Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mediating lady wahwah

That “tall tale” of Anuja Baniya in the Kathmandu Post and its sister publication Kantipur (dateline April 19) seemed to be reviving our fading humanity, our individual sense of integrity. It visibly moved our honorable president and our outgoing Chief Justice. And then abruptly, just like that, it stripped us of our little-remaining sense of dignity.

Until then, I was thinking of contemplating yet again on how “a little more reason” could protect us from wild generalizations and misplaced judgments in public life.

Coincidentally, this epic “lost-and-returned” episode, which turned out to be a full-blown “unreality show,” underscores the case for an evidence-based journalism that I referred to at the closing of my previous article (A little more reason- II, April 13). I had observed that journalists, who traditionally were in the lead of professional skeptics, find little enthusiasm these days for getting the facts right or verifying the givens. This increasing trend in our source-driven media culture has hindered professional journalistic pursuit of truth.

So here, I continue the thread of that earlier discussion in light of this BIG hoax that has apparently redefined our constructions of facts or story-telling practices more sharply into pre- and post-Anuja news making, although the roots of this distinction should actually be traced in the highly-exaggerated story about one “super-rich” Dr Rasendra Bhattarai published in 2003 in the same dailies mentioned above.

Both of these serve as classic text book case studies of how a reasonably “professional” media outlet and some of its most credible bylines can fall for fake characters, fictional leads and freaky material all because of economic logic or a lapse in news judgment. Conversely, they also highlight how news sources or subjects can deceitfully manipulate even the leaders in the news business.

Being a skeptical type, I withheld judgment about the veracity of the Anuja news series. But I fully enjoyed chatting with people who absorbed and processed the story. It is only rarely that you get to see a social scoop engaging our many publics in such a big way. It was unreal for many, yes, but something real by way of representation in the news. For others, it seemed that the increasingly scarce virtue of “rock-solid integrity” was worth believing in, and the ordinary lady from Dharan merely offered to host that virtue via the newspapers.

Yet, there were some others, who did not seem interested in separating news from fiction, for there is not much distinction on television made these days between the two, between knowledge and entertainment. When news shows offer live coverage of real people routinely chasing ghosts and witches, and even reality shows hyping extremity, aggression and stupidity, such hoaxes actually foster selective reality at the cost of actual reality. In fact, the fascination behind the recent Anuja episode had more to do with what we could possibly become, than what we actually are, or have been.

You cannot hold the public accountable for their acts in a democracy, unless its members are legally deviant. In principle, we cannot vote them out like we can do with our leaders. Just as artists use dramatic license to openly distort facts and truth, the general public is free to use their civil rights to absorb realities the way they like, even if doing so may be self-destructive. Hence, the journalistic principle, “to inform and educate” the public is significant.

Therefore, on the other level, it is important to ask how the published stories informed and educated the general public about the “remarkable women’s honesty,” as the newspapers put it. The widely accepted professional news construct requires reporters to corroborate the facts in every news story via at least three credible or “expert” sources. It also asks reporters to be sure about the other or opposing side of story.

Correspondent Harsha Subba’s scoop in Kantipur ("Dhanya Anuja", April 19), in fact, attributes to four sources, a daughter, a son and a relative of Purushotam Poudel (the man who allegedly lost the Rs 9.1 million and a diamond necklace), and the lady who found and returned those belongings to the owner. All these are one-sided sources confirming the storyline, and it is reported that Anuja herself did not want to talk much. However, the Post version of the same story cites Purushutom himself in quotes, as if he were talking directly to the reporter. In that sense, lacking balance and cross-verification, the story was not complete or “in-form.”

Kantipur has apologized (Apology, TKP, April 25) to its readers saying that the characters attributed in the story “were fictitious.” The apology note said the paper(s) were not able to locate the whereabouts of Poudel. They checked the call details of Anuja’s mobile phone but none of the numbers led them to Poudel. Based “on those inconsistencies”, they concluded that “the news was untrue and so were the characters involved.”

There is some room for skepticism here, for it is still not clear if this is a case of complete misrepresentation since one of the main characters, Anuja, is already public and that she still seems to be sticking to her story. Whatever educational value the story promised initially in its highlight of Anuja’s extraordinary morality, the apology, however, without her last words, sounds lacking in full disclosure.

And a couple of serious questions about journalistic integrity remain unanswered: Was the hoax part of a premeditated move by someone to discredit Kantipur’s brand of journalism? How could a newspaper with a lesson learned earlier in 2003, fall into a similar trap again? Finding the facts about these questions is the only way that will help prevent future Rasendra Syndromes.

Another factor to be taken into consideration concerning this issue is the psychological side which is intimately linked to individual users of media. Psychologists have long studied people with Attention-seeking Personality Disorders (ASPD), who, they say, exploit every opportunity to get attention, by means of misrepresentation, distortion or acting as saviors. Even normal-looking people could be ASPDs, and they are usually those with low-esteem, trying to exert their self-worth. Access to media, however, does not eliminate this narcissistic tendency. Examples include Lady Gaga, the pop singer, and many other world-renowned characters who are on 24/7 news spotlight, and still continue to play mass-mediated pranks.

If this is the case with our Lady WahWah (briefly), she needs medical or psychological attention. Millions of Nepalis and others lost precious hours and other resources while engaged with the story that now, we are informed, was simply bogus. Who will compensate them for their waste in that non-news?

It is also true that the problems connecting ordinary users of media with media institutions go deeper than circulation numbers or remote clicks. The numeric growth in media does not balance with quality in access and content. Our news has little to do with the actual lives of ordinary people. Under such conditions, it can be difficult for the majority of them to imagine a role outside the usual political spectacles or fantasy shows in our media. Those remain fertile breeding grounds for such tall tales.

Published in the Republica, April 27, 2011