Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Op-Ed Labors

Too often, columnists do not have the luxury of time and energy to do their research. People who write op-eds pegged to news topics are all the more constrained by deadlines.

From time to time, I have dilemmas, trilemmas, decalemmas and even pentadecalemmas on what to write in this space. There are today many developing news stories that have the potential to provoke editorial comment.

I start by talking to people or scanning the media for a compelling topic. It must be relevant, timely, interesting and potent. Above all, for me, writing about it must be fun.

As usual, this past week and before that, newspaper pages saw a deluge of stories around politics or power characters. No hard-hitting, puckish columnist could have afforded to snore over reports of failing health of two of our top political leaders, one of whom had the honor of being voted and elevated to the topmost post in his party.

Suddenly, reminiscent of our early 1990s, we had India flooding our living rooms. Now it was all over our fingertip communication gadgets. A leaked draft Indian proposal on power sector cooperation received thrashing from several commentators who saw in it New Delhi’s monopolistic designs. It was a prologue leading to a visit here by our southern neighbor’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj.

The climax will come next week with the arrival of Narendra Modi himself. Read the news peg: It’s the first official Nepal visit by a sitting Indian PM in 17 years. It must be more than mere coincidence that just when Modi is preparing for his Nepal yatra, Chinese official media are reporting that Beijing is extending their railway to India and Nepal borders by 2020. Someone’s watching.

If you are more of a social-economic type, we saw recently the unveiling of first full budget in three years, no ordinary feat in a country where governments last only a year on average. The Human Development Index Report 2014 released last Thursday declared that Nepal’s ranking has “improved slightly”. We are ahead of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the region, and our HDI value is the highest among the “Low Human Development Group” countries. Shouldn’t these stories make me think, and scribble something in anger, frustration or joy?

How about something cultural, entertaining or off-the-track? A story that a media group was organizing Mr Handsome Nepal 2014 promised a fascinating angle to sweat over the meaning of manliness these days! A friend said that a middle-aged didi from our neighborhood, joined thousands, taking part in a Bol-Bam walk Tuesday night to Pashupatinath. She walked bare-foot all the way from Sundarijal. Massive religious congregations are becoming more fashionable in the country, signaling something about our emerging crowd psychology.

The above are random examples from broad areas. But this column often focuses on media and communications issues. Naturally, news about the arrest of a government employee for leaking classified information, and the arrest of a journalist on charges of threatening and extorting a businessman should be appropriate for our purpose.

Otherwise, a press release by the Indian embassy (IE) in Kathmandu refuting a story in Annapurna Post (Sunday, July 27) should do. The Post reported that Madhesi leaders, in their meeting with Swaraj, sought intervention from India to secure their equal rights, and Swaraj responded that they had failed to maintain unity among themselves. IE claimed the reports were fabricated, malicious, misleading and baseless. It’s a classic case of journalistic impropriety or journalist-source dependency gone awry. Either somebody lied, or somebody is lying to cover the truth.

Each of these stories promises to be journalistically relevant and timely. But if you love to walk an untrodden path or take somewhat of a contrarian approach, you will have to look deeper into these topics to make them journalistically interesting and potent. If I ask the WHYs and the HOWs, I am actually asking too much from myself—the analysis. I am forcing myself to dig the background, collect supporting facts, statistics, attributions and anecdotes in support of my argument.

Too often, columnists do not have the luxury of time and energy to do their research. People who write op-eds pegged to news topics are all the more constrained by deadlines. There are also those who believe that opinion writing is not a journalistic task that requires finding relevant information, evaluating it and using it in context. For them, op-eds are nothing but opinionation, a sort of egotistical intellectual diarrhea, a monotone. We have to wonder what on earth they are talking about! What is the larger issue? We see little regards for aesthetics of words, respectability of tone toward the topic and the reader, differences of views about an issue, and perspectives in context.

It’s a pity that some of the prominent names in our industry get away with their jargons and diatribes. In many pieces, we see nothing but angry rhetoric, vitriol, irrationality, ad hominem argument and name-calling. Reasoned and passionate argument is scarce. You cannot tell their main point from their garbled run-ons. And the herd mentality is emotionally intense. It seems that everybody is writing the same, about the same thing, forgetting that there are diverse audiences and tastes. I must say with self-abnegation that I am learning.

Of course, you should not expect objectivity from an op-ed writer, but it is fair to chide the pundit for not offering constructive criticism or realistic solutions. Not every op-ed writer has to be an expert, if he or she has something compelling to say, and can say it in simple and clear language. But many opinion writers take pride in their clichés, pedantry and dissertation style. Many university scholars or bureaucrats have much to say, but appear unresponsive to a newspaper’s creative, professional need for short, simple sentences or paragraphs emphasizing clarity, conciseness. They fare miserably in the fundamentals of style and mechanics.

I have failed many times in at least one measure. My op-ed editor in this paper has reminded me again and again that I limit my articles to 1,200 words. An editorial rule dictated by space constraint amounts to an absolute sin. But somehow, I have not been able to master this skill.

To get back to choosing a topic, I still prefer to write about the alleged case of news fabrication regarding Swaraj. Sourcing is an essential component of journalistic writing. One can question the veracity of the anonymous source in that story. And IE’s rebuttal could simply be an effort at damage control. Without strong facts and reliable information, it is futile to waste this space with speculation and pontification. A good amount of labor is required to decide on the key point, format, style and tone as well as to develop, organize and draft the article.

Still, the temptation to dabble in areas beyond the regular confines of media issues is irresistible to me. I like to enjoy the freedom op-ed writing offers to chase whichever topic I like, and to be my own boss. Ironically, the same freedom distracts me with so many choices. As Ron Bethard, an op-ed critic, commented, choosing subjects to write about is difficult, not because there are few, but because there are so many.

Most op-ed writers lack training. A little editorial guidance by newspapers can make a difference. Most great newspapers around the world have the policy of giving their contributors an opportunity to review the edited copy. You only need to ask op-ed editors; they will tell you how bad some of our prominent columnists are at writing their copies. It takes the editors’ time, patience, attention to details, and passion for the craft to turn trash into gems.

Perhaps I may find the time to decide on a topic for my next column. But then it might already be stale or irrelevant.

Published in Republica, 30 July, 2014