When the media can twist, turn or do worse

From 2004 to 2011, I worked as a consultant to the history cell of the Reserve Bank of India. Once, in 2006, an assignment involved travelling to almost all the cities where the RBI had an office. It somehow happened that at each of these places, as a member of the print media, I found myself addressing the senior staff on how to deal with the media, TV included. Websites were just making their appearance and social media hadn’t been thought of. Those were also the days when the media hadn’t sunk to the depths it has now.

Nevertheless, as someone who had worked in newspapers for over a quarter of a century, I had one simple message: don’t take on the media because you can’t win as it would always have the last word. And I gave them some examples of their own governors who had been quoted out of context and looked foolish as a result.

My favourite example was the art of quoting someone verbatim but totally out of context. This involves two tricks: one, you put the quote in the headline. There is no reference to what went before or what follows. Since most people don’t read beyond the headlines, you succeed in making the person look like a complete fool or rascal. No amount of clarifications and explanations after that help because the damage has already been done. TV news excels at this with the news slugs they run at the bottom of the screen.

My headline was “The Government is Broke.” But the Editor had changed it to: “The Government is facing a Severe Ways-and-Means Crisis.” I had come with a bang and gone with a whimper.

The best remembered example of this sort of thing is the statement by Rajiv Gandhi that the earth is bound to shake when a big tree falls. I was present at the meeting when he said this, and if you see what he had said before and after, it becomes clear he wasn’t talking about revenge against the Sikhs. Likewise, when Narendra Modi made that remark in 2012 about a puppy being run over, he wasn’t calling Muslims dogs.

Another trick in those days, when photo-shopping and fake audio/video hadn’t made their appearance, was to either exaggerate or play down. This time the journalists did this to each other.

I have had the singular experience of both being done to one of my articles. It happened in 1982, when India was under the IMF ­discipline and had to present its expenditure numbers in a favourable light. So the government asked all public sector companies with surplus cash to deposit the money with the government.

When I found out about this, I wrote a story and gave it what I thought was a brilliant — and ­accurate — headline: “The Government is Broke.” But when I woke up the next day and saw the paper, I found that the Editor had changed it to, yes, this: “The Government is facing a Severe Ways-and-Means Crisis.” Ways-and-means Crisis? I had come with a bang and gone with a whimper.

It is not just in the headlines where mischief can be done. There is another method, a highly developed art form where you manipulate the main body of the story by sequencing the paragraphs in a particular way so that the impression created is nearly the opposite of what was intended. Everything is reported correctly; it is the ordering of each point that causes the mischief. The beauty of it is that no one can complain because everything has been reported correctly. Whenever I mentioned this at the RBI meetings, someone would ask if I had ever done it. My answer would always be: what else do I do, do you think?

Moral of the story: don’t rely on one source for your information. If it is sufficiently suspicious, check different websites.

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