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The Land of a Thousand Bad Newspaper Articles

Shashi Tharoor, the Indian author and former candidate for the post of United Nations Secretary-General, has given his most recent collection of clichés a hybrid cliché of a title: The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone. The elephant and the tiger are the most stereotyped symbols of India, flogged by writers for centuries before Tharoor ever took up the whip. But the cell phone is a freshly minted cliché, still winking brightly in the spotlight under which India has begun to find itself. Like its zoological predecessors, the cell phone is a lazy, shorthand way to talk about modern India for non-Indian audiences.

In a way, this seems to be the cell phone’s own fault, for the athletic rapidity with which it has bounded across Indian class barriers, geographies, and urban-rural divides, becoming an easy stand-in for India’s economic development. Really, though, it is a better symbol of the chronic bad journalism about India, by writers who reach for generalizations, who shrink from the complexity of the country, who refuse to venture beyond city limits, or who reinforce tired perceptions.

Wire copy is often the foremost culprit in resorting to pithy generalities. In wire service reports, the Bharatiya Janata Party is always introduced as “the Hindu nationalist party,” even though that is like referring to the Republicans as “the Christian right-wing party” or the Democrats as “the godless left-wing party.” I am no supporter of the religious aspects of the BJP’s political agenda, but this is also the party that cracked the Indian economy wide open.

In a similar vein, Reuters often sums up Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the incumbent Congress party, as “India’s most powerful politician.” In a democracy, where she is neither Prime Minister nor President, that is an intensely debatable assertion, and it says nothing about her actual position in the structure of administration. Wire reporters also feel obliged to describe Hindi as “India’s national language,” even though the Constitution of India does no such thing, and even though the Central Institute of Indian Languages counts only around 400 million of India’s one billion as Hindi speakers.

Disturbingly, even writers who ought to know better, such as Tharoor, and publications that ought to know better, such as The New York Times, seem to have poor immunity against this affliction. In a September 2007 essay in the Times, titled “Mumbai’s Moment,” Alex Kuczynski offers the entirely unoriginal observation that “[t]his is a city of almost unimaginable contradiction,” something that will be apparent even to a first-time tourist with a one-hour layover at Mumbai’s international airport.

Ms. Kuczynski hangs for the most part with the city’s party-set but decides, one afternoon, to visit Dharavi, a slum so publicized as Asia’s largest that operators actually run tours into it for Western tourists. She emerges from Mumbai with stale news of “ferocious poverty,” of the smell of the great unwashed, of the press of people on the streets, of the rich living cheek-by-jowl with the poor. But Mumbai is more layered and interesting than that; even minimal probing by Ms. Kuczynski would have revealed Dharavi to be a hive of manufacturing activity, with an estimated 15,000 single-room factories and an annual output of $1.47 billion.

This refusal by journalists to look beyond the immediate and the superficial comes at the cost of accuracy, nuance, and depth. Accuracy: Bollywood isn’t the world’s biggest film industry; the Indian film industry, as a whole, is. Nuance: Indian cinema is not just the razzle-dazzle of Bollywood, but also the socially conscious films of Kerala, the grand lineage of Bengali films, the experimental films of New Delhi and Tamil Nadu, and even the rustic art of Bhojpuri films. Depth: There is far, far more to Indian cultural life--art, dance, music, literature, and theatre in both rural and urban India--than the pretty movies and festivals that monopolize the attention of journalists.

Or take sport, and an atrocious piece that appeared in the Times after India recently won an international cricket tournament. Accuracy: Calling the player S Sreesanth a batsman is the equivalent of calling Roger Clemens a hitter. Nuance: The high-voltage, three-hour format of this particular tournament was merely a compression of the decades-old one-day cricket game, and not the tectonic shift from the five-day version it was made out to be. Depth: The cricket-crazy India of the clichés is also one where domestic games are now often played in stadiums so empty that the sound of bat on ball echoes loudly from the stands.

At a time when India is casually mentioned, in so many conversations, as one of the world’s two emerging superpowers, is this all we want to know about what makes it tick? Is there really no case, from a practical and even economic perspective, for publications to invest in more ambitious writers and more informed writing? Is there no way to begin an interesting project like the Washington Post blog “India 2.0” without descending, at some point, into shallow worrying about parties and shopping hours after three bombs kill 50 people in New Delhi? Is it all a vicious cycle, in which poorly informed readers demand simplistic summaries, receive exactly that from eager reporters, and thus continue to remain poorly informed?

India is a challenge, but it is not an impossible country to report from. The Wall Street Journal has done a fine job of finding its niche--Indian business--and focusing on it relentlessly. The BBC depends on local reporters and stringers, who have their fingers on India’s pulse, rather than parachuted Western journalists who often miss the artery altogether. With the luxury of space and time, The New Yorker published a well-framed, thoroughly reported article last year on India’s looming water crisis. Even without those luxuries, the British publications affiliated with The Guardian do exemplary work, preferring to explain rather than simplify and analyze rather than assert.

An example, and an excellent counterpoint to Kuczynski’s piece, is an article on Dharavi by Dan McDougall that ran in The Observer in early 2007. McDougall holds a tight focus on a specific subject, quotes people with discernible expertise rather than glib talking heads, and refuses to generalize. He is attentive to nuance: Dharavi is a slum, but it also provides a million people with a viable, often profitable, source of livelihood. The result is an article that is coherent and fresh for both Indian and non-Indian readers. Later in the year, McDougall exposed the use of child labor in Indian sweatshops that made clothes for the Gap, a story that had eluded the media even in India. This is the sort of ear-to-the-ground journalism that so many foreign correspondents in India seem incapable or unwilling to do.

Tharoor has been using, in various forms, a particularly smug witticism about India for years now: “Whatever you say about India, the opposite is also true.” The phrase smacks of a strange form of Indian exceptionalism, but it also confers a simplistic bipolarity to the affairs of that country. The truth, of course, is that in India, and in every other large nation in the world, there can be found many shades of gray between the black of one statement and the white of its exact opposite. The grays aren’t hard to find, but spotting them might involve the terrific discomfort of occasionally taking off those designer sunglasses and squinting, for a while, into the sun.

Samanth Subramanian is a freelance journalist living in New York City.

By Samanth Subramanian