It seems we’re more alike than we realise. Reading Bill Clinton’s new book ‘The President is Missing’, I stumbled upon the following sentences which speak as eloquently to us in India as they do to his countrymen in the United States.
Commenting on American journalism, Clinton writes: “When you find a mountain to expose in one person or party, you have to pick a molehill on the other side and make it into a mountain to avoid being accused of bias. The built-up molehills also have large benefits: increased coverage on the evening news, millions of retweets, and more talk-show fodder. When the mountains and molehills all look the same, campaigns and governments devote too little time and energy debating the issues that matter most to our people. Even when we try to do that, we’re often drowned out by the passion of the day.”
Without altering a single syllable that also applies to Indian journalism. We call it ‘whataboutery’ but this dismissive term cannot disguise our obsessive indulgence in it. Without doubt this is the bane of Indian journalism.
Clinton is equally wise in diagnosing the cost. Once again, what he writes of the US applies in equal measure to India. “It breeds more frustration, polarisation, paralysis, bad decisions, and missed opportunities.”, he starts. “But with no incentive to actually accomplish something, more and more politicians just go with the flow, fanning the flames of anger and resentment, when they should be acting as the fire brigade. Everybody knows it’s wrong, but the immediate rewards are so great we stagger on, just assuming that our Constitution, our public institutions, and the rule of law can endure each new assault without doing permanent damage to our freedoms and way of life.”
What lies behind this is a quest for false equivalence. If we wish to expose something dreadful done by party A, we feel a need to balance it by finding a fault in party B. We consider this balance objectivity and, mistakenly, equate it with good journalism.
So when we discuss the Gujarat killings of 2002 we have to bring up the Sikh slaughter of 1984. If we find fault with Narendra Modi’s rhetoric we balance it with a critique of Rahul Gandhi’s tweets. When we discuss the way the NDA has undermined institutions we rake up Indira Gandhi who did much the same.
Yet such discussions take us nowhere. If the object is to put political pressure on the recent offender this balancing simply dilutes it. If the aim is to reveal moral weakness this equivalence diminishes it. And all the while we ignore the simple maxim: two wrongs don’t make a right.
The unintended consequence is we end up creating the impression we’re incorrigible and uniformly, if not unremittingly, bad. This demoralises our system and, perhaps, even ourselves.
What we forget is you can criticise Modi and the BJP without simultaneously striking at Rahul Gandhi and Congress. You can discuss the sins of today without recalling those of the past.
There are even times when balance is distorting and we need to appreciate when that is the case. Or else our journalism will often have nothing to say except to hit out in every direction.
I’m not sure how Clinton’s America will resolve this problem but his book suggests it’s aware of it. So far we haven’t even got to that preliminary stage. Or if we have we don’t admit it and won’t talk about it.