A most unusual spectacle was witnessed on the pages of Times of India on June 26. No, it’s not female models in Bombay Times turning out fully clothed, if that is what you are expecting. The strangeness instead occurred on the op-ed page. The newspaper trashed one of its own stories. Yes, that is what it did, without ever mentioning the story, of course. In fact, the newspaper insinuated that the trashed story is — ho hum — “paid news”!

In Dwaparyug, when dharma reigned unhindered, this would not have been unusual. It is dharmically natural that the media should report itself the way it reports the rest of the world: no holds barred, and with the same level of acrimony or affection, as the case maybe. In fact, American journalist Sydney Schanberg not only advocated just such a policy, but he also conducted a (failed) experiment in it. He argued that news organizations must have teams that cover the making of news by those organizations. (Imagine that.

A totally independent camera crew tailing a Barkha Chaube or a Bhupendra Dutt, recording their every professional moment, including the stringing along of well-placed “sources”!). Needless to say, this is Kaliyug, and even in America, where journalism ethics supposedly are not plumbing the depths they have in India, the idea proved too radical. Schanberg’s experiment to embed such a team in, New York Times if I remember correctly, did not yield the desired results.

To come to back to the point, it must be extraordinary that a newspaper which hyped up a salacious video clip (featuring school kids) until courts stepped in to whack its butt should so savagely clobber one of its own stories. “But why?”, is the cry going out in your mind. Let me dispense with the suspense and disclose  the mystery. It is in two words: Narendra Modi.

The shebang started with a story by Anand Soondas of Times News Network. As published in June 24 editions of Times of India(ToI), the story’s headline read: “Narendra Modi lands in Uttarakhand, flies out with 15,000 Gujaratis”.

Evidently, the headline conveys all the excitement of witnessing a floating Harry Potter deftly flick the Golden Snitch with his Nimbus 2000. Precisely because I am as big a Modi “fanboy” as they come, I believe justice is not done to Modi by such school-boyish headlines. Not even an A380 can transport more than a thousand people at a time, so it is impossible that Modi have flown back with 15000. Perhaps the body of the story would be closer to the ground than the pushpak viman it imagined.

Sure enough, the text says: “(Modi) has .. managed to bring home some 15,000 stranded Gujarati pilgrims… has helped 15,000 Gujaratis get out of Uttarakhand…”. So Modi hasn’t really flown back in a crowded plane bursting at the seams with 15000 people, cramped into all sorts of places including fuselage and  overhead baggage. He — or more accurately, his team — got stranded people out of wherever they were stuck at, and arranged for their transportation back to home state.

That seems to be the heart of the matter. Had Soondas waived his journalistic privilege of hyperbole and headlined the story simply, “Modi’s team helps stranded Gujaratis get back home”, there would have been much less of what folks on Twitter call a “Burnol Moment” for Congress party and its activists.

But Burnol Moment there is. An unwritten rule of Indian journalism is that adulation on the “is-this-possible?” scale is reserved for the Royal Family only. It is perfectly okay for an objective journalist to write: “Listening to Rahul’s speech at Rudraprayag I shed so many tears that had I not applied hand-kerchief in time to my eyes there would have been another flood downstream in Devprayag”.

In other words, you can make a fool of yourself praising the first family to skies, and nobody would think less of you because everybody else is competing with you trying to make a bigger fool of themselves. But ascribe virtue or heroism to Modi, you are in trouble. You have committed an act of heresy. So soon after Soondas’s unpardonable act, Abheek Barman swung into action.

Swung into action for what, you ask. Did he request the reader’s pardon for Soondas’s inaccurate story? Did he admit on behalf of his newspaper (at long last!) that it doesn’t often get its facts right? Did he urge the reader to exercise caution when the perusing stuff hawked in ToI’s pages, including his own op-ed? Did he disclose that the paper’s “Singh is King” headline was also tosh, that in fact it is the son-in-law who is the king these days, and that he is also one, of a Congress minister?

If you think he did any of these, then, hahahaha. ROFL.

Barman wasn’t there to apologize for the bloopers of his newspaper. He was there to do arithmetic involving the features of Innova car (it has 7 seats) and the distance between Kedarnath and Dehradun (221 kilometers). He was also there to QED triumphantly that the number of people rescued by Modi could not have been 15000.

Simple and elegant  as the theorem and its proof maybe, the elaborate endeavor is perplexing. Why did Barman subject all of ToI’s readers to a lesson in mathematics and geography, when it was only his own colleague who badly needed it? Couldn’t the matter have been settled simply by picking up the phone and calling Soondas!?

But on to the main point. Barman follows up his mathematical treatise with a long rant on APCO, the publicity firm retained by Gujarat government. The innuendo is inescapable: the story of Modi’s rescue act is APCO’s brainchild. In other words, APCO influenced Times of India — that is, the very paper Barman works for — to run copy favoring Modi!

Yes, folks, you heard it right. This is no Twitter-troll conspiracy theory. It is all there in a Times of India column by a senior Bennet Coleman & Co staffer.

I find this deeply troubling. Of the many plausible reasons a ToI story could be inaccurate, the one that Barman readily seems to settle on is manipulation; or what the rest of us call the paid-news angle. Is the Times’ credibility so low among its own senior staff? I can almost hear lunch-time conversations at newspaper offices going on like this:

Hey, that guy, you know the one who compared Rahul’s dimples to craters on the moon? He got hard cash.”

So unfair, man. For the Sheila story they only offered to refurbish my wife’s wardrobe!”

Jokes apart, we must all be concerned by this accidental revelation. Even journalists, when confronted with stories they don’t like, ascribe them to manipulation and planting. They know their industry is fertile ground for propaganda. APCO’s and Radia’s are outnumbering hacks, it seems.

We should keep that in mind every time we read a newspaper or watch a television channel.

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