Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why You Need To See American Sniper

"I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity." 
Dwight D. Eisenhower 

Image source: www.sofrep.com

I am struggling to understand the small but vocal backlash against Clint Eastwood’s movie, American Sniper. This movie, like many before it, is based on the real life story of Chris Kyle. He was a Navy Seal credited with the most sniper kills in US history. I have no problem with people disliking the film, or disagreeing with Eastwood’s vision but what bothers me is the unfair politicisation, seeming hypocrisy and the often one-sided arguments of many of these critics.

One critical review I read was written by Peter Maass at The Intercept (“HowClint Eastwood Ignores History in ‘American Sniper’). In this piece he chastises his fellow reviewers from the Los Angeles and New York Times as people “who spend too much time in screening rooms” because in Mr. Maass’s estimation they “are falling over themselves in praise of it.” To begin with I find his criticism rather disingenuous. He is part of the same media establishment that completely abdicated its responsibility in the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq. The American media failed to challenge the veracity of every hasty, unproven claim and the numerous unverified assertions of the Bush administration for months before the invasion. I believe it amounted to the greatest failing of media in modern times.

So it seems ironic when Mr. Maass says “We got Iraq wrong in the real world. It would be nice to get it right at the multiplex,” considering he was part of the establishment that failed to question Cheney and Bush before they invaded a sovereign nation; without provocation, justification or any real or imminent threat to America. It seems convenient for Mr. Mass to again abdicate his responsibility; this time by chastising a Hollywood movie. It would seem that he wants to cleanse his conscience of all the innocent Iraqi blood on American media hands. If Mr. Maass were serious about righting the wrongs of America’s invasion, he would stop picking on soldiers who served their country and Hollywood, and work on persuading the International Court to summon Messrs. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Blair and every other architect of this illegal invasion before a war crimes tribunal.

Before I tackle some of the other criticisms that I have read in other media reviews and people’s Facebook posts, I want to clarify that it is a Hollywood film. It never claims to be a documentary, or a historically and factually accurate account of the Iraq war. Furthermore, the filmmakers have gone out of their way to say that they were not trying to make a war movie, much less present a critique of the mess America made in Iraq. Besides, the last time I checked movies are still made to entertain (and make money) by suspending reality with larger than life characters, salacious storylines and over-the-top dramatisations of actual events; even when they are based on biographies. If you want accuracy, analysis and facts, watch a PBS documentary.

Additionally, I think we can agree that no matter how brilliant a movie, nothing from Hollywood must be upheld for its historical accuracy or a realistic and honest portrayal of real-life events. That would just make for boring film. This is entertainment pure and simple; I doubt people would pay money to watch the very monotony they came to escape. So, for people to suddenly hold this movie to such a high standard would be the equivalent of saying that they get their world news from Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. Then decide to take these men to task for factual inaccuracies, lack of objectivity, presenting one-sided views and for dramatising and making light of serious events. Ava DuVerney, the director of Selma, after being criticized for historical inaccuracies in her film, pointed out that we will become a very sad and dangerous society if we expect our kids to learn history through our movies.

Another major criticism that people have is that Kyle, as he states in his autobiography, seems to have relished killing and referred to Iraqis as savages. It is likely he enjoyed killing, but Kyle is hardly alone in this. It is said that we must be passionate about what we do to truly excel. So why does it not hold true for soldiers, who are trained killers? I am not saying that every soldier enjoys pulling the trigger and taking a human life, but how can we discount that a small percentage of the men we train to be cold blooded killers will get addicted to and enjoy killing? To this point, I think Kyle’s character in the movie forces us to accept that war is not pretty. It is not politically correct, it is not fair and it is always senseless. The actions taken by soldiers on the battlefield will never fit into neat our little moral codes or Geneva Conventions that make us feel warm and fuzzy in the safety of our homes. War forces good and honourable men to sometimes do both evil and dishonorable things. Soldiers see what human beings were never meant to witness, and war changes everyone. Even those who make it back lose a large part of their humanity. I don’t believe our souls can ever un-see what our eyes have seen. That is the real cost of war, beyond physical injuries. Just like Taya Kyle tells her husband Chris, there are thousands of veterans who came back physically but are yet to make it back emotionally and mentally to their families. This movie does a good job of reminding us of this very real and hidden cost to our soldiers and their families. Have you ever wondered why the largest percentages of homeless are veterans? In, 2013 alone the VA served more than 249,000 Veterans who were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless (Source: US Department of Veterans Affairs).

Another criticism that has been leveled at the filmmakers is that they chose to show only one side of Kyle’s character, leaving out the evil blood lust and racist overtones that come through in his book. I would argue that this holds true for every movie with a flawed hero, from a Gordon Gekko to Abe Lincoln to MLK to JFK. An essential part of great film making is to get an audience to feel empathy with its hero - to a point where we are able to forgive even their worst trespasses because all men have flaws. This may not be the reality, but it is what all brilliant directors and successful films do. I would even argue that Kyle's killing of a young Iraqi boy, barely ten years old, in the opening moments of the film is a big character flaw that creates a likeability deficit, which the rest of the film needs to work hard to overcome, in order to win back the audience’s empathy for its hero. I have never read his book, but I don’t see Kyle as a hero. I see him as another unfortunate victim of an unnecessary war.

To this point I would also add that movies, video games and other forms of entertainment cannot ever become our yardstick for reality, values, principles, and history or life lessons. Those still need to be taught in our homes and schools, so that when we consume various forms of entertainment we are able to differentiate between good, bad, fiction and reality and never the other way around. I also disagree that the film fails to show the general disillusionment with the Iraq war, and the lack of clarity of mission. In the movie there is a very powerful scene where Kyle meets his brother, who is returning home from Iraq, as Kyle arrives for another tour. His brother’s utter disenchantment and disillusionment with America’s purpose in Iraq is juxtaposed beautifully as it clashes with Kyle’s blind patriotism and unquestioning, brainwashed, jingoistic sense of duty.

Also, I think it is very easy for us to forget how one-sided and “sanitized” the Iraq war reporting was in the American media. It felt more clean and censored than daytime soap operas, so much so that the vast majority of us barely remembered there were men and women dying and being maimed daily. This, as we blissfully continued to drive to the mall and impatiently wait in line at Starbucks, while checking our smartphones for the latest Kardashian gossip. Again this alternate reality is something the movie delves into. We see Bradley Cooper’s character struggle and have a hard time processing this total lack of care and awareness among American people, the same people he had gone to die for.

Veteran care or lack thereof is another ignored aspect of war of which American Sniper raises awareness, in a very powerful way. Benjamin Franklin said that "Wars are not paid for in wartime, the bill comes later." It is this real and ongoing human cost of war we continue to underestimate, that American Sniper delves into masterfully. None of us have to deal with the long-term effect it has on children and family members of servicemen. We all saw Obama declare an end to the war in Iraq, but consider that among those who made it back there are now a million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with permanent and life redefining disabilities. They include veterans with lost limbs, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress (PTSD), depression, hearing loss, breathing disorders, diseases, and other long-term health problems (Source: Cost of War, Brown University). In fact, medical experts say that many of Kyle’s unsubstantiated claims, like punching Jesse Ventura and killing looters during Hurricane Katrina, are consistent with patients with severe PTSD. Let’s not forget that Chris Kyle served four tours; he witnessed the horror of war for close to a decade.

It is easy to politicise and be critical of everything, as we take for granted the very freedoms that the Chris Kyle’s were told they were fighting to protect. The point is not whether you see Chris Kyle as a hero or villain. This movie is worth seeing because it is ultimately an anti-war movie. One that forces us to recognise the human cost of war, through the eyes of a soldier who has an over-simplistic moral code, which actually makes him the ideal soldier. However, even he cannot escape what Eisenhower and Franklin understood - the ugliness and inhumanity of war; scars all veterans and their families bear forever.

If we understand this, then we might understand why everyone who witnesses war first hand says that there are no winners. Even the victors lose. This realization alone will ensure that we begin to hold our leaders more accountable and question any decisions to go to war the next time they try to pull the wool over our eyes and rush in. We must never forget that even though war is sometimes necessary, it should always be the last resort.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Ethics and Journalism in the Age of Social Media


"The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses."
Malcom X

There is a fundamental issue that exists today and I want to call it the greatest existential crisis of our time; it is the choice to make money or to do the right thing. I understand that this choice is not something mankind is facing for the first time and that we have always grappled with it in capitalist societies, but my concern is that the tilt in favour of making money, today, seems to override standing on our principles and ethics. More than ever before in our history. Today, the vast majority of corporations and individuals seem to feel that bottom-line growth justifies the means, and this is something that should concern us all, greatly.

Media is the most powerful communication tool. In fact, I would argue that with the advent of social media, where anyone with an internet connection can spread news, the role of the mainstream media has not diminished but become even more important. The internet is filled with rumours and falsehoods, and social media is in large part fuels stories that are unverified but popular and trending due to their sensational or gossipy nature. In such a world, the role of established media outlets as the arbiters or truth and fact checking, takes on much greater urgency. And it requires far more responsibility from editors and publishers than ever before in history. Yet driving eyeballs and making money has become an equally important goal for all these media houses that are struggling to survive in the digital age; a situation that has created a serious dilemma between chasing revenue and applying ethics in journalism. The question is whether to break news first (to drive maximum eyeballs and revenue) or wait to check the facts and risk being an hour late to the party - which in social media standard time is roughly a decade late.

Even though the reality is that speed and being first count for more eyeballs than being factually correct, it does not absolve so-called reputable media outlets of the greater responsibility that they have to society. With great power comes great responsibility. Granted, mainstream media is no longer our only source of information. For that reason, it is even more important for them to be sources of trusted and reliable information. Here, I make a distinction between cable news and mainstream news; the former is largely opinion, gossip and entertainment, while the latter needs to be the opposite. However, both should aspire to greater truth, based on some of the ethics and principles that have driven responsible journalism for centuries. They both wield tremendous influence over the masses and our minds.

Money can be made, but a reputation cannot be regained or fixed (with all the dollars in the world) once the trust between reader and institution has been broken. There should be absolutely no place for the sensational half-truths and lack of fact checking that we see from even the most venerable media institutions today. In the race to break a story or get retweeted into becoming a trending topic, they are all willing to put principles aside. Rolling Stone’s recent cover story on the horrific UVA campus rape, and the Fox News interview with a Seal Team Six member who was part of the Bin Laden raid, are both examples of the lack of ethics to which I am referring.

Rolling Stone clearly chose to run with a story based on the “sensational” aspects and in doing so chose to forego 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 the victim or doubting her story – it is simply about being thorough and finding the truth. Equally, Fox News did a disservice to our country by agreeing to give the Seal Team Six member a platform on which to speak publicly. There used to be an unbreakable code of honour among men who serve our country in the shadows. They did it knowing that nobody would ever know their sacrifice by face or name; there is no greater honour or valiance. I believe these men were the bravest of the brave because they were driven by a sense of duty, honour and the noblest quality in humanity, not by fame, fortune or personal glory. For this reason, Fox should have turned down the Seal Team Six member, even knowing that other news outlets like CBS or CNN would likely jump at the opportunity to do the same exclusive interview with him. If Fox News had done this, they not only might have won my and many peoples respect, but also would have set a very important precedent that is much needed in journalism today – doing the right thing.

Equally, I was shocked by the number of media outlets that jumped to disseminate the embarrassing Sony Studio emails and other private and personal information of executives and employees.  Everyone was aware that this information was stolen and released to the public by hackers. We live in the age of WikiLeaks, but there is a fundamental difference between a whistle blower and a hacker. The latter is always theft and extortion. I have no problem with media reporting the hacking, even debating the state actors behind it and investigating the fingerprint of the hackers, but institutions like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post should have stopped short of sharing the stolen information. They can and will probably justify their actions using “Bartnicki vs Vopper,” where the Supreme Court ruled that “...the playing of illegally intercepted material under these circumstances was constitutionally protected, at least when the broadcaster wasn’t involved in the illegal interception...” (Source: Washington Post Article). They are legally within their rights, but my point is not about legality. It has to do with guiding principles and ethics; things that used to be the cornerstones of our society and journalism just a few decades ago. My expectation would have been for these outlets to refrain from publishing any of the stolen information; leaving that to less reputable sites. A refusal to publish would also have sent a very strong message to future hackers and served as a great disincentive to take the risk. It is notoriety, through widespread exposure, that drives these cowardly criminals.

Media outlets who want to be regarded as respectable should consider hacked information off-limits, much the way eBay considers stolen goods listing unacceptable or how Sotheby’s will not try to auction a painting for which the provenance is in serious doubt. Doing so will draw an important ethical line in the sand which is so desperately missing in journalism today - integrity. They may also gain our respect and their eyeballs, as others start to follow suit.

Monday, December 15, 2014

How to Clean Up the BCCI

“When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion.”
Abraham Lincoln 

While I do not want our Supreme Court to play judge, jury and executioner, they are also the last resort to save our sport from the cesspool it has been reduced to by the very men who were tasked with stewarding it. In this regard I am glad that the court has taken a rather dim view of the BCCI board’s actions, or lack thereof, in the illegal betting scandal that engulfed the last IPL.

The two Justices have shown public disdain for Mr. Srinivasan from the time they called his refusal to step aside “nauseating.” While it is easy to detest a man like Srinivasan, it would not bode well for the credibility of our legal system if we were to cast him aside purely on the grounds that he is not a likeable man or for his lack of honour and integrity. Additionally, as tempting as it may be for every Indian and cricket lover to see Mr. Srinivasan being bashed around and bullied by these Justices, in the end they must find substantive legal grounds to usher in his demise and to restore credibility to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

Finding impropriety in the BCCI board’s actions and lack of governance should not be very hard for the court to do. The BCCI’s defense of Srinivasan has been laughable. I am no legal expert, but it seems there are already three very serious and clear violations of the board’s code of ethics that may also constitute legal grounds for some serious action by the court. 

1. Conflict of Interest
This is common sense and something that EVERY governing body in the world adheres to. Srinivasan’s ownership of the Chennai Super Kings would be the equivalent of American Football Commissioner Roger Goodell's owning the New England Patriots or another team. It is absolutely absurd. The fact that Srinivasan and the BCCI legal team are actually trying to defend his ownership of the Chennai Super Kings just demonstrates how deluded and absolutely corrupt their absolute power has made them. 

2. Perjury
Srinivasan and MS Dhoni both stated publicly and vehemently that Gurunath Meiyappan’s role in the Chennai Super Kings was nothing more than that of a cricket enthusiast. The court-appointed Mudgal investigation has concluded that Meiyappan was in fact a team official, and functioned more like their CEO. It would seem that both men lied. At worst they have perjured themselves; at best they were protecting a person whom they knew had been implicated in an illegal betting ring. Both should be held criminally culpable if they did willfully mislead the court appointed panel.

3. Board Governance & Credibility
After the allegations surfaced, the arrest made of Srinivasan’s son-in-law, and the fact that the team he owns was implicated in the IPL illegal match fixing scandal, the logical (and honourable) thing for him to do would have been to resign. Instead Srinivasan did the opposite and refused to budge. After much public pressure, he was forced to step aside while he personally appointed a committee that cleared him and his son-in-law of any wrongdoing.  It was not until the Supreme Court intervened that he truly stepped aside, although by all accounts he has continued to make all the major decisions, running the board remotely.

The net result of all this is that Srinivasan and this BCCI board have lost all credibility. No matter what actions the court demands, they can no longer be counted upon to conduct an unbiased or impartial investigation, or to implement the changes needed to restore credibility to cricket’s wealthiest and most powerful governing body.

So what can be done? We need to go back to the basic tenets of the BCCI’s mandate and in doing so bring back meaning to the emblem of the Order of the Star of India, India's highest order of chivalry during the British Raj. To this end, I hope the court can find sufficient legal grounds to not only publicly discredit the current board and all the administrators, making their continued tenure impossible, but also initiate legal proceedings against many of these men.

For cricket to have a future and for the BCCI to regain credibility, we must put in place new court-imposed rules and regulations. I do not believe any solution should involve a takeover or greater involvement from the government. That said, it is also not going to be sufficient to simply remove Srinivasan and his cronies; this would treat the symptom and not the cancer. The power vacuum left behind will quickly be filled by equally despotic men like Sharad Pawar or Lalit Modi. What we need is a complete overhaul of the BCCI’s functioning and structure, along with new blood to run it.

Here are my suggestions for our Supreme Court, on both the legal actions I hope they initiate take and the functional changes they need to mandate to truly reform the BCCI:

LEGAL ACTIONS:
1. N Srinivasan to be banned from holding any position in Indian cricket, for life.
2. Start a criminal investigation of M.S. Dhoni and N. Srinivasan for conflict of interest issues and misrepresenting CSK team management facts to court appointed panel
3. Disqualify Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals from IPL, for 3-5 years
4. Tainted players to be suspended while being investigated; banned for life if found guilty
5. Owners of both teams to forfeit ownership and never be allowed to own an IPL team
6. Legalise sports betting
7. Bring BCCI under Right to Information Act (RTI) 

MANAGEMENT & STRUCTURAL REFORMS
1. Ban politicians (current & former) from being on board or part of management of BCCI or any regional/state cricket associations

2. Ensure strong conflict of interest rules added to BCCI constitution, i.e. no administrator or employee of BCCI should be allowed to own a stake in any of team, franchises or cricketing venture where they may financially benefit as a result of their position within BCCI.

3. Bring in caretaker board and administration for one year while reforms are being implemented. The idea is to completely revamp the current management structure to prevent future abuse and corruption:
  • Create a governing board consisting of two ex-cricketers, two retired judges, two individuals from private sector. Each person would serve a one-time term of three years
  • Divide the current President position into two offices;
    • President (appointed by governing panel) would oversee all cricketing affairs and retain all other current roles and responsibilities with exception of the business/financial side i.e. sponsorships, advertising, media rights negotiations, etc.
    • Add a non-elected CEO position, also hired by the governing panel to run the BCCI for a term of two years. CEO would be hired from the private sector
    • Both positions would have two-term limit with each term being limited to two years
  • Change status of BCCI to a corporation that is for profit but also for benefit to society, akin to a B Corporation in the USA
  • Officials holding positions in state cricketing bodies cannot simultaneously hold positions within the BCCI administration or its various committees
  • All monies dispensed to state associations must be accounted for at the end of the fiscal year by an external and independent auditor; this includes the BCCI financials
  • All monies spent by state associations should be used to further the cause of and promote cricket in their respective states
  • All infrastructure projects must follow an online blind bidding process with final bid award being made under supervision of CEO and board for projects above certain amount
These are some of the things that I believe will help provide much-needed transparency and accountability to the BCCI and help restore its credibility with the fans. Granted they are a private body and should remain one, but since their mission has always been about growing the sport in the public interest, there always needs to be a balance between the their autonomy and the oversight required. 

ALSO READ: Open Letter to N. Srinivasan, BCCI President