Breaking Down News: The Fault is Not (Entirely) in Our Stars

When Serena Williams was right in principle but not on the particulars, and who helped the kingfisher fly

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: September 15, 2018 12:15:49 am
FILE – In this Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, file photo, Serena Williams, right, talks with referee Brian Earley during the women’s final of the U.S. Open tennis tournament against Naomi Osaka, of Japan, in New York.  (AP Photo/Adam Hunger, File)

In the press, it is a hallowed and mysterious tradition to put the sports section last. Since it is quite popular, this stratagem would appeal to newspaper editors who might suspect that most humans read back to front in secret. There is no empirical evidence that such editors exist, however, and there is absolutely no rational basis for keeping sports at the end of TV news programmes, which can only be viewed from beginning to end. But this week, the sports news led from the front, when Serena Williams chewed out an umpire for three faults which are perceived to be hers, and which lost her the US Open.

It wasn’t very sporting, because her tirade completely blanked out the finest hour of Naomi Osaka, the rising star who finally made it to the top. Once the story had been wrested from the quivering fingers of sports journalists by the opinionista crowd, Osaka was totally in eclipse. Williams’ rant was elevated into a debate about the valorisation of aggressive men and the demonisation of assertive women in a sport that remains pretty much gendered, and in other walks of life. She was completely right in principle but totally wrong on the particulars, for the decisions against her in the Open final were by the book. But the press was generally happy to run with the gender politics story, which was easier to understand than the niceties of umpiring statistics. A few channels did try something different, though. CNN, for instance, offered a point of view from the umpiring community.

Appearances are deceptive. Rain whipping the palms and a reporter in a waterproof with his mike in a plastic bag? Kerala. But when the man’s face is visible, he is clearly white. So this isn’t Kerala. This is an American channel reporting the extreme weather which hit the coast of North Carolina this week. Looking back, has there been a single week this year when extreme weather, somewhere in the world, failed to make headline news? Coincidentally, the debate over anthropogenic climate change, which used to be quite acrimonious just a few years ago, seems to be relatively muted. Perhaps the time for debate is over, when the bad news is right there in the weather report.

Politically, appearances can be just as deceptive. You’re watching an interview of an Opposition politician who has been arrested and severely harassed, who asks why it is criminal to campaign for citizen freedoms. And immediately, the TV studio gets a tweet from a young woman with the word ‘patriot’ in her handle, who rants that this is typical anti-national behaviour, and that if he has a problem, he should just complain to the authorities instead of going to the press. The authorities which have hounded him, that is.

This could easily be an Indian story, including the ‘patriot’ bit, but it isn’t. It’s an exclusive Al Jazeera interview of Ugandan opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi, who gained a huge following as a pop star with a conscience under the stage name of Bobi Wine and now opposes the rule of well-entrenched Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. The president has reacted by making dark but hazy allusions to foreign funding. Even this is familiar to us. This story could have been set in India anytime from the present, back to Mrs Gandhi’s foreign hand.

But now, the foreign hand is of Indian origin. Vijay Mallya has set the spectrum afire with the allegation that he had met the Indian finance minister before he did the midnight flit, with an offer to cross the banks’ palm with silver. Everyone spent several hours comparing and contrasting this story with the minister’s denial, in which he stated that he had suffered the parliamentary equivalent of being stalked and accosted, and had brushed off Mallya’s advances. But after the journalistic ritual of he-charged-he-denied, ABP News was probably the first channel to point out that the two versions of the story were almost identical in their details and therefore, comparison was odiously pointless.
They also unearthed archival footage from March 2016, including some from the parliamentary channels, showing that the controversy was as old as Mallya’s escape. Slogans were raised in the House at the time, Randeep Surjewala addressed the media, and there was an interview with veteran Congressman Pramod Tiwari, who alleged that Mallya had “sat” with the minister. This was probably his parting shot, for he left the Rajya Sabha soon thereafter and declined to contest for the Lok Sabha. Given this background material, which the beat reporters must have known about, it is surprising how much spurious excitement this story generated.

Effectively, it distracted attention from the real point of interest, which may never come out: how the lookout notice against Mallya was scaled down, and which authority was responsible for allowing him to do the midnight flit.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

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