed by an Indian-American peace activist, Lalit Acharya. Acharya thought that one of the ways of healing racial wounds in Riverside which had witnessed the death of a young Black woman by a White police officer was to have a statue of the Mahatma, to remind people of one of the greatest votaries of peace.
In the Rediff story, that appeared on August 8, 2001 the only addition to the year-old Muslim protest against the installation of a statue of Gandhi was that the city of Riverside had struck a compromise with the Muslims. Din says, that the mayor of Riverside, Loveridge told him that "Southern California is an extremely diverse place, " and that, "No one should be prejudging people here and the best way to understand each other is by taking the time to listen to each other." And what did that listening to lead to? A shameless compromise, or best put -- a buckling down to a Muslim campaign against the world's best known peace proponent! Din reports that "among the concessions the city was willing to make were naming a street beside the local mosque after a Muslim leader and considering a sister-city relationship with a Pakistani city. Currently, the city has a sister relationship with Hyderabad, India."
But more than the non-story or the reporting of the buckling down to Muslim pressure, what is new about the Rediff story is the headline used both to advertise the story on the opening page of the portal and the headline appearing on the story itself. The headline advertising the story on the Rediff site says, 'US residents drop opposition to Gandhi statue'. Inside, the story title goes, 'Riverside residents drop opposition to Gandhi statue'. Till you begin reading the story you will not know that it was Muslim residents of Riverside who opposed the installation of the statue. If you believed that it is only Indian newspapers and magazines in India which use ambiguous and coy headlines whenever reporting religious clashes, or reporting with silly obfuscation that, "some people belonging to a minority community attacked a place of worship of a majority community" or vice versa, the Rediff headlines should disabuse you of that belief.
Why is it that the editors of Rediff, the most popular Indian news portal on the Internet, adopting journalism practices that no one else in the world, except Indian newspapers, practices? After all, the 'report' appeared in its US edition. Could they not follow the US standards? Fairness and accuracy is what is expected of newspapers and reporters (and editors). There is no need for screaming headlines, not even the likes that the newspaper that boasts that it publishes only the 'news fit for print' uses when it wishes to skew its readers' opinions.
For example, read the gratuitous headlines that the New York Times uses to report Hindu-Muslim, or Hindu-Christian clashes. The paper reported on January 1, 1999 'Catholic Hall Set on Fire'. On January 23, 1999 it headlined another story, 'Attacks on Christians unsettle Rural India'. On February 2, 1999 another story was titled, '10, 000 Christians protest attacks'. Or how about this: on February 9, 1999 it reported, 'Two Christians Slain'. Must be big news if two Christians were slain in India, ruled by a 'Hindu nationalist government'. But the most gratuitous was the headline to a story reported by their correspondent Celia Dugger. The headline on March 23, 1999 ran: 'Shiva Vs. Jesus: Hindus Burn Homes of Christians'. Is the New York Times shy about using headlines that reports the facts, or even gratuitous and racy headlines when it wants to wave its Christian flag? Or when it wants to paint present day Indian politics according to its own perceptions and world views? So, for example, on October 8, 1999 it headlined a story announcing the BJP-led NDA victory as 'Hindu-first Party Wins Solid Victory in India's Election'. Sure to set your teeth on edge because it is neither factual nor fair nor accurate. Rediff need not follow the most prestigious newspaper in the world in its choice of phrasing headlines, but can it not be precise? Factual it is, when it says 'Riverside residents' or 'US residents', but is it accurate?
Why do we Hindu-Indians, even in the US, seek to pander to Muslims even when there is no particular Muslim mind to be changed and Muslim vote to be influenced? After all, the Muslims of Riverside, four thousand strong, believe that Gandhi was responsible for the deaths of Muslims during and after the partition of India! As the Associated Press report says, "Some blame Gandhi for failing to prevent the deaths of thousands of Muslims when religious fighting broke out in 1947 as India and Pakistan moved away from British colonial rule. 'He was not a hero to everybody, ' said Jamil Dada, an investment manager. Religious violence forced his grandparents to abandon their home and business when they fled India for Pakistan, he said. 'It's just going to open a whole can of worms, ' he said of the proposed statue. 'It would be in Riverside's best interest to nip this in the bud'."
So, the compromise that Riverside struck with its Muslim residents did not make Mr. Dada acknowledge that Gandhi was one of the greatest proponents of peace. No. All that it did was have Riverside name a street after a Muslim leader! The same as it happened in Chicago, when part of Devon Street was sought to be named after Gandhi and the Muslims forced the city to name part of the street Muhammad Ali Jinnah Road! So much for the South Asian label that so many 'secular' Indian-Americans paste on themselves.
Originally published on Sunday, August 19, 2001.