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Monday, July 02, 2007

Orwell wags his finger

Another day, another story. Another rising sun, another view of the horizon; white picket fences, billowing clouds of smoke, people dying of hunger, animals slaughtered for contracting a potentially deadly disease, people praying en masse, people armed to the teeth claiming to protect the peace... Another day on this great Earth. So, what about this day? What about any of this madness and carnage that we become numb to the more we see it on our television sets? Well, it was another one of these days that led me to discover a fascinating documentary called "Orwell Rolls in his Grave." If ever there was a study of how the media goes about conducting its business, especially in the US, then this is one of those eye-opening films that will make you sit back and go, "Sonofagun..."

Now, I'm not necessarily going to tout the brilliance of this documentary because if you watch it it truly speaks for itself. But what I will say is that during my brief stay in the US, I happened to notice that all was not well, at least not with the way the media presented the news. I guess I have to be honest in saying that I was an "outsider" to the country and the resident culture. Therefore, I spent a lot of my time going through the paper trying to see if there was any news of things in India, you know, to get a glimpse of what was happening back home. To my surprise, there wasn't a whole lot of news on TV either. In fact, the only time I heard about India in a significant way was when there was an earthquake in Gujarat in 2001. Earth shattering coverage? Not really, a few pictures and all that, and before the week was out there was nothing really in the papers about it. Occasionally, articles did turn up about what was being done to help the victims, but for the most part it turned out to be not so important. If you think about it, I guess most other countries would react in pretty much the same way about an incident like this elsewhere. But for me, it tied in to something else that I had experienced.

The question of basic geographical knowledge was something that I assumed most people on the face of the planet would have some concept of. Now, don't get me wrong because I know that there are more than enough situations where people who've lived in the forest for generations have no idea that the government of their country has changed hands several times. Or how a poor farmer in India doesn't know about the surmounting tensions in the Balkans, simply because it doesn't impact his life in any way. But I have to say, that there were lots of people who I happened to meet who didn't really know where in the World India was. Now, I don't know where exactly Missoula is, for example, but I happen to know that the United States of America sits on the continent of North America between Canada, to the North, and Mexico, to the South. So, imagine my shock when I told someone that I was from India, and they replied to me, "Oh ok. That's the country next to Bangladesh, right?" Well, what was I supposed to say? "Yes, we are next to Bangladesh. In fact, we happen to surround the country on three sides; the fourth side being the mouth of the Ganges river as it empties into the Bay of Bengal."

But it struck me as strange. I can't recall if Bangladesh had been in the news, but I do know that there was not a whole lot of business taking place between India and the US. Even when I went to the US, India was still in the unfavorable position of borrowing money from the World Bank, and Indians were generally, if not totally concerned about shrinking visa quotas. So, there was no need to feature India in the news because it was up to people to figure out what they could about this country and its people. And that seemed to be the case everywhere else too. For example, a few months before the unfortunate events of September 11th, 2001, I happened to come across a National Geographic article on the natural beauty of Afghanistan. In fact, in another issue of two reporters following Marco Polo's trail, there was a little write up in the back of that edition about Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance that was the only resistance to the Taliban. Funnily enough, he was assassinated two days before the planes crashed into the World Trade Center...but that's for another post, I suppose. But the point I was making was, information only becomes available to the American public when it needs to be...and that to me, was a cause for concern. It meant that someone somewhere was deciding what to tell people, so that they knew just enough and didn't ask too many questions.

A scary thought that, and for what it's worth some aspect of this phenomenon is covered in this documentary. I would like to use this opportunity to point out that the media in India seems to be following suit, and that is just not a good sign...by any stretch of the imagination. We're already seeing a sensationalized sort of news cycle where the country goes from grizzly murders in Noida, to the ruling on the Bombay blasts of '93, to what's going on in Paris Hilton's life. Sheesh...

Perhaps there will come a day of reckoning. Maybe we'll all sit up and truly see. But until then, we just have to go with what's on the tube and in print, and take it with a pinch of salt...or whatever spice or condiment you use to help you relish your meal. Be warned though. And be afraid...be very afraid!
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