The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Hindi news channel bosses must be an unhappy lot these days. They had so bought into the hype about the “mini-general elections” — polls in four states squarely in the Hindi heartland, straight fights between the Congress and the BJP, results that could determine the shape of things to come and even the dates of the real thing next year. The thrusting, competing, struggling channels jumped to the occasion.

What a damp squib it’s turned out to be. All that time, money and effort spent in coming up with “different” election programmes, and the total viewership of news channels or the time spent in watching them have barely swelled (as they do when something big happens, such as the Iraq war or the recent Mayavati imbroglio). Individual channels have little to crow about either.

But then, who thought the politicians would be such party poopers' Assembly elections rarely have an appeal beyond their states unless there is something special, as in Gujarat last year or California last month. As the challenger in all four states, the BJP at least could have been expected to come up with that extra something. Instead, it chose the anti-incumbency route. Even Uma Bharti has gone in for an image makeover and is all sweetness and good reason, i.e. dull.

Truth is, elections that are all about “governance” and “developmental issues” do not riveting television make. How engrossed can the rest of India be in Delhi’s improved pollution levels or the power crisis of Madhya Pradesh' The Judeo tape did provide a frisson of excitement but a junior minister’s venality is small change in a country inured to corruption. Polls show it may not even impact the outcome in Chhattisgarh.

In the end, the channels will have to see these elections the same way as the political class: as a dry run for the nationwide contest next year.

Tread softly on my sins

The glory of journalism may be its transitory nature, but the harm it does may be more indelible. The Pulitzer committee tried last Friday, when it met, to revoke the prize it had awarded to Walter Duranty 71 years ago. It failed.

Duranty was the New York Times Moscow correspondent from 1922 to 1934. In 1932 he was awarded the Pulitzer, America’s highest journalism award, for a series of reports that was then seen as a “profound and intimate comprehension of conditions in Russia”, consistent with “the best type of foreign correspondence”.

Not even the New York Times thinks so today. Rather, it has appended a note to the picture of Duranty that hangs on its wall of fame which reads, “Other writers in the Times and elsewhere have discredited this coverage.”

But the demand to revoke Duranty’s Pulitzer came from Ukrainians in America who bombarded the Pulitzer committee with more than 15,000 letters and postcards this year. Their charge: Duranty was an apologist for Josef Stalin and had glossed over the 1932-33 Soviet-made famine in Ukraine that killed millions.

The Pulitzer board says, “There was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception.” But even his supporters acknowledge Duranty did soft-pedal the harsh Stalinist regime to ensure he was not thrown out of the Soviet Union like, for instance, his contemporary, Malcolm Muggeridge. Trading soft coverage for access is a commonplace journalistic practice that marks out the bad journalists from the good. The bad, compromise.

Play it safe...and dull

There was a time when guessing the Time Man of the Year correctly gave a special thrill. It wasn’t always so obvious. In 1982, for instance, it was awarded to the personal computer. One year it was the “endangered earth”. Even scientists were impressed by the 1995 choice of David Ho, researcher in AIDS drugs. But 2001 spoiled it all. That year, like it or not, belonged to Osama bin Laden. But Time didn’t dare. The reader reaction in America would have been too violent to bear. Time bosses played safe with Rudy Giuliani. So it could be Jessica Lynch this year. What a yawn.

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