Sunday, December 28, 2008

Celebrity journalists and pretty faces

My dear students,

Gift No. 3 from Santa Claus, before we have rung out the Old Year and rung in the New Year, recalling the famous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

In the manner of Amith Prabhu (see “Working one’s way up and other queries”, 28 October 2008, on this blog), another of my students has put to me questions that have caused her some “disillusionment”.

The issues she raises are of “professional interest” to us all over the world as journalists, whether in print, on-line, or on-screen. I have borrowed freely from the raw material, contained in our messages to each other and written out this reply.


She asks, “My question is about the whole personality culture (cult) that we have in journalism, especially the electronic media. I am not talking about the extensive coverage given to celebrities (celebs). I am talking about how journalists and editors themselves end up becoming personalities and how a smooth operator with connections is at times considered a better journalist than the ordinary guy who writes well. It is something that is more characteristic of TV, of course, because of the visual nature of the medium and our own preference for pretty faces to watch on TV.”

I have chosen the headline for this piece, “Celebrity journalists and pretty faces” from her question itself. Celebrity journalists are not the exclusive creation of TV. They existed much earlier and thrive in the print media today also. One species of celebrity journalist goes by the name: “syndicated columnist”. Readers have their own favourites and some even change papers when their pet columnist switches allegiance.

In a hard-hitting book, “Journalism: truth or dare?” (Oxford, 2003), Ian Hargreaves, the BBC and FT journalist who became a journalism professor at Cardiff, is concerned about “the end of journalism” and “the polarisation of the news media with, at one end, badly paid and sometimes inadequately trained young people in smaller newspapers, radio stations and magazines, and at the other (end), a handful of celebrity journalists who present television shows or write columns for the big newspapers and earn show-business salaries.”

Hargreaves makes this observation based on his experience with British, European and US newspapers, but I can vouch personally and from the expereinces of senior colleagues, friends and my students, that this is true in India also.

In a cruel piece, the late Dhiren Bhagat (1957-88), wrote a poison piece in "The Contemporary Conservative (Viking, 1990) about a certain famed columinist, let us dub him “PQR”. Dhiren Bhagat entitled the piece, “Why PQR can’t think straight.” When I first chanced upon it, I was stunned speechless by its naked frankness. Now I know how factual Dhiren Bhagat is. That Dalit-baiting columnist still thrives, churning out stuff that Dhiren Bhagat said deserves to be “flushed down the toilet.”

This slick gentleman does not have a pretty face, nor is is his style with words, gripping. But he is “a smooth operator with connections” and part of a coterie of cronies that believes in “you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours”. And, therefore, he is still “syndicated”, a jargon for the simpler “racket”. Is it surprising then that such unethical practices carry over into TV and create “glam scribes” on the small screen?


Our student then poses the dilemma with which she grapples daily, “How does one keep working in the face of this obvious bias towards the celebrity journalist? How does one deal with the fact that a Shobaa De is probably going to be more famous and earn more perks than a P Sainath?”

But should that really surprise us, honest journalists, who have our eyes and ears to the ground?

Shobaa De gossips about her cats and dogs and other party animals, immersed in the trivial pass-times of the idle rich, where “the pursuit of happiness” has decayed into “the happiness of pursuit.” Beyond a tiny circle, in which her sponsors and advertisers bribe the mass media to ensure her notoriety, De is unknown.

The rural affairs editor of The Hindu, P Sainath is concerned about agrarian distress and farmer suicides and about the impact that LPG (liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation) is having on agriculture. But farmers (alive or dead) or their widows and orphans do not consume the newspapers, which have transmogrified themselves into brands.

Ignore the fame, which is actually notoriety. Speaking about war, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) felt that as long as people saw war as "wicked", they would accept it. But as soon as war became "vulgar", the people will reject it. The same logic applies to the "vulgar" fame of the celebrity journalist, propped up by the bribes of sponsors and advertisers. A lot of PR and Corp Comm also goes into building up the images of such dubious characters.


Our student continues, “Whatever specialised course you do (in places like SIMC, where she was a student), it doesn’t actually prepare you for the reality of actual professional life. Maybe it’s the realisation that certain ideas were naive and that not everything goes as you want it to that caused this dissillusionment.”

Nothing in our student career prepares us for life itself. The university of life is one of its kind and never to be replicated in our frail educational institutions.

But she herself describes a technique she uses, which I recommend highly to all my students and all those who get depressed by the adventures of the celebrity journalists and who want to keep their sanity.

She writes, “On my clipboard, I have made a habit of pinning up a paper listing all the praise that I get for my blogs or my coverage on Facebook and Orkut from perfectly random people. It’s mails like these that keep the hope alive and make one feel that somewhere you are doing the right thing. Sometimes, I lose sight of the fact that I should work for these people who watch me.”

I would also recommend strong doses of Studs Terkel.

After her first question, which I have discussed above, I spoke with her on the phone (and if you, dear students, have a problem don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and speak your heart out). I picked up a sad undertone in her voice and I told her to firmly keep in front of her eyes the ordinary reader or viewer. I think my advice registered, for she goes on, “Thanks for reminding me about that. And thank you for the phone call. I guess I do take things a little to heart; has always been a weakness and I am trying to grow out of it.”

I told her, and tell all of you who get depressed by the antics of the celebrity journalist, that you are one among the chosen few. That if it pains and hurts, you know you are on the correct path. Beware of the sycophants. Listen to the blowing wind ... that is where the readers speak ...

Warmest smiles in the times of ... disillusionment,
- Joe.
Pune, 28 December 2008.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

To Chitra ma’am … with love, Smriti

My dear students,

During the joyful rejoicing of Christmas and the peace of the New Year 2009, may we find the moments and the caring to remember -- think of, speak to, write to -- the teachers who made us what we are.

Smriti Mudgal glows with love and affection for a teacher, who showed "faith" in her at a time when her parents "doubted" if she'd be able "to make a place for herself" in this competitive world.


By Smriti Mudgal

I was three years old when I went to Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV), Lodhi Estate, New Delhi, for my school admission with my father. I don’t remember much of the interview, except that the teacher asked me to tell a story. I couldn’t remember one. So I rolled my eyes and saw a picture of two monkeys, smiling at me. So I made up a story, right away.

“Once upon a time, there were two monkeys, who lived on the same tree. The monkeys used to fight a lot over the fruits of the tree. One day, while they were fighting, one monkey almost fell off a branch. He tried saving himself by holding on to the other monkey's leg. Now, both thought, if one falls, so does the other one. So a better idea would be for the monkey on the tree to pull the one who was falling. That's what they did. And decided, then and there, that they would never fight with each other.”

The teacher looked at my father and said, “She's creative. But more than that, she believes in survival of self and others. For her sensitivity, we would love to take her in.” (This bit, my father told me after I grew up.)

So I was in this lovely school, where you don’t have to push your chair, get up and drone in that monotonous tone, “Goooood … Mooorning … Ma'aaaam”. Instead you raise your hand and just wave it vigorously, if you wish, or else just smile at your teacher. Many considered this waving of the hand as funny, snobbish or pseudo …

To each his own. I loved it.

I was a pretty lost kid, while in school. After my admission, I can’t remember any incidents. But it seems to me, I suddenly woke out of my deep slumber in Class 6, when this horrible teacher accused me of being ... vain. She thought I was dumb and way too conscious of my looks. I don’t think I was vain then. (Later on, I did become somewhat aware of my looks.) But, because of her unfair accusations, I became withdrawn.

I was out of place because the school had a lot of kids from families of bureaucrats, artists, journalists, the intelligentsia. My father was a product manager for a lighting company and I was not comfortable about it.

Every time he went to drop me to school (if I missed my school bus) on his scooter, I would keep asking him to drop me on the street and not drop me till the gate. I even hated my boring tiffin, which would have a simple poori jam roll, whereas the other kids would bring peanut butter sandwiches.

I was so uncomfortable in my skin till I went to Class 8 and met this really tiny woman called, “Chitra Srinivas.”

Chitra was our home-room teacher. “Home-room teacher” means she was “my class teacher”. Apart from the subject she taught us, that is, History, she also had 20 minutes everyday extra with us during our home-room period. During these 20 minutes, we children could chat; finish our home-work; talk to the home-room teacher, about anything under the sun; or sometimes even doze off in class. But I would do nothing, except wait for those 20 minutes to get over.

Chitra noticed that, but did not disturb me. Except once, when she walked up to me.

Chitra: “Smriti, is there a problem?”
Smriti: “Sorry!”

Chitra: “Why are you so quiet? Do you have any friends?”
Smriti: “I am fine. I am ok.”

Chitra: “Smriti, you can tell me if there is anything?”
Smriti: “No, there isn’t.”

Chitra: “I just want you to know, you are a fine girl. I know you don’t like history and geography, but that’s alright. And trust me, you will do fine, without them too.”

I looked around myself at the children, who were fond of her. My memories of her are few and far between.


She had a unique way of checking exam papers. She would mark the papers and sometimes even wrote funny comments alongside. Once, we got four days to prepare for the History paper. One of the students managed to get only 4/25 … So Chitra wrote against the marks, “That’s one mark for each day’s preparation … "Sorry, couldn’t give more” or “You can’t be serious! Did you hide a comic inside your history book?” She was equally generous, “I could give you 25/25, for this one answer only.”

Also, she could appreciate other skills in her students, even if they didn’t show any interest in her subject – History. She realised over a period of time that I couldn’t retain History in my head, but that I had a way with words, poems.

So she asked me to write a poem, which I did. She asked me to recite it in class. I had pasted the lyrics on a tune, which was yet another song from our street theatre class. The moment I started singing, a boy pointed out that the tune was not original.

Chitra gave that boy a piece of her mind, “Did Smriti ever say the tune is hers? She's written the lyrics, hear her out”. The boy did; Chitra did; the whole class did. And after the song was over, everyone was clapping, and I was red in my cheeks.

Chitra was our home-room teacher till Class 10. When we were passing out, she sang a song for us, “Aa chal ke tujhe, main le ke chaloon, ek aise gagan ke tale, jahan gam bhi na ho, aansoon bhi na ho, bas pyaar hi pyaar pale.”

I did not speak to her after that.


Two years ago, I went to the SPV school reunion. She was there, chatting with all the ex-students. She remembered everyone’s name. I was unsure whether she would remember me. I walked up to her, already blushing, “Hi Chitra ma’am, do you remember me, I am …”

“Of course, I remember you, Smriti,” Chitra ma’am said, “Look at you, how pretty you look in this golden saree. My God, what a wonderful job you’re doing on TV. You remember, I always told you, you’ll do well for yourself. But you were such a low-confidence person. Look at you now! God, how much you talk … I am so thrilled to see you, Smriti!”

I smiled. And for the first time, in that elitist school, I found my place in her heart.

Around six months ago, I received a mail informing us that Chitra had expired. I kept thinking, why this piece of sad news disturbed me so much. Perhaps, because Chitra showed faith in me at a time when my parents also doubted if I’d be able to make a place for myself in this competitive world.

I guess I did her proud in my own little way. I guess she rests in a place, “Jahan gam bhi na ho, aansoon bhi na ho, bas pyaar hi pyaar pale.”


Smriti Mudgal, a 2003 alumnus of the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication (SIMC), Pune, anchors the Hindi channel CNBC-Awaaz from Mumbai.

You may see other tributes, like this one by Smriti, to Chitra ma’am in a “Facebook” group called “R.I.P Chitra ma’am …”. The only thing is, you have to be a member of “Facebook” and join the group, which is worthwhile, if only because you get a great chance to read about why students are always grateful to certain teachers.

Tell us about a teacher you recall with love and affection, here on this blog or elsewhere. But do send us the link.

This is another gift to you, my dear students, from … Santa Claus.

Warm regards,
- Joe.
Pune, 24 December 2008.

Mumbai attacks: one man's freedom-fighter is another man's terrorist

My dear students,

Just like the proverb, “One man’s food is another man’s poison”, so also we may argue that one man’s freedom-fighter is another man’s terrorist or militant. I deliberately chose a provocative headline to focus on the place of perception and “ways of seeing” in journalism.

Ever since my school-mate Dr Vivek Pinto got to my blog, he has been deluging me with links, which he is sure (and I agree), will be useful for my students and anyone interested in the topics I take up “Against the Tide”.

Among his many links, one such gem is a thoughtful piece entitled, “Separating the Terror and the Terrorists” by Clark Hoyt, published in the New York Times (NYT) on 13 December 2008. Dr Vivek Pinto sent this topical piece for you, my dear students, because the issues that it instigates are "beyond mere semantics and word-play".

Somewhat like the reader’s editor or ombudsman in ethical Indian newspapers, Mr Hoyt, who became the NYT’s third public editor on May 14, 2007, is “the readers’ representative and responds to complaints and comments from the public and monitors the NYT’s journalistic practices. The public editor works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the NYT.”

The following is my edited version of Mr Hoyt’s biography. “After starting his newspaper career in 1966, Mr. Hoyt began working at the Detroit Free Press in 1968. He became Washington correspondent for The Miami Herald in 1970 and was later news editor of its Washington bureau. He was named managing editor of the Wichita (Kansas) Eagle-Beacon from 1981-85, before returning to Washington where he became bureau chief in 1987.

“He was Knight Ridder's vice president/news from 1993-99. And from 1999 until the sale of Knight Ridder, he was Washington editor, where the bureau received much praise in recent years for its aggressive reporting. Its journalists have won the George Polk, Overseas Press Club and Headliners awards, among many others.

“In 1973 Mr. Hoyt shared the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting with Robert S. Boyd for their coverage of Democratic vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton's history of treatment for severe depression. Mr Hoyt is a director of the foundation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and a former chairman of the National Press Foundation. He is a graduate of Columbia College.”


Though Dr Vivek Pinto sent me Mr Hoyt’s piece at once on 14 December, I have waited ten days -- for our emotions to cool down -- before putting it up. Maybe, I should have put it up at once, because some of you may have been grappling with some of the issues Mr Hoyt incites. But I prefer, from personal experience, to take things up in a detached way. One of the stalwarts of the Indian freedom struggle, Gobind Vallabh Pant, a chief minister of U.P., used to day, “Thanda karke khao.”

I have supplied Mr Hoyt’s bio-data, because I want you to take seriously what world-class professionals like him are saying. It will not do for journalists like us in India to be swayed by the local tide, especially the kind of mind-numbing repeats that were unloaded on Indian TV in the name of “breaking news” during the three days of 26-28 November 2008 and, following that relentless hammering, the jingoistic calls to “war” being made in the name of fighting against terror.

I am reminded of the Goebbels-like hysteria unleashed across the USA by Bush, Cheney & Co. after 11 September 2001. Later, the Bush administration manipulated “26/11” to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. No wonder, an Iraqi TV journalist has become a hero after flinging his shoes at Mr Bush in Baghdad. You may refer to my 5 November 2008 post, “From Bush to Obama – The Killing will Continue”, for the drift of my arguments.


Dr Vivek Pinto is a research fellow at the International Christian University, Tokyo. After his doctorate in the US, he taught there for some time; before moving to Japan. Earlier, he had worked for a few years at Kishore Bharati, a pioneering NGO in science education at a village in Hoshangabad district, Madhya Pradesh, en route to Jabalpur on the Itarsi line. Kishore Bharati was founded by Anil Sadgopal, a molecular biologist at TIFR, who was disillusioned with the way science was taught in schools and with his own research work.

Wishing you that joy and peace of Christmas, which only sharing with our less-fortunate fellow human beings can bring.

My warmest of regards in these cold nights,
- Joe.
Pune, 24 December 2008.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mumbai: a people with a sense of purpose

During the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, people were hurt as they watched their beloved Mumbai being violated. Smriti Mudgal is one of them and here describes her love affair with Mumbai.


By Smriti Mudgal

During 2000, I was working with a small company, which sold classified ad space for India Today. Every year they held a national sales conference in a city, where salesmen from all the offices would come and interact. This particular year, the venue was Le Meridien, Pune.

Our team started from Delhi and we went to Pune via Mumbai by train. When the train stopped at Mumbai, we got off at some station. I suppose it was Bandra. It was early morning, maybe 5 am, but the city was wide awake. I saw people rushing from one corner to the other, in a stupendous hurry.

“What was this sense of purpose, I never saw in Delhi?” I wondered.

It was a brief one-hour halt, after which we proceeded to Pune. During this one hour I had made up my mind, “I am going to come back to this city.”

On our way back from Pune, we again stopped at Bandra. This time, the train to Delhi was bound from Mumbai Central, so we set off in taxis for the station. I saw tall buildings, mostly painted in yellow distemper.

At the several traffic signals, I would look up and try to make out what kind of people were staying in those tiny houses. Sometimes, I would catch a glimpse of a string of clothes hanging in the rooms. At other times, I would see men and women peeping from the grilled windows.

Again, this urge of the middle class, trying to break into the melee on the streets, captured my mind.

I imagined that in a year or two, when I’d be earning 10,000 rupees, I would rent a one bedroom, hall, kitchen flat with a balcony in Mumbai. My one-BHK home would be on the fourth or fifth floor. When I looked down from my balcony, I would see lots of children playing down below. And they would call out to me.


Four years it took, for me to realize my dream. After my stint at India Today, I enrolled for a mass communication course at Symbiosis in Pune. After I passed out in 2003, I joined CNBC-TV18 in Delhi as an assistant producer.

Year 2004, and CNBC-TV18 was shifting its headquarters to Mumbai. They asked me if I would like to move out with them. Without thinking twice about my family in Delhi, I agreed on the condition they would take a re-look at my salary.

So, on September 18, 2004, I boarded a Jet Airways flight to Mumbai. I was doubly excited, because I had never before travelled by air. However, the flight was boring after the 10 minutes of take-off. At the first line of clouds, I was tempted to jump out. But sanity prevailed and I only smiled at my co-passenger who by then had understood that it was the first time I had ever sat in an aeroplane.

We landed at Santa Cruz airport in the afternoon and were taken to a hotel in Bandra. The hotel was supposedly a 3-star; but the tiny rooms, smelling of dampness, made me wonder if our company was indeed as big as it claimed to be. On second thoughts, I realized maybe I was still not senior enough to be put up in a good hotel.

Seven in the evening, and it was drizzling. I’m not superstitious, but I do feel welcome if it rains in a city on my day of arrival. A Parsi family was celebrating someone’s wedding in the courtyard. I felt alone; I would be living in this city alone, on a salary of 12,000 rupees.

Suddenly, I was in a hurry, to find that one-BHK flat, I had dreamed of earlier.


Living in Mumbai for almost five years, I now find my expectations were grand. I was aghast at the kind of accommodation available in 2004 for a rent of 5,000 rupees per month. A corner of a room, with one small iron cot and one small almirah was one of the best options shown to me. Till one Gujarati family friend came to my rescue.

This family friend had a relative who stayed with his son at Worli in a one-BHK flat. His neighbour wanted a girl who could stay in their flat and take care of it since they had shifted to Pune. So, I had my dream house, sprawled over a slum, overlooking Worli sea-face, for only 5,000 rupees. Yes, there were children too in the building, who quickly made friends with me.

I was in Mumbai now, living in Mehta Manor on the 4th floor, in a fully-furnished flat, overlooking the sea, with children in the courtyard, calling out my name every time they saw me looking out of the window. Sometimes, I went and played with the kids.

At the other times I would just stand at my window, stare out at the sea and, in the background, Abida Parveen would croon – Ishq mein tere, khoye hum. Sar pe liya, jo ho, so ho. (I took the step of falling in love with you, now, come what may.)

The neighbour stayed on the 5th floor with his young son. I got introduced to the young son one day; and before I knew it I was in love with this school drop-out who also happened to be four years younger than me.

The father came to know and showed his aversion to our relationship and I walked out of the beautiful flat at Worli to live in a single room at Lower Parel. This little room was a part of a slum rehabilitation building and, to say the most, was just about comfortable enough to house me.

The love affair continued clandestinely. But soon, the job, the meagre salary, started taking its toll of me and I shifted to NDTV-Profit in Delhi. The salary was a lot better. But somewhere, I was extremely unhappy: Mumbai was calling me back.

After eight months of dealing with the harrowing auto-rickshaw-walas of Delhi, and the forever-interfering Punjabi neighbours, I decided to go back to Mumbai and CNBC-Awaaz. My boss was kind enough to take me back and I was in Lower Parel again.

I met my 10th class drop-out boyfriend again; but he seemed to have moved on; I guess, I too had. Soon, I was in a relationship with a colleague and we decided to get married.


In 2006, the 11 July train blasts happened. I was shaken; it took me six months to recover. I couldn’t believe somebody could think of planting bombs in local trains, carrying unsuspecting commuters. Though I had never travelled by local train, I also made sure that I wouldn’t travel long distance by any train any more.

I remember, my fiancé and I had to go to Vadodara by train and I just wouldn’t set foot on the train. I kept crying. After he consoled me, I went to my compartment and asked the passengers where they were going. As they answered, I kept guessing from their looks, if they were telling the truth.

After six months, I was back to normal. But I never recovered completely. Till date, I feel claustrophobic if I have to go to a railway station.

Two years had passed. In between I got married and my job became more secure. I became one of the senior anchors of the channel. Life, with its little twists and turns, was playing out; I was getting complacent.


Then, one night as my husband Deep and I wrapped up our bulletins at half-past-ten, we saw the news channels flashing news of gunfire at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) and the Taj hotel. We stopped for a while to check in front of the TV, what it was about. We thought it was not serious. But by the time we reached home, we realized the increasing gravity of the situation.

For three days, our Hindi business news channel turned into a dedicated general news channel. My husband and I are non-market anchors as well. So we were taking turns in reporting the mayhem.

On the day of the final assault, as I was reading out the news of NSG commando Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s cremation, I got a lump in my throat and I just couldn’t continue any longer.

Vivid memories -- of the first time I went to the Taj with my 10th class drop-out boyfriend, when he had earned 7,000 rupees and spent 5,000 to formally propose to me -- the time I went to Café Leopold with my husband and we whispered to each other how it looked like a shady, hippie joint -- to the time I went to Marine Drive after coming back to Mumbai from Delhi and declared to my parents, “This is it, I have found home.” -- all came flooding back to me.

Today, as I describe my love affair with Mumbai, my dear teacher Joseph Pinto comes to my mind. He called me up after the Mumbai mayhem, because he thought I looked sad as I read the news, and reminded me to smile.

I will smile, Sir, because Mumbai has given me love not once or twice, but very many times –- in great neighbours, in the lovely children of my building, my bosses, the restaurants I frequent.

This sinfully charming city has taught me to love unconditionally. And I shall love it all my life.


Smriti Mudgal, a 2003 alumnus of the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication (SIMC), Pune, anchors the Hindi channel CNBC-Awaaz from Mumbai. You may get in touch with her at After writing this 1,561-word tribute to the Mumbai she loves, Smriti says she feels much better. Other readers of this blog are welcome to describe and post their own affairs with the city they love.

Warm regards,
- Joe.
Pune, Friday, 12 December 2008.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

No room for gifts in journalism

By Abhay Vaidya

I entered the profession in Pune in 1987, after my journalism degree from the University of Pune's Department of Communication and Journalism (popularly know as “Ranade Institute”).

Almost every single Press Conference (PC) then concluded with a “gift-giving ceremony”, during which the organisers would hand each journalist a gift-wrapped box. It would mostly be a costly pen. Sometimes, the gifts would be far more expensive – a clock, a wrist-watch, digital organiser or some such thing – depending on whether the PC was organised by some business entity.

It would sadden some of us immensely when poorly-funded NGOs or labour unions, calling a PC about some wage dispute, also succumbed to this practice of giving gifts to journalists, on the advice of their PR consultants.

There were some of us who were extremely uncomfortable with this convention. It would often be a nuisance for us to refuse these gifts because the PR person and the PC organisers would plead with us to “accept their token of love and affection”. The usual practice was to take the gifts home or give them away to grateful peons at office, turn-by-turn, or, as one journalist did, give them to some charity.

One particular incident alarmed the Pune journalists, when this business of "the giving and taking of gifts" soiled the reputation of the entire fraternity. A small furniture dealer had called a PC, one afternoon. He was advised by some journalists to re-schedule the PC at night, after work, when things could be discussed “in a relaxed environment” (over drinks and dinner). The person obliged; the PC was a happy-happy affair with a lot of mirth and wise-cracks.

Then came the issue of the parting gift.

Someone in the room suggested that a raffle be held and that one of the revolving office chairs that the dealer was launching be given away as a gift to the winner. Everyone liked the idea and someone won the chair. There was then a murmur about others being left out so, finally, the dealer had chairs delivered to the homes of each of the journalists present at that PC.

Normally, evening PCs would have high attendance from anyone “posing” as a journalist, because of the drinks-dinner-gifts culture. At another PC, the organiser complained that a mini tape recorder had been stolen; the suspicion fell on someone “posing” as a journalist.

These two incidents, in particular, alarmed many journalists. A few of us in the executive committee of the Pune Union of Working Journalists (PUWJ) decided to call a meeting on the subject.

I vividly remember that meeting in the basement of the Savarkar Bhavan (near Bal Gandharva Rangmandir, Shivajinagar, Pune), because there was a heated discussion. Many of my seniors, such as the late Varunraj Bhide of Sakal; the late BM Purandare of the Times of India; Anand Agashe, currently Editor-Director of the Sakaal Media Group; Kiran Thakur, then Bureau Chief (UNI), and who recently retired as the Head of the Department from which I passed out; and others participated.

One group had then proposed that the PUWJ should not only ban press conferences after 9pm but also introduce a rule that no gifts should be distributed at PCs.

There was no unanimity on the subject and the meeting was inconclusive. The issue, however, became a talking point in Pune and Mumbai, because I ran a news-item about the PUWJ discussion in the Mumbai edition of The Times of India (there was no Pune edition then).


There are countless anecdotes of how low journalists can stoop to receive gifts.

PR firms and executives don't hesitate to give gift-vouchers or even cash in envelopes. One well known journalist in Delhi was not present for a PC, but wanted his gift and instructed the PR person to have it delivered.

In Mumbai, there are journalists who have tie-ups with pan-wallahs outside their offices so that they can deposit their gifts with them before entering their office building. I heard of some journalists in Mumbai enquiring about gifts being doled out and then deciding to attend PCs.

The issue of journalists accepting gifts has been discussed at the highest level in our profession, from time to time. I remember Arun Shourie calling for a comprehensive Code of Conduct for journalists.

I also recall an edit-page article by, I think, C. R. Irani in The Statesman. That article mentioned that during interviews for a business journalist, one candidate proposed that instead of receiving a salary, he would instead pay the company some amount for being appointed as a business journalist. In that article, which appeared in the mid-1990s, Irani estimated that a business journalist in Mumbai could make upto Rs.70,000/- per month through gifts and gift-cheques.

Sometime in the 1990s, The Times of India, where I worked for about 14 years in Pune and Washington DC, USA, introduced a "no-gifts policy" for their journalists. People coming with gift boxes, particularly during Diwali and New Year, are politely instructed by the security desk to take back the gifts.

The variety of PCs, I attended in Washington DC, USA, were conducted professionally and there was no gift-giving.

When the subject of gifts comes up, I fondly refer to my 1994 copy of The Washington Post Deskbook on Style which begins with a chapter on "Standards and Ethics" by one of the great gurus of journalism, Ben Bradlee.

Bradlee says it there: “We pay our own way. We accept no gifts from news sources…”

Gifts in journalism are a form of bribe and should be declined.

One can be fastidious about it, as is one of my colleagues, who refuses to accept even a pen, because he says journalism is the source of his livelihood, so he will not write with a pen gifted at a PC.

I have not been as fastidious as my friend and have accepted gifts on certain occasions, based on my judgement. On other occasions, I have given a return-gift in the form of a book, as I did with a politician who sent me two books of JRD Tata's letters and keynote speeches.

I remember the story of our former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam declining to accept an expensive crystal and mentioning how, as a child, he was taught by his father not to accept gifts that came with a purpose.

There is no room for gifts in journalism.

Abhay Vaidya,
Pune, 3 December 2008.

(Mr. Vaidya is currently Deputy Resident Editor of the Pune edition of DNA. His email ID is His contribution was made, at my request, in response to queries raised by Smita Aggarwal and Amith Prabhu (see my post "Working one's way up and other queries" . I am grateful to him for sharing his experiences in his typical forthright manner - shorn of adjectives and adverbs; packed with facts. - Joe.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Buy Nothing Day - Consume Less

My dear students,

One of the most thought-provoking websites that I have come across is: The guys are from Canada, but they get back echoes from all over. They also call themselves the “Culture Jammers”. Especially those of you sitting on the razor-thin fence between “Editorial” on one side and "Ad-PR" on the other, must have a close look at these people.

“Buy Nothing” is what they are planning to do on Friday, November 28. Sorry for the snap notice, but I glanced at their website just by chance to include them in my “Websites of Influence”. Here is how their line goes:

“Suddenly, we ran out of money and, to avoid collapse, we quickly pumped liquidity back into the system. But behind our financial crisis a much more ominous crisis looms: we are running out of Nature … fish, forests, fresh water, minerals, soil. What are we going to do when supplies of these vital resources run low?

“There’s only one way to avoid the collapse of this human experiment of ours on Planet Earth: we have to consume less. It will take a massive mindshift. You can start the ball rolling by buying nothing on November 28th.

“Then celebrate Christmas differently this year, and make a New Year’s resolution to change your lifestyle in 2009. It’s now or never!”

I have been following their “Less is more … & Better” (this is my dearly-held belief that goes beyond “omit the needless word”) campaign in the form of their “Buy Nothing Day” appeal. I hope this rings a bell for you too.

Warm regards,

- Joe.
Pune, 26 November 2008.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The clarity of poetry

My dear students,

POEMS are not for reporters, to read. Though I like poetry, that is what I used to prescribe in class. And also believe today, because poems do not consist of facts. But recently some of my students, especially Gauri Gharpure of Kolkata (who plays a cool blog, where “Life rules”) and some readers of my blog (who are into the “imagination” touch), have provoked me into re-thinking my stand.

Gauri shared with me a thought by a Russian poet, Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936), in which he calls for fellow poets “to seek beauty in the natural and physical world of their environment – to be industrious in language and vision in order to reflect the realness of the subject.”

This is what Kuzmin said in a 1910 address, “I beg you be logical in the design and structure of your work, in syntax . . . be a skillful builder, both in small things and in the whole . . . love words, as Flaubert did, exercise economy in your means, thrift in the use of words, precision and authenticity – then you will discover the secret of a wonderful thing: beauty clarity."

Those words became part of the mainfesto for a trend in poetry called “Acme-ism”, whose significant leading poets were Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilëv, and Osip Mandelstam. The link to Kuzmin is from the website of the Academy of American Poets, which itself is a treasure. The Kuzmin collection, at Dalhousie University in Canada, available in electronic form and compiled by John Barnstead, can be accessed at this link. Dive into its riches.

Shown the quote without being told it was by a poet, I would have sworn it was by a journalist. For, as a journalist, I believe and practise what it says. I have been re-writing this piece with “thrift in the use of words, precision and authenticity” and when a word goes false, I cancel it out.

An editing tip I draw from Kuzmin is, “Omit needless words”. That was an advice William Strunk Jr. gave E.B. White, who was a student at Cornell in 1919. Strunk collected his advice in a “little book” called “The Elements of Style”. White revised his teacher’s textbook in 1959. Besides R.P. and T.J.S. George, Strunk & White should also permeate our style, stripping the text of needless gossip. Here is the link to Strunk's astute guide on the Elementary Principles of Composition

Now reporters, I dare say, ought to read poems. Unlearning, for me at 58, has been fun. But aren't reporters becoming endangered in today’s TV-driven world? There are the poets who can sing like the birds. But where are the poets who can describe like the reporters?

Warm regards,

- Joe.
Pune, 20 November 2008.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

From Bush to Obama – The Killing will Continue

Dear students,

At the risk of being branded cynical, I have chosen the above headline to celebrate the victory of Barack Obama, modifying it from the headline of an alert, “From Blair to Brown – The Killing will Continue”, dated 23 July 2007, published by one of my favourite websites “Media Lens”.

We know the importance of the first para in any story (the intro, or the lead, or the lede); how it ought to hook you and make you want to read on. Here is the first para of the above piece, published by Media Lens when Gordon Brown took over in 2007 from Tony Blair, who had become the British prime minister in 1997.

“The first truth of American foreign policy is that it is formulated to maximise corporate profits and state power. The second truth is that it is perennially sold to the public as a mission to spread freedom, democracy and human rights. The third truth is that the first two truths apply regardless of whether the Republicans or Democrats hold power.” (Taken from “From Blair to Brown – The Killing will Continue”, Media Lens Alert, 23 July 2007.

This direct and heavy dose of reality is required to counter-balance the heady hysteria that may engulf you, given that a “black” man has become the 44th president of the USA.

The authors of the above piece go on to address the moorings of British foreign policy itself:

“The first truth of British foreign policy is that it is also formulated to serve elite power. The second truth is that it is rooted in unwavering support for US policy, including participation in attacks on defenceless Third World targets – the reason London, not Stockholm, has been subject to September 11-style suicide attacks.

"The third truth is that this foreign policy is always sold in a way that echoes US claims of humanitarian intent, so lending a veneer of international legitimacy and support. It is of course very much easier for a “coalition” to claim to be expressing “the will of the international community” than it is for a rogue superpower acting alone.

"The fourth truth is that these truths apply regardless of whether Labour or Conservatives hold power. Finally, because the collision between the reality and appearance of policy becomes increasingly obvious over time, the fifth truth is that a change of British government is always said to herald a change to a more moral foreign policy. This transformed policy is always said to be driven by idealistic new minds acting out of revulsion at past ‘mistakes’ – the slate can thus be wiped clean and media gullibility rebooted to the default setting.”

If you read Indian newspapers (between the lines) and watch our TV channels (between the images), you will grasp the truth of what the authors say. With the signing of the nuclear deal, India too is slowly becoming part of US foreign policy. And if Obama starts to signal that attacks on “defenceless Third World targets” like Pakistan are called for, in order to flush out the terrorists, I am sure the Indian government will jump to the bait.

Like my lectures on truth and objectivity, this piece is like the tip of an iceberg: intended to arouse and provoke. Please navigate the links and comment here itself. Remember, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

Warm regards,

- Joe.

Pune, Wednesday, 5 November 2008.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Working one's way up and other queries

Dear students,

You have been gracious to read my blog and respond. In a personal email to me, rather than a direct comment on my blog, which is what I prefer, Amith Prabhu asks about:
a) the importance of working one’s way up, rather than wanting to be in top posts and failing miserably, which some manage to do.
b) the difference between work in a PR consultancy and Corporate Communication. Many students in communications are confused with this, and I feel a good Corp Comm professional should have PR consultancy experience.
c) the growing need for ethics and discipline in careers.

Let me take the areas, one by one. I’ll take up (b) first. And then (a) and (c) together.

b) The difference between work in a PR consultancy and Corporate Communication. Many students in communications are confused with this, and I feel a good Corp Comm professional should have PR consultancy experience.

The difference between any field of communication arises due to “where you are”.

For example, by personal communication, we mean “one-on-one” communication where we speak with someone -- face-to-face in a meeting or over a meal; on the phone; send an SMS by mobile phone; write a letter or email. This communication is always two-way; in the case of letters, SMS or email, there is a time lag. The idea of “chat” came up in order to enhance the two-way feel, while on the mobile or computer.

Then we have “one-on-many” communication – personally as in a lecture, a public speech; in writing, as in a newspaper or magazine; in the form of listening to the disembodied voice on radio; or the semblance (illusion) of voice and person on TV; access to the Internet. Here it’s essentially one-way communication, though we have efforts at enhancing feedback, through letters to the editor (in print); phone-ins (on radio and TV); online websites of papers and TV channels, etc. Also this blog!

What about “many-to-one” communication? In the form of impact on the individual person from various messages bombarding him/her through various channels like daily life (in the home, family, street, at work); through print, music, radio, TV, the Internet, etc. You can add to this list.


I am getting into basic communication (like R.P. in “Basic Journalism”), because similar principles are applicable to PR and Corp Comm. Ask yourself the question, “Where am I, the sender of messages, vis-à-vis my publics”?

If you are in a mass media organisation like a paper, website, radio/TV station, then you are in direct contact with the general public, giving you enormous power (without responsibility?).

In a PR consultancy, that is, located outside corporate entities and the mass media, you work for individual clients (generally companies, but also maybe individuals), whose messages you try to direct towards specific “publics” – like the client’s customers, share-holders, investors, suppliers, dealers, employees (current and potential), the government, and even rivals or competitors.

In Corporate Communication, you are located right inside the corporate entity, like a private limited company. Here your “publics” are the customers, employees (current and potential), suppliers, vendors, dealers. But you are in communication with them in a much more direct and personal way than if you were in a PR consultancy or mass media. Actually, in Corp Comm, you would be dealing with your advertisement agency and your PR consultancy also in order to influence your “publics”.


Since I have worked in newspapers, and come up from the ranks – right from the stringer level in 1977, to sub-editor in 1983, to chief-sub in 1984, to assistant editor in 1989 and finally as editor of a newspaper in 2004 (with a seven-year stint in Corp Comm from 1996-2003) – I have seen the world of mass communication from “both sides”.

My advice would be: do a stint in mass media first – print, radio, TV, online. Then, if you wish, do a stint in Corp Comm to get a feel for the corporate world from the inside. And then go into a PR consultancy. This is like moving from the wider world into more specialised worlds. It helps to have the bigger view first and then get closer down to the specifics.

Dear students, I feel a good PR consultant should have mass media and, then, Corp Comm experience – in that order. But you can go the other way too: PR experience first and then Corp Comm. The important thing to do, while reflecting on your experiences and learning your lessons, is to constantly ask yourself the basic communication question, “Where am I, the sender of messages, vis-à-vis my publics”?

Your ability to influence the opinion of your “publics” is critically dependent on where you are located in the chain. This is because of the issue of “credibility”.

The most insidious power of the corporate world (with the help of PR agencies) to influence the opinions of people is due to its money-power (lobbying) and, therefore, its ability to buy journalists and the mass media directly or indirectly. More of this ideology stuff, later.

But let me come back to your question. Yes, you need experience in both Corp Comm and PR consultancy. But be careful, you tread dangerous territory: manipulation of news, filtering only what creates a favourable image of your client, etc. What I call, lying and deception.

Look at the collapse of the US stock markets due to “irresponsible lending” for housing in USA. At that time, though, credit was glorified; and investment banks and their securities were projected as being “safe bets”. Even today, in India, credit finance is available for housing and vehicles, without checking the ability to repay.


And now to the second part of Amith’s questions:
a) the importance of working one’s way up, rather than wanting to be in top posts and failing miserably, which some manage to do.
c) the growing need for ethics and discipline in careers.

Let me share my own experience. As I have narrated, I started as a sub-editor on 2 May 1983 at Maharashtra Herald, Pune with a salary of Rs.600/- and then rose slowly to become an editor in 2003 at Gomantak Times, Panaji, Goa: “working one’s way up”, as Amith puts it, for 20 years. The advantage is I know the ropes and the job/tasks at every level. Finally, when I was at the top and gave instructions, I knew what it’s like to implement orders. Also, the chances are that power does not go to my head and I am more likely to be considerate of journalists at lower levels.

I don’t know about it is like “wanting to be in top posts and failing miserably, which some manage to do”. Amith, or some other student of mine, will have to explain what it means to be in that situation.


As for the growing need for ethics, I would point to honesty and not allowing the marketing or circulation people to dictate what and how news is to be portrayed. Editors are capable of understanding the business side of a paper.

Let me refer you to C.P. Scott’s 1921 essay on the centenary of the Manchester Guardian where he says, “A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community …”

Scott goes on to identify character – “honesty, cleanness, courage, fairness, a sense of duty to the reader and the community”. Here you also find the famous lines, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” That seven-word line calls for an entire post on my blog.

The link is at:
Once you’ve read the essay, I’d like to discuss the matter further.


As for “discipline in careers”, stick to one job for at least one or two years, a sufficient time to learn. I would give the job three years to teach me; you may not want to be so patient. Recall the saying, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” This means, if you change jobs too often, you may not give yourself enough time to accumulate experience. Also, identify what you want to learn and whom you’re going to learn it from. Fortunately, there are lots of serious journalists out there. I am compiling a list, which I will not post on my blog, but will send to you only on request.

Above all, dear students, do not allow money to decide what you’re doing. My experience and conversation with journalists tells me that the jobs that pay the most are also the ones that tie down your hands and feet; worse, you’ll also have to keep your eyes and ears shut too. We will discuss this issue at length some time.

Am I sounding scary? I don’t intend to; but it’s wise to be cautious, under the circumstances. When a student asked me in class, “Sir, what do you think of the market collapse?” I answered, “When thieves fall out, honest men (and women) come into their own.” Dear students, pluck the courage to remain honest.

Warm regards,

- Joe.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Make your comments, here itself

Dear students,

I am so thrilled that you are reading my blog carefully and sending me your valued comments. However, you are sending these comments to me personally on my email comment. So your response is not reflected in the comments here.

One of the reasons for starting "Against the Tide" is to bring ALL my students, no matter who and where in this wide world they are, on to the same platform or under the same umbrella (which ever you prefer). So that you can meet and interact. So please, comment here itself, so that you can use my blog to get in touch with other like-minded journalists and vice versa.

You know I have always been candid and open about my views and opinions, even in class. And now writing here in the public domain of a blog, I do not intend to hold back. On the contrary, I am becoming upset by what is happening in the mass media, what with "Breaking News" and "Page 3" (even on TV). At the moment, I am responding to the urgent request from my students for useful material and not indulging in too much ideological stuff. Therefore, I need your questions as well as areas of concern so that "Against the Tide" becomes a lively place.

To set the tone: "I disagree with every word you say. But I shall defend to my death, your right to say it." Now who said that, when and in what context?

Warm regards,

- Joe Pinto.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A first list of useful books and websites

Dear students, colleagues and friends,

Here is a list of useful books and websites. I'll keep adding to this list as we go along and you get back to me.

Firstly: Basic Journalism by Rangaswami Parthasarathy ("RP").
This is the first book I recommend to all my students of print journalism as a "MUST BUY", since I started teaching at the Department of Communication and Journalism, University of Pune, opposite Roopali, in 1987 at the nudging of my senior colleague Kiran Thakur, who was then bureau chief at UNI, Pune, and now retired as Head of the same department.

As a colleague, Prasannakumar Aklujkar, keeps reminding me, even though the technology of writing and editing keeps changing rapidly and we get newer and sharper software packages by the day, the skills and techniques of editing of a sub-editor remain more or less the same since the days when scribes put pencil to paper.

For example, thinking-rethinking; grasping and understanding; writing-rewriting; correct spelling and punctuation; the inverted pyramid; sequencing; writing precise and simple leads or intros; an eye-grabbing headline; crisp and concise description; and above all, clear thinking that leads to clear writing (George Orwell). So, it's RP for you.

Another book that I picked out for you, my dear students and friends, from my personal collection is The Economist Style Guide.

While I disagree with most of the free-marketeering contents and right-wing opinions of this newspaper (not magazine), I recommend this lucidly readable weekly without reservation ONLY for its prose style - a mastery of clear and precise description. (Another colleague, Ashok Gopal, would recommend it for its science and technology pieces.)

Viva Books has brought out an Indian edition, so buy a copy. This style guide is also accessible on the Internet, if you register with The Economist. You ought to practise the advice given in the Introduction, if you aspire to rise above the hacks. And the warning by John Grimond in "A Note on Editing" about "de-sophistication" is worth every word.

Keep a look-out for style guides of various newspapers. Go to and you'll find cheap used copies of great style guides from the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, UPI, The Times of London, etc. The Statesman of Kolkata also has a superb style guide. Tell your favourite "small is beautiful" bookshop (not "big is ugly" chain-store) to keep an eye for and get second-hand copies of these style guides for your shelf.

The first website I direct you to is:

This is the website of the "Project for Excellence in Journalism" set up by the Pew Research Center, USA. Navigate around it like some ancient explorer and you'll discover gems to last your lifetime. A stunner is the "Advice to Students", which I have copied out for you below:

Advice for Students Interested in a Career in Journalism
Bill Kovach, Senior Counselor of the Project for Excellence in Journalism

"A curious mind and a broad liberal arts education are by far the best qualifications for a career in journalism.

The best foundation begins with an undergraduate liberal arts education that exposes you to a wide range of disciplines of study and helps you supplement your native curiosity with a habit of critical thinking. Whatever course of study you follow, be sure to include a strong foundation in ethics. Then consider study at a university that offers a graduate degree in journalism.

You can begin to develop your skill in the "craft" of journalism by working on a college newspaper or radio station; a television station that features a college report; or working as a college correspondent for a local, regional or national news organization. As for experience while still in school and immediately after graduation, think about immersing yourself in a local experience. Working in a community in which you must look the people in the eye about whom you report before and AFTER you have reported on them can provide very important lessons.

And, throughout all this, read. Read everything you can, including classics in fiction that can help you begin to understand human nature and the human condition. Develop a habit of critically following the work of other journalists and find models for your own work.

Good luck."

And then, there will be others. For that, you will have to ask. As the good man says in the good book, "Ask and you shall Receive. Seek and you will Find. Knock and the Door shall be Opened."

- Joe Pinto.
Sunday, 10 October 2008, Pune.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hi to all my students

Dear students,

I have been wanting to start this blog for a long time, as a way of keeping in touch with you. I shall post stuff here that I would have brought up in class or would have been discussing with you, if you were in touch with me.

I did try to start off a forum on Orkut called "Serious Journalism" but it didn't get anywhere; I don't know why. So I am starting off this blog, since some of my students who are clued in to the Internet said that would be a nice way to keep in touch with you all.

You all know how I have enjoyed your company and how I have been stimulated or, sometimes, even provoked by your questions. With me, you get what you see, and you see what you get. I've done that in real life and I propose to do that on my blog.

That is also indicated in the title I've chosen for my blog, "Against the Tide."

I read a fine blog called, "Life Rules", by one of my students, Gauri Gharpure, from the Dept. of Journalism and Communication, University of Pune. I am sure some of my other students must have also started blogs by now. But I am yet to know of them.

Warm regards,

Joe Pinto.

P.S.: Have I stuck to my own rule? Not more than 4-5 characters per word, and not more than 10 words per sentence?