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11.29.10

The Fall of India's Katie Couric?

Barkha Dutt, one of the country's pre-eminent news anchors, faces a grilling today over an ethics scandal that has India abuzz—and lays bare the corruption at the heart of Indian journalism, says Tunku Varadarajan.

Barkha Dutt, one of the country’s pre-eminent news anchors, faced a grilling today over an ethics scandal that has India abuzz—and lays bare the corruption at the heart of Indian journalism, says Tunku Varadarajan.

Years from now, earnest journalism majors will study an episode that aired on Indian television Tuesday, in which Barkha Dutt, a massively influential but ethically embattled TV news anchor, submit herself to public inquisition by a panel of her peers. Four flinty journalists grilled the anchor on the extent of her relationship with one of India’s most influential (and, some would say, murky) corporate lobbyists, with whom the anchor was clandestinely taped talking about how to get a pliable politician a job in the Indian cabinet—a placement that would have benefitted the lobbyist’s corporate clients to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. (One assumes that clips of the inquisition will be posted on Ms. Dutt’s NDTV website.)

Think—and I offer this rough-hewn equivalent only to bring the matter to life for an American readership—of Katie Couric as the anchor, caught on tape talking to the flack for Halliburton, on the subject of getting Halliburton’s preferred candidate the job of defense secretary in the run-up to a major war. And think, then, of an hour-long segment in which Couric sits down with, say, Charles Krauthammer, Fred Hiatt, Ken Auletta, and Katrina vandel Heuvel, and submits herself to on-air questioning on the subject—with the aim of explaining, as Dutt has sought to do, on Twitter, Facebook, and in a press release, how her conversation with the lobbyist was within the bounds of ethically acceptable journalism.

Dutt has said, in a nutshell, that the uber-influential lobbyist was just a source, and that she was stringing the source along in order to milk her for as much information as she could get—both immediately, and as editorial investment for the future. Although there is absolutely no evidence that Dutt stood to gain financially from discussing how to place the lobbyist’s man in the Indian cabinet, the conversation reeked of an unseemly proximity between journalist, lobbyist, and corporate interests, so much so that there are vociferous, and entirely reasonable, campaigns to bounce Dutt, as well as many other senior journalists who were also caught on tape, out of a job. The fact that the journalists canoodling on tape with the lobbyist were a “Who’s Who” of sorts of New Delhi’s journalistic elite has fueled a sense of public chagrin that will not easily be quelled. Indians are cynical by nature; and so, when they feel betrayed by the few figures they trust, the disappointment is acute—and irrepressible.

Indian journalism is regarded by many in America (including by my own sainted editor, Tina Brown) as vibrant, rich, and healthy; by contrast, journalism in the West is believed to be in the grip of an existential and financial crisis. But the recent lobbyist-journalist-politician scandal in India (of which everything you could wish to read can be found in Outlook magazine, and here, in this incisively compendious newspaper piece by my brother, an editor at The Hindu newspaper) has dynamited the Potemkin village that is Indian journalism. What has looked to us to be healthy, roseate, and vigorous is, in fact, rotten, corrupt, and frequently amoral.

Indian journalism is woefully bereft of an institutional ethical architecture, relying instead on the ethical instincts of individual journalists. As such, there is a sort of ethical free market in operation, in which readers or viewers make up their own minds on whether so-and-so can be trusted as a columnist, whether this or that anchor can be relied upon to hold no brief for politicians or corporations, whether this newspaper or that can be trusted to report the news without fear or favor. As N. Ram, editor of The Hindu, pointed out in a recent debate on Indian TV, the journalists in question, here, would not have survived five minutes at The New York Times, or the FT.

In truth, Indian journalism is a vast field inhabited by a multitude of interests and abilities, an anarchic Klondike in which fortunes and reputations are being made, and in which the kind of anal but indispensable ethical standards that make the better stratum of American journalism reliable are broadly absent. Many major Indian newspapers practice something called “paid news,” with unofficial rate cards, in which people and companies can get their stories and photographs on Page 1, or their books reviewed, on payment of a fee to the news corporation in question. Politicians, too, must pay, particularly at election time, to get up-front coverage. In the same vein, Indian journalists seldom, if ever, disclose their interests in stories they write about. (An Indian journalist once berated me for “all this American disclosure crap.”)

The lobbyist-journalist-politician scandal has dynamited the Potemkin village that is Indian journalism. What has looked to us to be healthy and vigorous is, in fact, rotten.

There is, also, a curious demographic problem: Virtually all the super-elite journalists in New Delhi and Bombay are from families with corporate or bureaucratic connections, men and women who would, in previous generations, have entered the elite bureaucracy themselves, whether it be the Indian Foreign Service or the Indian Administrative Service. Journalism today offers a quicker and more effective route to power, especially now that the bureaucratic services have been opened up to a wider swath of Indians as a result of affirmative action. In essence, the “babalog”—the well-born—who used to dominate the country’s administrative cadres are now crammed into the media. It is the one avenue of real power for India’s otherwise somewhat disenfranchised elites, in the sense that they can’t ever get elected to parliament. So they have turned the media into a form of socio-cultural Establishment and feel quite at home with the other “establishments,” whether business or political, that are to be found in modern, democratic India, regarding theirs as in no way inferior.

A final word: India’s media is still an insulated and protected sector. To this day, foreign media companies cannot own more than 26 percent of an Indian imprint. This has made for an insular press, a corrupt press, an Indian media untested not merely against global standards of journalistic craft, but also against Western standards of journalistic ethics. Dutt, surely, has a heckuva lot of explaining to do. But she’s not the only one in that position—by any stretch.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)