Out of the Box Part 9: How Fake News is Harming Journalism

The connect between a journalist and the audience is based on trust. Once it is broken, it is difficult to mend.

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Read the first eight blogs in her series here:

Out of the Box Part 1: Of Reporting and Romance
Out of the Box Journalism Part 2: Be Alsatians, Not Pomeranians!
Out of the Box Part 3: Entering the ‘Neverland’ of Journalism!
Out of the Box 4: How Crime Coverage Becomes Lottery for the Press
Out of the Box Part 5: Looking for a ‘Barsati, Boyfriend & Beetle’
Out of the Box Part 6: In Journalism, the Devil is in the Details!
Out of the Box Journalism Part 7: The Man Who Would Be King
Out of the Box Part 8: Journalism Without a Prism or Blinkers

Entering office one day, I found the editorial meeting already in full swing with discussions focused on a disturbing story from a Bihar-based vernacular paper about a bonded labour racket – allegedly run by a very prominent Bihar-based politician.

According to the newspaper report, Patna was emerging as a national hub of the trafficking of minors. One thing led to another and I found this story tossed into my lap!

Now it was very odd to harp on my restrictive home situation in the midst of a rather large newsroom. But I knew I would be facing more than music....

“So this reporting stupidity will continue on a national level now? Do something respectable!” my father fumed. Ironic how the ‘Gift of Magi’ extends to almost all relationships of love. He was pulling me out from a world he didn’t know. I was pushing myself into it hoping to eventually make him proud of me, in the only way I knew how to.

Even though India Today was already established, TV Today still had the intimacy of a mom-pop store or rather a ‘brother sister enterprise’. For this particular story I was given Aroon Purie’s personal still camera so that the pictures could possibly be used for a parallel story on India Today. As would happen for most outstation shoots, our first port of call was the India Today bureau in Patna. That was how I first met the two cult figures, almost the ‘Ram aur Lakhan’ of Bihar journalism.

The first was Farzand Ahmed, India Today’s Patna bureau chief. He was a quiet and shy man of a few words but possessed razor sharp observation skills and an equally sharp understanding of Bihar. Dressed in nondescript bush shirts, loose beige trousers and strappy chappals, he didn’t look like a man who had a hotline to everyone and absolutely anyone in Bihar.

From chief ministers to powerful coal tycoons, academic intellectuals to rabble rousing labour union heads – one polite phone call from Farzand Bhai and they would agree to come on camera. He would indulgently call me ‘newton jee’. The first word stood for journalistic camaraderie and the second for gracious formality with a female colleague.

The second part of this jodi was Kishan Murari Kishan, the sharp shooting freelance photographer who had acquired international fame for his revelatory yet disturbing photo features of events like the ‘Bhagalpur Blinding Case’ and ‘Secret life of Anand Margis’.

With a face that spoke of hours spent in the harsh sun, greying curly hair, a pot belly and a voice that had forgotten to break after his teens, KMK universally made a poor first impression. This would soon transform into a grudging admiration for the man’s unstoppable energy and appetite for work.

Speeding, with one bum on the seat of his Lamretta scooter – and one leg out to push off rickshaws and cycles in his path with his over-sized sports shoes – KMK would zigzag through Patna’s chaotic traffic and reach the spot of action before the rest of the press photographers had even mounted their mobikes. He always had a huge camera bag hanging from his shoulders, with a ready-to-click camera. With this, he would often click on the go, much like the western heroes would shoot while riding a horse.

How Fake News Came Our Way

Farzand and Kishan Murari Kishan both responded with a shake of their heads to imply ‘no’ when I told them the details of the newspaper article which we were planning to cover as a feature. I crumpled in my seat! Apparently, there was no organised human trafficking racket of the scale mentioned in the news article, there was no political kingpin…. this was a piece of fake news!

Yes, because believe it or not, fake news is not a new invention. In a bid to get instant attention or additional subscription or possibly to blackmail the eminent politician mentioned in the news article – the Patna-based local newspaper had planted this obnoxious piece of falsehood. “This is sheer fabrication – Chandu Khane Ki Khabar Hai,” said Uttam Sen Gupta, the Times of India Patna bureau chief solemnly, when I went to him for a second opinion. Now what?

Like co-founders of a newly established start up, the entire crew went into famine mode. This was the trip when we first invented our pet move to curb spiralling food expenses when a difficult story was taking time to pan out. One crew member would order a tomato soup with a bread basket. Then the next and the next. The result was four full breadbaskets – and a far more controlled food bill as a result. This was not some cheapskate thrill that we embarked on wilfully – but a reflection of the sense of ownership and concern that we all had for our still nascent news outfit.

A day later, after one look at my worried face, Kishan Murari suggested – in his trademark singsong lullaby style – that even if it was not a real story, he could conjure all the necessary shots and interviews if we so wanted.

Knowing KMK’s resourcefulness, this was actually entirely possible. After all, the popular myth was that KMK knew about a crime even before it had happened! Faced with the pressure of a full crew sitting idle I was really conflicted, but turning down his offer of recreating a ‘fake’ story, I told him that we couldn’t create a ‘chandu khane ki khabar’ like the local paper had done.

“Arey, aisa hi hota hai,” KMK chided me even as Farzand Bhai sat quietly smiling, listening to us squabbling over the moral dilemma. Finally turning down KMK’s swashbuckling offer, I requested Farzand to help me find a genuine story we could do instead. Farzand began dialling away, talking to people, and I got into his old files to frantically look for an alternative piece. Finally, we had a breakthrough by midnight.

Farzand told me about a welfare home in Patna where scores of juveniles, street children, abandoned girls and even women of unsound mind were bunched together in order to pilfer large sums of welfare budgets. There were hushed rumours about dehumanising conditions. The problem was that a well-oiled security system controlled the access. Scores of other reporters had failed to get in. A visual story with a full crew access was certainly as difficult as a ‘teedhi kheer’.

Cracking Access and Doing Some Digging...

Over endless cups of chai and pakoras, KMK hatched a plan. Accordingly, the next morning, he walked up to the entrance of the welfare home and told them a yarn about a business house that wanted to distribute fruits to the inmates for charity. He also mentioned that a camera crew would record the charity largess. Miraculously, the big wooden gates of the erstwhile haveli swung open and in walked the Newstrack team – with fruit baskets carried by the driver in the front and a crew (with all its gear) following behind.

Once in the main courtyard, Bharat cameraman and Badri sound-person – carrying an ikegami camera and a recorder on their respective shoulders – ‘rolled’ their equipment non stop. The inmates opened up about the nefarious goings-on in this hell-hole. This was the state government’s welfare home – yet the inmates were compelled to live in a virtual ‘ bhootbangla’ – a dilapidated ruin with unstable electricity and water supply.

We had recorded all the incriminating testimonials of the inmates before the shell shocked organisers could realise that they had let in the ‘ghost busters’! In order to make sure we had an ironclad story, we needed to know how the whole circuit worked. We wanted to show that this was not just a case of mismanagement and neglect – but an organised circuit that had originated at the welfare ministry.

Some more digging threw up the name of ‘Chandni’, a young inmate who had escaped the welfare home and now worked independently as a popular ‘escort’. Contact was established and Chandni agreed to come to our hotel to get interviewed in silhouette. Her interest was to blow the racket and free herself from the constant threat of the welfare home’s bouncers who were still chasing her.

The day opened with an inauspicious sign. One of my earrings had come loose and was repeatedly falling off. Busy with the crew, preparing a foil-curtain shoot set-up for Chandni’s silhouette interview, I took off both earrings and placed them on the desk. After a long suspenseful wait, Chandni appeared and gave us a revelatory interview, giving details of the modus and working of the gang. Her interview revealed that the welfare home supervisor was in cahoots with the lower ministry staff, pilfering off the budgets for food, clothes, bedding, and medicines while keeping the inmates in pitiable conditions. Thanks to Chandni’s inputs, we had established the 180 degree story arc.

Collapsing on my sofa with relief and exhaustion, I was about to raise my hands in joy when I realised with horror that Chandni had cleared off with my wallet, my gold earrings – and worst of all, group editor Aroon Purie’s still camera!

Rushing directly from the airport to the office, I recapped the entire sequence of events to my boss, expecting her to chide me for the amount of time we’d taken to shoot an alternate story (instead of the one we’d travelled for) and also for losing AP’s camera! Instead, as I left for home in the evening, I found a gift on my table – Vikram Seth’s just released book All You Who Sleep Tonight with a handwritten note from my boss!
I found a gift on my table – Vikram Seth’s just released book All You Who Sleep Tonight with a handwritten note from my boss!
I found a gift on my table – Vikram Seth’s just released book All You Who Sleep Tonight with a handwritten note from my boss!
(Photo Courtesy: Nutan Manmohan)

Next morning at home, I awoke – only to be accosted by Bitto Bhaiya! The Purani Dilli families are utter groupies. The same halwai would cook gujjia and kachori for Holi in every house. The same milkman would make soaked almond thandai, and sealed bottles reached all homes just as the summer began.

In about the same way, one photographer would churn out multiple pictures to entice the grooms and brides. “Usha, Savita, Sushma, Sudesh, Sashi – sabki matrimonial photo maine khenchi thi,” announced Bitto Bhaiya – of Kamla Nagar’s Rajkamal studio – as he launched into his promotional pitch, enumerating the names of my various cousins who had been under his arc lights. His single-point mission was to put me into a saree, load me with heavy makeup and present me as a ‘sundar, susheel, gharelu’ option. Dodging this very determined missile which would only have presented ‘fake news’ to potential suitors, I used Uttam Sengupta’s line and told him: “Bitto Bhaiya, yeh toh chandu khane ki khabar hogi – totally false picture”.

Brushing aside my hesitation, he said “Arey, aise hi hota hai!”

Learning: Fake photographs and fake news never work. Neither in personal relationships nor in reporting. The connect between a journalist and the audience is based on trust. As Kabir said, “Rahiman dhagaa prem ka – Naa toote chatkaye. Toote toh phir naa jude – Jude ganth pad jaye. (The thread of trust and affection can withstand a lot of pressure. But once it is broken, it is difficult to mend.)

(Nutan Manmohan has been Vice President Star Tv & Contributing Producer National Geographic Channel, USA . Her film ‘ The Last Flight ‘ on vulture conservation got the ‘ Wild Wing OBE ‘ award UK . Her 26 part Children’s Jasoosi series V3 is scheduled for release on Facebook this year.)

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