News and The Adjective Story

When indulged with finesse and craft, the adjective is as potent as any drug, shaping perceptions and personalities and altering realties.

The adjective is perhaps the most cunning of grammatical entities. It usually lies innocuously within the folds of a sentence. Its sole, obvious purpose is that of elaboration. However, that noble quest often betrays a dangerous potential. For when indulged with finesse and craft, the adjective is as potent as any drug, shaping perceptions and personalities and altering realties.

Let me draw your attention to two specific events and personalities.

In post the election scenario of 2009, the BJP seemed to be floundering. In the wake of the leadership struggle it was clear that the winds of change were blowing, and the party with a difference appeared to be a party of differences. Through all that, LK Advani, the party’s prime ministerial candidate who had lost at the hands of the electorate, remained silent. Whether it was brought on by dejection, a mere need to introspect, or by the compulsion of having to look into the future, the man held his tongue (publicly at least), permitting events to unfold.

Whatever the case was, his defeat and silence were the facts of the story. The deduction of that being a sign of his weakness, and his portrayal as a shriveled up old man sitting quietly – as one TV commentator had put it – was not.

In contrast, in 2010 and 2011, the UPA government led by the Congress Party which came into power with much fanfare in 2009, found itself mired in controversy. The scam skeletons tumbled out of the closet – Adarsh Housing Society, CWG and 2G. In fact, rarely has the combination of a number and an alphabet caused such furor as 2G did. In the din of varying figures of losses, questionable awarding of licenses and prominent parliamentarians finding their way to prison, the government appeared to be floundering. The UPA was in crisis. Yet its tallest leader, Sonia Gandhi, remained silent publicly.

That, without a shadow of doubt was the fact. The classification of that as an act of dignity however, was another matter altogether. Perhaps, it was at best a mere force of habit that her silence was so regarded. Just run a Google search for ‘dignified silence’ and ‘Sonia Gandhi’ and you’ll see what I mean.

Ironically, despite all their ideological and political differences, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and LK Advani do share a distinct commonality in the perceptions of their respective silence. It is the adjectives ascribed to it that bind them together.

The above example is just illustrative of the amount of effort and thought that the media and analysts expend into the adjectives used to describe events, actions and people within India. However, one wonders if the same energy is directed towards international news.

For the most part, Indian media outlets, particularly the print and online media, tend to rely on agencies – Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, etc – for their daily news around the world. It’s an economical and practical means to keep the readers informed. However it is seldom that an international story covered by the agency is carried without a brief round of edit. For example, Jammu and Kashmir, whenever described as ‘Indian Occupied (or Controlled) Kashmir’ is always edited. Arunachal Pradesh is never retained as a disputed region and so on. These are just two edits that are done routinely to eliminate the bias of the agency/writer and remain in line with Indian interests.

However, there seems to be a complete lack of interest and attention paid to other biases and descriptors that may skew the readers’ opinions.

For instance in most everyday news stories covering Iran over the last few years, the common thread has been the description of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a ‘hardline’ leader. The adjective appears to be inseparable from the man; notwithstanding the fact that there are several commentators whom off late who seem to be reassessing the power-dynamics in Iran. A case in point is a recent Wall Street Journal article, which despite it’s amusing portrayal of Iran as a threat beyond Western imagination, touches upon the issue of classification of Iranian politicians and clerics as ‘moderate’ or ‘hardline’.

Likewise, the late North Korean leader King Jong Il was often described as an ‘eccentric’ man leading a ‘belligerent’ state that sought nuclear weapons and wished to undo peace. While eccentric might have been right on the money when it came to his personal indulgences, one wonders why that is a term never used for some of the monarchs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. All one needs to do is refer to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks to get a taste of the sordid underground party culture and the patronage programs that siphon off state funds for the royals.

On the matter of belligerence, how often have we heard that term being used in terms of Washington’s ongoing desire to set up a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe? An act that Russia claims will alter the balance of power between the two nations.

What’s more, was it ever ascribed to the US administration during the 2002-2003 pitches for an attack on Iraq? There were, without a doubt, comical and satirical discussions about former US President George W Bush’s religious predilections and motivations. However, they remained at the fringe; never once becoming a part of serious and everyday mainstream discourse on his policy choices.

It’s thus simply a matter of naivety at best and lazy convenience at worst to attach such descriptions to people and events that are far more complex than we make them out to be.

Or perhaps the problem is a bit more structural. Most of these examples above are of agencies that by and large offer a Western perspective and narrative of the world. It is imperative thus for Indian news providers to display a certain deftness in the dissemination of such stories. Stick to the facts and eliminate the adjectives. They may add spunk to a tale, but they tend to do more harm than good. However, what would help too is an understanding of the Indian experience with such nations and their actions on the world stage. Here, alas, it is the status-quoist proclivity of the Indian establishment on important global issues that causes much consternation for the media. Fence-sitting and ‘wait and watch’ is not a perspective and never makes for a good copy.

There’s a classic quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: “Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.” It’s true. Delete them. But don’t ignore them. Because adjectives in news more often than not tell a story that is as revealing as the facts or the byline.


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