How Yellow Can Yellow Journalism Get?

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As cases of yellow journalism go, this was a particularly deep shade of yellow.

For those who don’t know, here is the whole story. Naradanews.com, a web portal headed by former Tehelka editor Matthew Samuel, ran a story on its site claiming Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is suffering from ‘chronic grade 4 liver cirrhosis’ and is all set to leave for US where he would undergo a liver transplant. To lend authenticity to the claim, the report even quoted ‘sources’ in the Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Michigan ‘confirming’ that Naveen would indeed undergo the operation at the hospital. It even listed a 10-member team from Odisha that would accompany the CM on his US sojourn.

As if that was not outrageous enough, the report again quoted ‘sources’ to say; “Meanwhile, sources said an internal tussle is underway in Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) as to who will be the interim CM while he is away for about 4 months for treatment.”

Like most media stories, there is a story – and an interesting one at that – behind this one as well. For the record, the story is dated February 17, 2017 on the portal. But a bit of digging up by this columnist revealed that it was a ‘back-dated’ story that was actually posted only today, a clear indication that something was just not right about this story. As it often happens in case of such ‘juicy’ stories, the Narada story was lifted lock, stock and barrel by reporterstoday.com, an Odisha-centric site, without any verification and predictably went viral on social media earlier today.

Even as the news was being shared furiously all day came the dampener in the form of a statement from the man at the centre of it all – Naveen Patnaik himself – in the evening making it abundantly clear that there was not a grain of truth in the report and that he was ‘fully fit.’ No sooner did the CM’s clarification come than Reporters Today quietly junked the story without so much as an apology. The story, however, continues to stay on the Narada site.

That the story was by pushed by Naveen’s rivals is all too obvious. Even before the panchayat election got underway, an anonymous message containing more or less the same ‘exclusive information’ as the Narada story contained was doing the rounds on WhatsApp, especially in south Odisha. The WhatsApp message even claimed that Naveen had already left for New Delhi on his onward journey to Michigan. A source in the BJD said it was to counter this particular rumour that the Chief Minister took a late call to campaign for a day in Hinjli, his Assembly constituency. The ‘story’ got a fresh lease of life after the third round of polling but lost steam after that – till the Narada story revived it on Thursday.

Clearly, there are forces working overtime (it should not be too difficult to guess who they are) to get at Naveen Patnaik, their bête noire, by means fair and foul. And there are apparently enough media outlets willing to do their bidding. Naveen, not the kind of person who reacts to everything about him, obviously took this slanderous and mischievous campaign seriously enough to issue a formal denial today.

Narada has a particularly unenviable record in this kind of journalism. Matthew Samuel, who heads the portal, shot to fame with the Tehelka story on defence scams he co-authored with Aniruddha Bahal that led to an investigation against several Army officials for passing on classified information in exchange for booze and sex. Samuel’s role in the sting was reportedly limited to arranging prostitutes to trap some defence personnel.

The next time he was in news was when Narada, his newly launched site, carried a sting that showed several TMC MPs accepting bribes. Curiously, the video was shot sometime during the 2014 general elections, but was aired on the eve of the West Bengal Assembly elections in early 2016, leaving no doubt that it was political hatchet job. In January this year, Samuel was in news again, this time for allegedly using his reporter Angel Abraham as a ‘honey trap’ to trap former Kerala chief secretary Jiji Thomson. By a curious coincidence, the story on Naveen has been authored by the same Angel Abraham!

The whole issue raises serious questions about media ethics. With the mushrooming of news portals, there is a lot of muck going around in the digital space. One of the many advantages of the digital platform is deniability; once the intended damage has been done and the desired objective achieved, one can quietly remove the offensive piece from the site to deny any responsibility – as Reporters Today did in the case under discussion.

The need for a mechanism to put a check on this kind of muck journalism can hardly be overstated and it’s time media bosses started thinking along those lines.

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