Journalism’s biggest existential battle isn’t about fighting the business model disruption or the way new consumers of news are behaving. It’s the war against intense polarisation and biases plaguing the newsrooms. There’s extreme negativity on one hand and excessive cheerleading on the other. For those in journalism staying true to the craft and following the principles of objectivity and the good old world balance, it’s a tough battle.
Amid all this chaos, Ravish Kumar is a rarity who practices fundamentals of journalism by pursuing.
How does he stay this way? And why? And what’s the cost of speaking truth to power?
Our Season 2 Finale of Outliers is with a journalist who evokes emotion in what he chooses to cover as much as admiration in the way he keeps to the fundamentals of on-the-ground reportage.
The podcast is in Hindi. Listen in.
Many thanks to Aparna Kalra for translating the podcast to English from Hindi. The lightly edited English transcript:
Pankaj: Outliers is a podcast that has lessons from different walks of life. We have had over 80 episodes. People who are entrepreneurs, technocrats are looking for such lessons. I am excited and privileged to sit down with a person who I consider an outlier in every possible way – as a journalist, as a public figure.
Finally, I have found an outlier with whom I can speak proper Hindi, my mother tongue.
Ravish: I would speak but I don’t speak (English) well. In terms of language, I believe you should speak with discipline, with ease, with proficiency. You should work hard on your own language – be it Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi – it can’t come for free. Just because you are born with that language, doesn’t mean you don’t work at mastering it. I like doing that.
Pankaj: Tell us about your background. How do you view values? Do you think the way you were brought up, the way you were raised, led to your being a certain kind of person?
Ravish: No, it is not like that. I acquired values during my life journey. By observing good people. It is not that I arrived with values in a box packed from home. I have observed people who live with values, lots of people, for the last 10-15 years.
I observed my teachers. We would sleep but they would keep working. I learnt the value of time. I was an ordinary student before that. I didn’t understand the purpose of education.
Pankaj: What values have you collected, which ones do you value?
Ravish: Most people stop reading, 90% of them, after marriage, after getting employment. If the Indian male read after marriage, it would be a different thing. I always say the Indian male is a bad social product. But I met men who continued to read after marriage after getting a job. That would surprise me. I got interested in reading after meeting them. I understood that this is something to cherish, reading; reading is essential to expand your horizon.
More than success, I value a person’s faculty to critique.
I observed my teachers, my father-in-law, and a few bureaucrats who lived with values. They didn’t have big cars but the aura from those values got reflected on their face, they lived life with a certain style. There is so much justification for biases and dishonesty and hate and violence. So, in these circumstances, the option for being honest is limited.
The world will not allow you to stay honest. You have to practise being honest every day. You must do that. (laughs) It is tough but it can be done.
Pankaj: Building credibility is one thing, protecting it is another thing.
Ravish: You have to live life minimally, pared down. I did that. I don’t go to parties, but I would meet people who bring me their stories. I don’t believe in building relationships with my sources. You can have friends in life but you have to find your own way.
Pankaj: As a reporter, I have seen that people become friends with their sources. But you are saying keep your circle small.
Ravish: Beats (of reporters) should change. Reporters can’t spend their whole life covering the BJP or the Congress; then you will take the defeat of these parties personally.
Although I have never been a part of the administrative part of journalism, I have always said there should be a system whereby you can’t cover a beat more than three years. You can’t remain a bureau chief more than five years. I didn’t want to cover one particular beat for long. I have done beat reporting – spent some time with a few good leaders who don’t get a place in their own party – but I didn’t take change of beat to heart.
I didn’t want a beat to make my life, my career, my profile.
One day every profile will end. Why do you want a beat to change your life?
The only areas I haven’t covered are sports and business. Now I read about business also. That’s because the government lies a lot after 2014 in terms of the economy. The Prime Minister lies. I say this because I am the only one in Delhi with the courage to say the Prime Minister lies.
Pankaj: Do you get requests from people to get things done for them? Do you face these pressures?
Ravish: Yes, it is tough. I get requests from people for getting their work done. But I have to say no. I can’t do it. If someone from back home needs medical help or needs to see a good doctor, I go myself. I help. But I don’t use my contacts for this. I can’t.
Pankaj: You have left Twitter. What was your experience over there?
Ravish: On Twitter, I got the impression that a few people are acting as custodians, they are saying they will create a perception about me. I couldn’t swallow that. I knew there is an IT cell. Young men who are unemployed were being invited to write with violence. A certain kind of opinion is being generated. This wasn’t acceptable to me.
So, I decided to quit Twitter.
Pankaj: Young people are using social media, Instagram, Snapchat, to shape their opinions. If you walk away from them, what will happen?
Ravish: I can’t be on social media 24×7. If the youth is thinking that Twitter and Instagram can teach them stuff, they are wrong. They will fall down a deep hole by thinking like this. If social media could teach, universities would shut down.
I write long posts on Facebook. I work hard on these posts. I read, I assimilate, I am writing on subjects other Hindi editors are afraid to tackle. These editors are either not very brave… I don’t know – their shops seem to be running. People complain my Facebook posts are long. But I am not going to make a PPT for readers. If readers want to engage with me, they must work hard and try to understand my long posts, which I also work hard on.
In a democracy, without knowledge, you can’t engage. I advise people not to become cheerleaders. In 2014, people, groups of people – doctors, engineers – became cheerleaders. That’s not a way to participate in a democracy. Politics is a very important part of democracy but citizens have to work hard at understanding the political process, they have to acquire knowledge.
Otherwise, our leaders will keep winning elections on the basis of cheap speeches and slogans.
I also value work ethic of common businessmen like a jalebiwala in Chandi Chowk who has an internal standard, a consistency. He is running a good business. I used to drink tea at a stall. I told him I want to write about him. Do you know what he said? He said don’t write about me. It will be advertisement. I don’t want to advertise, get well-known, he said. He has an internal test, an internal metric based on which he does good business.
There is a chaatwala in M block (market, Greater Kailash 1, New Delhi) who I got to talking with, who owns a lot of shops. But in the morning he buys his own masala. He says he wants that whoever eats his chaat goes away satisfied. He gets a good feeling then. He also feeds employees of other shops free of cost. Lesson of the story: he enjoys his money but he understands how much money is too much money.
If you stick to your integrity, to your core values, people will love you and support you.
Pankaj: The content that is being created now, it will become history. This fight over misinformation, what do you think of this war?
Ravish: The fight against misinformation is a big fight. Look at (US President Donald) Trump. Look at (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi. Both lie, both spread misinformation. I don’t see a way out of this spread of misinformation. This is a huge fight.
Will a Modi supporter like to send his kid to a school where wrong history is being taught? No one will say yes to that. At least, the West is trying to fight misinformation. We, in India, are not even trying. Some people think changing history is okay to reflect their point of view. They want to say killing (Mahatma) Gandhi was the right thing.
But think like this: if a 200-year-old history can be changed, misinterpreted, then the history of a political party, which is only 20 or 30 years old, can also be changed.
Everything will become suspect.
The diversity of the electoral process has died due to misinformation. Let me explain. The prime minister is the head of the Lok Sabha but this is a game that the media plays: Kaun Banega Pradhan Mantri. People are already asking me, ‘Who will win the 2019 election?’ which is a total media construct. We don’t elect the prime minister, that is not a voter’s job. The party that wins will elect a prime minister.
I want citizens to examine the local candidate. I always say in my programme: prepare to vote like a student prepares for an IIT exam. Do some analysis. Think. Don’t vote for a criminal or an incapable guy as a local candidate in order to elect a prime minister of your choice. If you elect a representative based on his aeroplane or his clothes or his hairstyle, you are being dishonest to yourself as a voter. You are deluding yourself. Then, the politician also has a right to make a fool out of you.
We have taken democracy too lightly. Democracy changes in every phase, its demands change. Citizenry has to change likewise, question more. They have to give up this bhakti of a leader. If you want to do this bhakti, why not become a full-fledged member of the party? That will allow you to take its victory and defeat to heart. Till then, remain a citizen. After voting, you have to go back to being a citizen.
Teachers are not being appointed and we don’t ask questions. Leaders place a huge flag in universities and we don’t question them.
If citizens ask questions, critique the government, then it serves a twin purpose: it gives the government energy to fulfil its goals, and it gives correct feedback. Otherwise, the government wastes time in giving speeches and sloganeering.