Bari Weiss’ resignation from NYT spurs ‘illiberalism’ debate in US, however for Indian media, free and honest journalism is a fable 

The resignation of Bari Weiss is interesting because it is an issue of freedom of press in America — one that points to a curtailing of freedom from a direction not usually accused of being an enemy of free speech and free thought.

The resignation of Bari Weiss, from her role as an editor at The New York Times, has kicked off a mighty kerfuffle around America. The world, which still looks up to that country and its journalistic institutions because the Global Times of China is some way from filling the gap, is looking on with interest and a probable measure of bemusement. After all, there are countries where things are reminiscent of the fictional kingdom of Wadiya from a film called The Dictator in which the dictator wins races by the simple expedient of shooting his competitors. The bearded men — they are always bearded men, except in China and Russia — ruling these kingdoms tend to deal with awkward questions from journalists by having them murdered in embassies. A mere opinion editor resigning over something called a difference of opinion alleging bullying, when all her limbs are still intact and in their rightful places, must seem to them rather strange.

Nonetheless, many things are properly measured only in relation to themselves. China and Saudi Arabia are not yardsticks by which freedom of press in America can be measured, except in jest. The resignation of Bari Weiss is interesting because it is an issue of freedom of press in America — one that points to a curtailing of freedom from a direction not usually accused of being an enemy of free speech and free thought. Weiss is a conservative, and in her resignation letter she has accused her liberal colleagues of constant bullying for what she described as her “forays into Wrongthink”. She has also mentioned that some of her co-workers insisted she needed to be rooted out if the company was to be truly ‘inclusive’.

It seems odd that exclusion of a thoughtful Conservative voice in the NYT’s newsroom would be viewed by anyone as necessary for it to be inclusive. However, the “woke Liberals”, a group to which the most militant social justice warriors tend to belong, are not particularly known for their tolerance of opposing views. It is therefore possible that they would have been keen to see Weiss out. She presents a difficult target for those who thrive on “Liberal” identity politics; she is a woman and a Jew. It is safe to surmise that a straight white Christian man in her place with the same political views would have been evicted sooner; in the politics of historical revenge, many of the woke see today’s white man as fair target for the sins of his ancestors.

Similar ideas have made their way, along with the direct or indirect influence of American and British college educations, to sections of Indian newsrooms too. However, the problems for journalism here are substantially different than those at The New York Times, and this is evident from Weiss’ resignation letter itself.  “If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinised. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets. Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired,” Weiss wrote in her resignation.

This sounds very familiar. Many journalists and editors did indeed get into serious trouble, with police cases being slapped on them for the crime of doing journalism, but the attack came in almost every instance from BJP governments. Several reporters and editors have lost their jobs, not for their views on transgenders or gays but because they were not sufficiently laudatory towards the party in power, and the Hindu “nationalist” Right. As for a real clash of ideas within newsrooms – haha.

Try to picture this: an editorial meeting is in progress. Arnab Goswami, channel head of Republic TV, is sitting silently at the head of the table, smiling a beatific smile as a young reporter energetically pitches a story idea on how terribly the Modi government has messed up the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, or the Chinese ingress into Ladakh, or the economy. Arnab hears her out and finally says “good idea, please go ahead”. Maybe I’m a bit of a cynic, but I reckon the chances of pigs developing wings are higher.

The issue for free and fair journalism here is not a clash of ideologies inside newsrooms. It is that free and fair journalism itself is out of favour, so there is no question of an actual contest of views within newsrooms.

Woke Liberals would presumably not apply for jobs to Republic, Times Now or Swarajya. If they do, they do so with full knowledge of what the job entails, because the output is there for everyone to see. Similarly, in earlier times, The Hindu was known to be a Left-liberal bastion, where a Right-winger would be a misfit. Even the Hindustan Times was strictly centrist; both the “jholawala” Left and the Hindutva Right were viewed with some suspicion there. That didn’t mean there were no Leftists or Right-wingers in its newsrooms. Indeed, several people who worked there, outwardly displaying liberal outlooks, rapidly became Hindutva bigots once the government at the Centre changed.

Not only individuals, entire news organisations in India shift stances depending on the party in power. The shifts flow from the top, and people down the organisational hierarchy fall in line or find themselves side-lined or sacked. Who pays the piper, calls the tune…ideology, to the extent that it is invoked, is a mere wrapping for the naked reality that the shifts are determined by considerations of ad revenues, profits, and access to those in power.

Before 2014, Right-wingers in India used to rail against the mainstream media, calling it “paid media” and journalists “presstitutes” because they perceived that the media was biased against them. Now they no longer have any problems with bias, because the bias is for them. Practically the entire mainstream media, with a scant few exceptions, has adjusted to become friendly towards the regime in power. This would not be possible if the Indian media was like the American media, where newsrooms of institutions such as The New York Times have remained true to their ideological moorings — perhaps excessively and militantly so, to the extent of bullying the rare dissenting Conservative in the paper, as the case of Bari Weiss shows.

The writer is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

— Photo by Lotus Head from FreeImages

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