Saturday, April 25, 2015

Rolling Stones Rape of Reportage & Journalistic Ethics

Image credit: KFOR.com
"In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work."
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Last year, Rolling Stone published a sensational cover story about a brutal gang rape on the University of Virginia campus. The details of the crime itself were horrific and inhuman but what made it more alarming was the magazine’s claim that university authorities, even friends and family of the rape victim, had all turned a blind eye to the her claim. The article resulted in a public apology from the University, a closing down of the fraternity where the gang rape transpired and a police investigation into the crime. The only problem with Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus“is that it turns out to be largely a fabrication. The police investigation found no evidence that the events described by Jackie, the victim, actually occurred.

The Washington Post and CNN were the first to cast serious doubts about the story, based not on their own investigating, but on noticing that the most simple and basic tenants of journalism seemed to have been ignored in the reportage. They quickly concluded that major parts of Jackie’s account of the horrific events did not add up. For example, the fraternity in question did not host a party on the evening the alleged gang rape took place. Also, Jackie’s friends, who helped her that evening, were never interviewed and told the Washington Post that they doubted most of the story because while Jackie had appeared visibly shaken there were no signs of the serious physical injuries (as Jackie has stated in the article). Finally, it turns out the reporter had made no attempt to speak to any of the alleged perpetrators; if she had, she would have found that one prime accused, Jackie had named, did not even belong to the fraternity in question. (Source: Washington Post article).

This whole thing goes far beyond a simple lapse in judgement; based on the available facts it seems pretty clear that Rolling Stone’s editorial staff made a conscious decision to run with the story based on “sensational” aspects and to fit a narrative that they were trying to create about sexual abuse on US college campuses. In doing so they chose to forgo the most basic tenets of journalism: fact checking, investigating, and corroborating to ensure the integrity of the storyteller, all with a healthy dose of skepticism that every journalist is meant to have. None of this is about disrespecting a rape victim or doubting her story – it is simply about being thorough and finding the truth. Frankly, Rolling Stone's reaction and lack of action after the fact is even more egregious and shocking; rather than take serious action, change processes, procedure and fire all those involve, they have instead tried to absolve themselves of blame at every juncture.

First, as the story began to unravel, Rolling Stone Editor Will Dana’s reaction was to immediately blame the victim. He said “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” (Source: Daily Beast article). The reporter who penned the story also seems to apportion blame to some warped notion of political correctness of not questioning a rape victim. She recently told the New York Times that “I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts…” (Source: The Wrap article). Now, after the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism published a scathing investigative report (Read report: ‘A failure that was avoidable’) citing a complete failure of journalism; Rolling Stone has decided that not only will nobody be fired, but that “Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems” (Source: Daily Beast article). The magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, while acknowledging “flaws” in the piece, also told the New York Times that “it represented an isolated and unusual episode". He went on to blame Jackie when he added that “The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process.” (Source: Al Jazeera America article).

“The journalist places the public good above all else and uses certain methods – the foundation of which is a discipline of verification…” Journalism attempts to be fair and accurate. It does this through objective methods and managing bias” (Source: API website). As a blogger, which the American Press Institute states are not considered journalists, I take great pains to check my facts and always look for credible sources to verify them because the internet is full of “facts” that can be found to fit any narrative. A free and independent press is considered one of the fundamentals of a successful and strong democracy. Journalists are meant to hold a mirror to society, and in doing so, make us accountable for our actions. They are meant ti do this without bias or prejudice and by reporting the facts. Conversely, credibility and trust are the bedrocks of a free press and something that each publication must strive to earn from readers, not take for granted.

I have always maintained that it is not so much the fact that human beings make mistakes, but how they behave after they have been caught that counts more. People and organisation’s actions after the fact are a better gauge of their integrity and depth of character. Rolling Stone has failed miserably on all counts because an apology is meaningless without the accountability of those involved facing consequences for their actions. It is clear that Rolling Stone believes that the people tasked with holding society accountable are not themselves accountable to the society they serve.
 

Monday, April 13, 2015

America Should Not Settle for Hillary Clinton

(Image credit: Bloomberg) 

"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Lord Acton 

Before people start jumping to conclusions that this article is driven by the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman, let me be very clear; her gender has nothing to do with it. I do not consider ethnicity or gender a factor when evaluating people for office; I prefer to judge them on the merits of their record, on their integrity and most importantly their character. That said, I would love nothing more than for America to follow in the footsteps of India, Great Britain, Germany, Brazil and Liberia, and elect a woman to the highest office in the land. But it should be based on the best possible candidate for the job, rather than an attempt to make history, as tempting at that may be.

There is no question that Ms. Clinton has both the experience and the smarts to be President. She has served as first lady, been a senator from New York, and a well-respected Secretary of State. Her professional pedigree is not in question. In fact, on this front she is probably better qualified than most of the Republican field put together. However, arrogance from having been in the public eye and on a pedestal for so long should be a question. This is where we should have our first concern with Ms. Clinton. It has to do with a sense of entitlement and a complete disregard for the rules applying to her. The recent email hoopla is the most recent case in point. In what world does a government servant have the gumption to decide, unilaterally, to not only use personal email while in office but also set-up a private server in their home, a server that nobody in government can access? 

I understand that we must respect the privacy of public officials, but we are talking about a government work email account that is meant to be preserved for the public record. Ms. Clinton had no business making this decision. Even more frightening to us should be the sheer arrogance with which she dismissed the issue; it smacked of the old adage of ‘absolute power.’ She had the audacity to suggest that we should all be grateful because she “took the unprecedented step of asking that the State Department make all my work-related emails public for everyone to see.”(Source: Time article). Forgive me if I am not feeling thankful.

Even if she was within the rules, the email example and her handling of it pose fundamental and intractable questions about her clear lack of judgement. More worryingly, it begs the question of what she is hiding. She said at the same press conference that she “turned over some 30,490 emails to the State Department in December”, nearly two years after leaving office. But she also said she “deleted nearly 32,000 others.” (New York Times article).  As a NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) employee told the New Yorker “Anytime a government official takes it upon themselves to edit their own communications, good government ceases to exist.” Any public servant who is deluded enough to believe that they are responsible enough to ‘police’ themselves surely cannot be trusted with the highest office in the land.

The second concern we should have with Ms. Clinton’s candidacy is her age (same goes for male candidates). She will be in her seventieth year when assumes office, not exactly in the prime of her life. Age is part of a bigger issue we should consider in politics. Why is this, the only profession where we routinely elect people who would otherwise be retired? Would you trust a surgeon or hire a defence lawyer in their seventies? The point is that no matter how fit or healthy a person might be, we all slow down physically and mentally as we get older. These days the only way many senators and congressmen vacate their offices is when they die. Strom Thurmond was eighty-four years old when he was briefly and absurdly second in line for the Presidency in the nineteen-eighties. He went on to serve in the senate until the age of 100, still firmly holding onto his pro-segregation views when he died in 2003. Senator Robert Byrd continued to serve despite years of declining health and routine hospital visits, and finally died in office at the age of ninety-two. It is one thing to serve as a congressman or senator, but the US President’s job is without doubt the toughest in America.

We all saw how quickly and visibly both George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama aged, after taking the oath of office. Based on his behaviour and actions I always suspected Mr. Reagan was senile during most of his second term; we now know that his Alzheimer’s started three years into his first term (Source: The Guardian article). Frankly, the world is a far more complex and fragile place today than it ever was during the cold war. We need fresh thinking, new solutions and bold ideas. We need someone who is hungry and daring, not tired and expecting a coronation. Ask yourself if you really want to put a person who in every other profession would be retiring to take on the most mentally gruelling, emotionally draining and physically challenging job in the world?

Then there are the ethics violations and open hypocrisy that should concern us. When Ms. Clinton accepted the position of Secretary of State, the White House was rightly concerned about the millions foreign governments had donated to the Clinton Foundation, and how they might try to use it as leverage to curry favour with the Secretary of State. For this reason Ms. Clinton agreed to sign an ethics agreement which we now know she violated at least one time during her tenure (Source: WashingtonPost article).

There is good reason why it is illegal for a foreign government to give money to a US political candidate (but Ms. Clinton’s candidacy is unprecedented in this respect, since her husband was President and after leaving office they started a foundation). I have no doubt the Clintons will stop accepting money now that she has decided to run, but it does not change the fact that nations who donated generously over the years will still want collect their dues. It would be naïve to think otherwise. 

The Wall Street Journal found in its investigation that “At least 60 companies that lobbied the State Department during her tenure donated a total of more than $26 million to the Clinton Foundation…” (Source: New Yorker article). The Clinton Foundation does an amazing amount of good in the world, and I support and laud their initiatives. But this is not about the foundation's efforts, but rather about the undue influence and sway donors have over recipients of their largesse and about the dangers of these recipients now occupying the White House; burdened with these obligations. 

There is also a great hypocrisy with regards to an issue Ms. Clinton claims to champion: empowering women. It is a great cause and while it is fair to say she has been a great champion, it is equally fair to question her acceptance of money from countries like Saudi Arabia and Brunei that openly abuse and deny women the most basic freedom and rights. I would have greater respect for Ms. Clinton if, on principle, she had refused to accept donations from this small handful of countries where women are less than second class citizens. One other point to consider is that she has also stood by a serial cheater and alleged abuser of women. While her marriage is her personal business, by calling herself a champion for women, it begs the question of whether she is more preach than practice.

We are at a critical and complex time in history. America has never been more divided, and the world is a far more complex place, one where it is hard to distinguish friend from foe. We need someone hungry and energetic enough to grab these challenges by the collar and take them on, not someone who feels the job is their due, and looks more tired than hungry; as Peggy Noonan recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal article. The world needs new ideas and fresh perspectives, not the same old same old.

My first great disappointment with Obama (among a long series that have followed) was that the moment he was elected, on the promise of “change,” he went and appointed a group of washed out Clinton-era advisers and Bush One and Two bureaucrats. This has shown in his administration’s lack of imagination and inability to change the status quo. While Jeb Bush is much younger than Ms. Clinton, there are many of the same issues with him pertaining to dynastic politics (incidentally, he also used private email as Governor of Florida, but did not set up his own server).

We know that Hollywood with its deep pool of talent, resources and money has never managed to deliver a sequel that lives up to the original; so rather than settling for a Clinton or Bush sequel that will never change the narrative, let’s use the vote to script a bold and original story in 2016.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bet Big on India with One Big Caveat

“A person who brings out the greatness of his friend himself gains importance.”
-Rig Veda 

Anyone who has spoken with me recently will likely be tired of hearing me say how there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this next decade belongs to India, BUT depending on how India chooses to traverse it, will decide if the next century is also ours. It is true that I have always been among India’s most vocal cheerleaders, the eternal optimist and jingoistic patriot. I believed in her potential even when I was in the extreme minority during the lowest ebbs of our license Raj. I never stopped believing in her despite the tremendous odds and the contrary viewpoints of many an expert. Today, the landscape is far different, and I imagine few people will challenge my views based on the last decade of economic data.

First, let’s discuss why I am optimistic before I spell out the major caveat. The reason for my optimism lies in two parts: one has to do with forces within India, and the other a set of external factors which squarely benefit us. It is true that in the 21st century, no country can thrive on its own because of our global economic interconnectedness and interdependence. These connections will only grow deeper in the next century and serve to further isolate economies like Russia, Iran, North Korea and others that pursue isolation over smart dependency.
Indians want innovation over idol worship and 
paycheques over pogroms
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We can all agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to the Congress Party for ushering in an era of liberalisation, without which we would not be among an elite group of economies, the third largest in the world. However, I also believe the greater debt we owe them has to do with the unmitigatedly corrupt, greedy and dystopian second term they presided over. Their unchecked gluttony is directly responsible for shaking the lethargy of the Indian public; we would not have seen the rise of Narendra Modi onto the national stage without it. As a direct result of our frustration with the Congress, the majority of Indians were willing to give Mr. Modi a chance, and not based on his Hindutva philosophy. This combined with his promise to beat China and provide economic development for all Indians. It is why the youth voted for him in large numbers, the same youth that carries no baggage from 1984 or 2002 - a generation born on WhatsApp. Mr. Modi would do well to recognise and remember this because if he is seen to pander to the vocal minority within his base, the same winds that ushered him in will push him back into regional oblivion. Indians want innovation over idol worship and pay cheques over pogroms; they do not want a Hindu nation. 

The second factor that helped put the wind in India’s sails (around the time of Congress’s demise and Mr. Modi’s rise) had to do with the course that the other much vaunted BRICS economies took. In a word, they are all in the shit hole with the exception of China, which is a little different. I don’t need to spend time explaining how Russia has faltered, but will point to one thing worth nothing with regards to Brazil's and South Africa’s demise. Without question both suffered from poor leadership, institutionalized corruption and flimsy economic policies that were based on riding the global financial bubble, not on investments in domestic growth. We can argue that India had many of the same problems with corruption and lack of strong leadership under Manmohan Singh, but there is one major difference; we have a much stronger democracy. One that can withstand medium-term failures, and has the ability to course correct when things go deeply wrong. Look no further than the decimation of Congress, the rise of AAP and the BJP wave.

The fundamentals of our democracy are strong, not just in terms of people and ideas but also civil institutions, our judiciary and bureaucracy. We are better equipped to withstand bad government for a term or two and bounce back than any of the other BRICS. China is the only other BRIC standing, and here I will argue that it is our democratic values that will help us win the day against them. While China’s economic growth has been sputtering of late, I believe the final drain on their storied growth will come from a social implosion. Simply put, you cannot give people a little taste of capitalism and then expect to continue to control their thinking and freedoms, certainly not in a world where there is a world wide web and the ability to travel. Once people taste freedom of thought and expression, they tend to want more, not less.

There is no question that the demise of the BRICS has been another major gift for Mr. Modi. Now he must make sure he does not waste it. Their demise has made us the cynosure of all global investment for the foreseeable future. This, before Mr. Modi did anything to prove himself, or have time for his policies to have a substantial impact on India’s economy. It has provided him with a one-term carte blanche of sorts but he now very quickly needs to start putting this foreign investment where his development (mouth) is.
Capitalism is driven purely by great ideas, not by ideology
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Now the big caveat I mentioned. What made America the greatest economy and strongest nation over the last century is the fact that the majority of Americans found a way to rise beyond petty politics, religious rabble-rousing and superficial differences, to unite under common cause. As a society they understood that capitalism is driven purely by great ideas, not by ideology. For this reason their leaders have always embraced inclusiveness (slavery aside) and not for some other higher altruistic purpose. It is why they have encouraged freedom of thought, expression and strived to build a homogenous melting pot of diverging cultures and viewpoints.

Diversity makes a nation richer and more powerful, as long it can find a common capitalist cause to rally behind (not a political or religious one). The American motto “E Pluribus Unum” can be found on everything from their coins and currency to their Presidential seal; it means “out of many, one”. Americans have rallied behind this motto and worked hard to attract the brightest and best minds from every corner of the globe; this diversity has paid great dividends with world-beating innovation, and years of economic growth and military dominance.
We need a society that convalescences around education and economic opportunity, not Hindutva
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India’s veins are bursting with rich and diverse talent. Mr. Modi must now strive to create an even more open-minded and inclusive society, one that convalescences around education, skill development, economic opportunity and growth, not around Hindutva. Now is the time to stand united, not to divide further. This alone will allow Mr. Modi to deliver on his promise of the Indian dream. However, if he continues to allow the forces of Hindutva to hijack his agenda, then he will very quickly squander the Indian century that is now finally, and firmly, within our grasp.