Friday, December 12, 2008

26.11.2008: Introduction & Media's Role

NOTE: This post lays the introduction and presents PART ONE of a multi-part post.

WARNING: Long, Long post! Apologies for the length! Please be patient and read! I am sure it will be worth your while.

We all know what happened on 26 November, 2008. Each one of us saw the grisly images, the horrendous testimony of people who survived, the horrific story of victims and their families, the tragic heroism of a few brave foot-soldiers of our police and armed forces. And each one of us, I am sure, shall never forget this day. Ever.

To reiterate the facts again, armed gunmen with AK47’s and grenades, opened indiscriminate fire at innocent people across several parts of South Mumbai. Among the attack sites were a very popular café (Leopold Café), frequented by foreign tourists and Mumbai’s upper classes, the monolith heritage structure of C.S.T. and two landmark five-star hotels – The Oberoi and The Taj, both monuments to a resurgent, confident India and the site of many a high profile business deals. A small Jewish community centre ‘Chabad House’ (locally referred to as ‘Nariman House’), run by Chabad Lubavitch, an ultra-orthodox Hasidic sect of Judaism, was also made a target by the terrorists, who killed a young Rabbi and his wife among many others. For three days, they laid siege to the two hotels and the Jewish center and managed to uproot any traces of confidence that Mumbai had in its Govt. institutions. For almost 72 hours, they managed to terrorize a city to the core, a city otherwise known for its resilience and also infamously for its numbness to such shocking incidents. It began dramatically, resulting in a bloodbath in South Mumbai, and total terror throughout the city, and indeed the nation. When it all ended (which was ironically not at all dramatic), over 190 people had died, a majority of them Indians, with a sizeable number of foreigners of varied nationalities. The incident shook the city’s complacent feeling of self-contentment and false sense of security, apart from shaking confidence in India’s image as a tourist-friendly and investment-worthy nation. It also undermined India’s increasingly vocal assertions at the global stage as an emerging super-power, by exposing the evident inadequacy of security and Govt. infrastructure to tackle such calamities.

As it unfolded, the tragedy gained a level of non-stop reporting and endless critique by political and defense analysts, unprecedented in Indian Media history! Every news channel justifiably covered the story 24*7 for three consecutive days and beyond. I do not doubt that the situation merited such an exhaustive coverage - it was after all an audacious attack, meticulously planned and executed with chilling perfection. However, what I object to is the manner in which the media covered it. Many aspects of most of the NEWS reporting I saw were fundamentally flawed, dangerously jingoistic and indeed subtly (yet noticeably) biased towards the voice/opinion of the richer classes. Watching these endless news broadcasts along with judiciously reading detailed analysis/editorials and opinion pieces in a leading newspaper (Times of India) along with following it up on several web-blogs and online newspapers (Huffington Post, Indian Express, GreatBong, Hindu, Hindustan Times, etc.), I couldn't help but formulate my own views on the entire tragedy on several fronts - what went wrong, who were responsible, how to deal with the perpetrators, how to respond to Pakistan's seeming complicity in this regard, the media's coverage, the various analysts and their enlightened opinions, the Page 3 socialites who turned crusaders overnight, etc. Below, I list down my own critique of the tragedy, its representation in NEWS media, and what we ought to be doing about it (all my personal opinions of course, which anyone who disagrees is entitled not to follow!)


Some may argue that given the situation, the media performed well, doing a commendable job and performing the crucial public service of fact-dissemination. But as it turns out, the media is justifiably receiving a lot of flak for its voyeuristic approach to the tragedy and for its propensity to propagate "unsubstantiated facts” or “unconfirmed reports" (heavy euphemism for a rumor). There are, broadly speaking, three main aspects of all media reporting on the tragic attacks (especially T.V. news), which I found deeply disturbing and even unsettling.

The most striking among these is the media's complete disregard for factual accuracy & ignorance of its own self-regulated protocols of fact-checking (which in retrospect have proved to be meager, if not non-existent, and totally un-enforced), which lead to much unnecessary panic and chaos. The immediate announcement by most news channels of "breaking news" of "unconfirmed reports" or "reliable sources" suggesting some sinister shooting/bombing, without even bothering to check its veracity and authenticity, lead to much tension in a city already over the edge. Some incidents noteworthy in this respect were:

  • CNN IBN's CST gaffe [1][2] - Rajdeep Sardesai's premature announcement of fresh shooting at C.S.T., as a result of his hyperventilated enthusiasm to be the source of the sensational breaking news (to the point that he forgot the most basic tenet of journalism – fact checking), and his subsequent flushed apologies. Unfortunately, the damage had been done. Droves of train-travellers and city-dwellers were in varying degrees of cardiac arrest (courtesy: panic and chaos) and the city was thrown out of gear. Ironically, in his misplaced enthusiasm, he epitomized the tagline of IBN: "Whatever It Takes!” Whatever it takes indeed!
  • Constantly conflicting reports on NDTV, Headlines Today, CNN IBN, Times Now, etc. regarding number and status of terrorists at the attack-sites (in particular Taj, where so many volte-face were made that I have lost count!). At one point, Javed Jaffrey being interviewed by Barkha Dutt was informed by her that a conversation with NSG chief revealed that one terrorist was still alive at Taj, even though all media reports at the time were to the contrary. Within seconds, Jaffrey was interviewed by reporter from another rival channel and was being vehemently confronted by the adamant reporter who insisted that terrorists at Taj were completely neutralized (the reporter and the channel reverted to the “one terrorist alive” version within a couple of hours).

A second appalling aspect of the media coverage was the complete disregard for the sensitivity and confidentiality of information concerning counter-terror operations. I concede that the media is supposed to be the conveyor of all information pertinent and relevant to the general public. I also agree that the media’s mandate empowers it to poke its nose, scratch the surface and explore the unexplored. But there must be some sense of discretion and discernment to differentiate information that can be broadcasted without having a feedback to the way events are likely to unfold, from information whose dissemination might influence the outcome of the concerned event. Put simply, the media has to exercise appropriate self-regulated censorship to ensure that information (which may or may not be relevant) that compromises the operations of security forces and neutralizes their advantage vis-à-vis terrorists, is never let out either intentionally or otherwise. However, caution was clearly thrown out of the window by a news-hungry, breaking-news-eager media, which did the exact opposite. All kinds of information regarding positioning of armed forces in the vicinity of the scene of CTU operations were beamed across T.V. sets, along with detailed descriptions and candid visuals of the relative location of security forces, firepower, deployment strengths, etc. All this undoubtedly gave away strategic advantage and the crucial "element of surprise" that the CTU teams needed to ensure decisive victory over the terrorists. It can be argued that this only prolonged an already long-drawn battle and may have unintentionally aided the loss of NSG forces. Repeated warnings and fervent requests by police authorities for the media to keep a low profile went completely unheeded. Finally, when the exasperated authorities decided to request cable operators to switch off news feeds to their customers as a last resort, the decision was ruthlessly derided by most media channels. The extent of the self-serving and narcissistic nature of Indian T.V. news media is best illustrated by the completely misplaced hyper-accentuated sense of self-righteousness indignation of an irate Arnab Goswami of Times Now, who called the cable black-out unacceptable and a black moment in the history of the country’s democracy (or something to that effect – I have forgotten the exact words and tried searching exhaustively for it on the Internet in vain. My version may be a little exaggerated, but rest assured Arnab’s actual pearls of wisdom were something equally ridiculous and pompous!). Apparently, Mr. Goswami felt that the day was black and sad not just because terrorists were killing innocent people, but more so because the Govt. was taking draconian actions to muzzle, what he most likely contended was a ‘daring’ media (notwithstanding the media’s general excesses in context of the tragedy) Mr. Goswami, I cannot tell you how conceited and indeed strangely amusing you sounded when you spoke those words! (However, one has to give some credit to both Mr. Goswami and Times Now for being the more restrained of most T.V. channels [3]. That however, does not exculpate them from justified criticism generic enough to be directed at the general media.) RIP cool-headed, factual reporting with a premium on objectivity and neutrality. Welcome self-obsessed, super-touchy, hyper-enthusiastic and supremely voyeuristic reporting.

The third criticism I have of the media coverage was the utter disregard for basic etiquette and code of behavior. When greeting a decorated officer of the Indian Armed Forces, one would expect a basic sense of discipline and decorum. However, the media behaved anything but civil. There seemed to be constant rioting and jostling among media-persons at the attack sites, each bout of frenzy triggered by the arrival of yet another high-voltage politician/dignitary, high-wattage celebrity or distinguished serviceman of the armed forces. Some points to be highlighted in this regard were:

  • Persistent harassment of freed and traumatized hostages (idiotic questions including the likes of “aap kaise feel kar rahe hain?” or “dead bodies ko dekhkar aapko kaisa laga?” or “Were you scared?”. These questions subjected relieved hostages to more trauma and irritation, compounding their pain instead of relieving it.)
  • Insane jostling to get sound-bytes from anyone and everyone (especially the pandemonium the media-persons created near The Oberoi, when the NSG chief was completely mobbed by super-eager anchors & cut-throat cameramen, who were shoving and swearing to try to get a good shot. This kind of behavior is unacceptable in the face of such a situation and when addressing a distinguished member of the Armed forces. It is unbecoming of an otherwise aware media.)

My fourth and final grouse against the media was their steady and subtle leaning towards the views and opinions of celebrities, page 3 socialites and the insecure elite. Throughout the coverage, The Taj and The Oberoi were in constant spotlight (to the point of being completely overdone), while the massacre at C.S.T. went terribly under-reported. It was as if the mayhem at C.S.T. was too unglamorous to the media, as compared to the juicy stories of the elite of Mumbai facing a terrifying ordeal and the prospect of a grisly end. Part of this bias in coverage may be attributed to the fact that these hotels are recognizable landmarks (The Taj, especially is an iconic heritage structure) and the siege there continued over multiple days and nights, in contrast to C.S.T.’s ultra-quick massacre, which was over in a few minutes. However, this still doesn’t completely & satisfactorily account for the clear bias in reporting towards the Taj & the Oberoi. As the coverage progressed, we witnessed the media chasing celebrity after celebrity (or mebbe it was the other way around). Even after the tragedy came to a bloody conclusion, we saw the media favoring to air celebrity opinions more prominently (with greater air-time on prime-time slots), as compared to views expressed by ordinary citizens. Some within the media introspected on this bias and mused whether such a huge outpouring of public anger would have emanated, had the tragedy occurred in say public transportation systems. Most such introspections concluded: probably not. I, for one, believe that the media demonstrated a systemic bias in stoking public rage more prominently in response to this attack, than say as compared to previous ones. This was done in conjunction with the city’s elite, whose sudden consternation was primarily a result of their incredulity at being made targets. [More on this theme in a subsequent PART that deals with the reaction of the elite classes and the way in which they perhaps hogged the limelight.]

Other long-time, familiar deficiencies surfaced again. This included no sense of respect for the bodies of the victims and the forensic sanctity of the attack-sites, a complete lack of empathy for grieving relatives whose wailing requests for a few somber moments of privacy were unheeded by an intrusive media, among other complaints. One last thing that came to my mind was the bastardization of the name of the tragedy (“26/11” or India’s 9/11”) to a style more suited to the Americans, etc. The media chose to portray this in context of America’s 9/11 and while the comparison was justified in essence, it somehow lacked conviction and gave the appearance of defining this tragedy in a manner digestible to international audiences. This to me came across as being somehow contrived.

While there were glaring inconsistencies in tens of versions of the same story across various news channels, while there were gross neglect of some foundational principles of journalism, one can’t deny that the media proved to be quite effective in capturing the tragedy in all its horror. It somehow rather morbidly provided the intricate details of the macabre attacks and the carnage that ensued. The entire way in which it was presented may have been tasteless, but it proved to be instrumental in evoking a very strong public outcry on the basis of its own grotesque content.


  1. Shoba De to the rescue of T.V. NEWS Channels: Rediff Blogs
  2. Rumors cause panic, prompt channel black-out: DNA Mumbai
  3. Mumbai Attacks Show Terrorism in the Digital Age: GROUNDREPORT.COM

Other Blog-posts on Media’s Handling of 26/11:

  1. Week 1 - Post 26/11 - Quo Vadis News Media ?: [Follow all the other links listed at the end of this blog-post]