*This week, for the first time since its inception in August 2006, Stet was not published in Business Standard's weekend edition (October 30, 2010) . You'll find the likely reason for that in the second-last paragraph of the spiked column, reproduced below.
Update November 2, 2010: Business Standard's view that the post below was too dated to run is utterly unpersuasive, and I'm afraid I don't believe it. They also say that since this post was put up on the blog, along with comments about BS, the question of carrying it in the paper does not arise. We shall have to agree to disagree on this whole thing, and I will write a post about that in a few days; but meanwhile, I have terminated my arrangement with them with immediate effect. As of this week, Stet will no longer appear in Business Standard.
Given my own recent battle with the effects of long-haul travel, I have great sympathy for Aroon Purie. Jet lag is the worst. Did you know that sleep deprivation can give you Type II diabetes, heart disease, and plagiarism? It’s a real tiger-nado of a bummer.
Aw, I’m being unfair. It wasn’t Aroon Purie himself who copy-pasted large bits of Grady Hendrix’s Slate article on Rajnikanth into the ‘Letter from the Editor’ in India Today’s infamous southern issue on Rajnikanth. It’s complicated. Somebody sent somebody something and somebody got confused and, well, oops.
Except that it was Aroon Purie: his name is right there at the end of the letter. Allegedly he rarely writes his own editor’s letter—it is generally either drafted or entirely written by someone else, and he makes changes ranging from the minor to the major. The problem is that, no matter who put those words together, the buck stops with the name at the end of the piece. You would think that an editor might therefore either stick to writing his own pieces or care about his credibility enough to check what he’s putting his name to. If he doesn’t, it’s his mistake.
It is therefore ungracious for him to try to publicly pass-the-buck-without-passing-the-buck. If he has seen fit to be credited for lots of editorial letters that don’t ever mention “inputs from Delhi”, he shouldn’t suddenly mention them to explain this one—which, unfortunately, is the one he’s likely to be remembered for.
His weaselly apology tried a breezy, jokey style (“Jet lag is clearly injurious to the health of journalism”) to lay out an excuse that effectively hollowed out the mea culpa. It would have been more worthy of respect if he had said “Dear readers, I have unfortunately lifted half my letter from the editor from Slate magazine, and I’m sorry, and it will never happen again.” If he were truly interested in integrity, he would add, “Also, I’ve been outsourcing my letter from the Editor—what kind of Editor does that?—and that will never happen again either.” As a journalist friend of mine put it, those weekly letters are ghostwritten as if they’re speeches from a CEO, not letters from the Editor.
The total lack of surprise or shock about all this in the journalist community is the best indicator that Indian media is in crisis as far as integrity is concerned. Amongst other crimes such as those listed in the Press Council of India report which nobody in the media wants to talk about, is rampant plagiarism. Nobody in the media wants to talk about that either. It’s not as if ours is the only media in the world with big problems. But when ours is confronted with its own scandals, you can hear the clang of a fraternity closing ranks, followed by the weird sound of thousands of furious back-scratchings, followed by the thunderous silence of stones not being thrown in glass houses.
Everyone is human, so screwups are going to happen. Nobody is infallible, nor is anyone expected to be infallible. There are genuine cases of faulty memory and communication gaps and plain sloppiness. Unequivocal apologies can and should be made. But we’re at the point where it has become so commonplace to plagiarise in small and big ways that to many journalists it’s no big deal, and that’s the point at which we’re in trouble. Getting caught is not embarrassing enough yet—the media still mostly chooses to tiptoe around the doo-doo on the carpet, trying to be polite to whoever put it there. When we become a profession that respects itself enough to hang plagiarists out to dry, we will be a profession we can be proud of.