War Of Words Follows Mumbai Attacks

I was surprised by the readiness of some people responding to the original post, to prescribe what is essentially censorship. I don’t think there should be restricting against the press of this sort at all — but I was also taken aback even when the siege was on, to see how the law enforcment and military forces weren’t securing the perimeter at all. There was one segment where one NDTV reporter was walking through the alley right behind the Taj, with security personnel crouching by the pillars right by his feet. Quite apart from the issue of confidentiality, I wasn’t sure how civilians, even representing press, could be allowed to walk around in the middle of a military operation. There’s also the issue of the damn reporter’s safety as well — it was irresponsible of the media company to have allowed or encouraged their staff into that area with no concern for their personal safety.

I don’t think the security holes created by any actual broadcast of information is something proven beyond doubt. The original article keeps referring to unnamed sources, even using the exceedingly vague phrase, “We have heard” at one point. Apart from the report of one couple who claimed that the attackers changed course after the couple’s hiding spot was broadcast somehow, there isn’t much to substantiate the claim that reporting actually endangered or lost people’s lives.

Having said that — Barkha Dutt turned out to be a right royal moron of the highest order. What surprises me though is that Indian audiences should only now have noticed how much tabloid journalism there is in the Indian media. Barring The Hindu, I can’t think of a single daily news outlet (can’t speak for the weekly/monthly magazines) that have retained a shred of non-sensationalistic, intelligent reporting. This has been the case for over 10 years now, in some cases like the once-revered ToI, for more than 15 years.

I applaud the passion of those who wrote on FB to attempt to police this system somewhat, but I see this as a debate framed yet again in a form of elitist discourse — the press can’t be allowed to merely churn out what works with mass audiences, and need codes of conduct that mirror the refined sensibilities of the intelligentsia. I call bullshit, and propose that other societies have had their phase of highly jaundiced yellow journalism and gradually found a way to allow more rational voices to co-exist with the tabloid rags. This isn’t a progressive thing, it’s merely cyclical — witness the resurgence of the ridiculous in American media, qua Fox and the National Review. The media circus goes away and comes back, traveling in and out of the public consciousness and while it’s annoying to watch it work its antics, I think it’s dangerous to talk of finding legislative means of guiding it. Instead, those of us who fancy ourselves to have a more refined and ultimately more civilized point of view, need to create channels in which those voices are given credence and priority, and get those channels to compete for attention in informing the mindset of a reasonable fraction of the population.

If you work your way down the comments on the original post, there are links to some chilling counter-reactionary diatribes coming from the equivalent of NDTV in Pakistan. Allegations of conspiracy theories, of the attacks being organized by the Mossad, the CIA and Indian security agencies, of the Indian media making a straw man of the ISI, are all over these Pakistani news programs, all staged with the same sublime understanding of melodrama and scurrilous disregard for high-quality reportage that was and is the trademark of the Indian media’s response to the attacks. To me, this just means that there’s a motherlode of popular sentiment that the media units are simply mining on either side of the border, a desire to out-think the propaganda machines of the other side’s media.

What bothers me the most in all these shenanigans, is that Pakistan is quite simply a failed state, and no one has a clue what to do about it. The Bush Doctrine had a point when it brought up the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, a body built on top of the foundational assumptions that its sovereign actors represented by the state who participate in its deliberations. When the state is simply ignored by a new class of actors, who owe allegiance to some imagined nation that doesn’t respect the national borders that are represented by the place tags at each table in the General Assembly, what is the UN to do? Where will these allegiances sit in the UN’s great halls, assuming of course that they even find the idea of coming to the UN less than risible?

Robert Kagan wrote about this in the kind of essay pundits like him have gotten really good at, which usually involves taking two loaded words and placing them in the title of the essay. “When Security Trumps Sovereignty,” he titles this one. One could imagine him and his cohorts having just as well written an essay just to fill out the titles “Liberty Plays the Tango with Fundamentalism,” or “Faith is the New Enlightenment.” That’s how The Onion comes up with their articles, I believe.

In this article, Kagan asks, rather like a whinger for a man of his stature, “If the world is indeed not to be held hostage by non-state actors operating from Pakistan, what can be done?” The question is important but lacking a dimension it sorely needs and would possess, if only at some point he were to ask instead, “If the world is not to be held by non-state actors like the CIA, operating from Pakistan, what can be done?” This is not to say that the CIA operates entirely as its own entity without any oversight from the other branches of power in the United States, but even in the post-Hoover era, it does exist in a fog of unpredictable realpolitik that in the conservativeness of its machinations shares a lot with the motivations that drive an outfit like Al Qaeda.

As a result, the problem of the ranting media becomes a smaller issue within the bigger problem of an uncontrollable and unknowable set of movements that are colliding in a place like Pakistan (and other places like Afghanistan and Iraq) like random vortexes in the middle of a turbulent sea. What these journalists will report, misleadingly and theatrically, will be small change compared to the very real and extremely sober ways in which a shifting balance of power will visit much greater disasters on the region.


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