The New York Times' search for a South Asia business correspondent based in India recently caused an uproar, with the organisation being accused of looking for a candidate with “anti-Modi”, “anti-India” biases.
Here’s the specific paragraph from the job posting that caused the furore:
“India’s future now stands at a crossroads. Mr. Modi is advocating a self-sufficient, muscular nationalism centered on the country’s Hindu majority. That vision puts him at odds with the interfaith, multicultural goals of modern India’s founders. The government's growing efforts to police online speech and media discourse have raised difficult questions about balancing issues of security and privacy with free speech. Technology is both a help and a hindrance.”
The outrage wasn't limited to social media; it filtered into television channels where anchors hosted primetime debates accusing the international publication of looking for a biased candidate.
On Wion, for instance, editor Palki Sharma the Times “spelt out” that the candidate must be “anti-Modi and anti-establishment'', before going on to talk about NYT’s “much older anti-India bias”. and also held debates about the western media’s alleged plot to ruin India’s image.
Not to be left behind, on Republic TV, viewers were with #NYTimesExposed and #NYTAgendaExposed flashing on their screens. The posting was referred to as “a clear act of propaganda against Modi”. Before editor Arnab Goswami held a primetime debate on the job posting, the channel said that NYT’s “cloak of ethical journalism is off”, “motivated western media’s prerequisites are clear”, “pre-condition to run down India is now written in black and white”, and “masked under editorial integrity is clearly an international plot to engineer sentiment against the democratically elected dispensation in India”.
Of course, this isn’t quite true.
What is true, however, is that the job posting was unusual by any standard for a media house. Interestingly, while the posting was still there until Monday night, it was by the New York Times when Newslaundry checked on Tuesday morning.
It is also at odds with NYT's usual postings for jobs. For example, a for a staff editor in Hong Kong includes no context about tensions with China, the national security law, or the pro-democracy protests that have dominated the region over the past two years. This for an investigative correspondent in Asia, who would be based out of Seoul, is also without any mention about political scenarios of the region.
There are exceptions, although none as detailed as the business correspondent in India posting. For the Southeast Asia bureau chief based in Bangkok, NYT mentioned, briefly, how the region is “a complex geopolitical puzzle, with autocracies, democracies and dictatorships” and “a region of contradictions, with great opportunities, deep inequities, and deeply resilient people” which raises no eyebrows as this is a role for a bureau chief encompassing 11 countries. An for a domestic correspondent in Washington, DC, covering the Food and Drug Administration beat talks about the “regulatory failings” of the department and the “flawed oversight” of e-cigarettes.
So, was the Times justified in its posting for a business journalist in India? Should media houses make an effort to hire journalists who are “anti-establishment”?
Here’s what some business journalists and editors said.
‘NYT standards fallen short’
Venky Vembu, former associate editor of the Hindu Business Line, said the New York Times falls short of its own high editorial standards with such a posting.
"There is a distinction between news and views, and one of the principles about the news section is that you have an open mind about things,” Vembu said. “This, however, seems to put blinkers on the potential correspondent.”
Vembu thinks it’s fair for an organisation to hire op-ed writers with specific views of the current political establishment. But this wasn’t the case here.
“Can’t attribute motive to the New York Times but in terms of the highest standards that they abide by, to subject these factors in appointing a business correspondent suggests that they have fallen a little short of the highest standards that they hold,” he said.
A former editor of a business daily said, on the condition of anonymity, that such a job posting was unusual while hiring a correspondent for any beat. Given the stir caused by other organisations in the past when they were editorial talent that was right-of-centre, he suggested that the outrage towards NYT was justified.
“I wouldn’t expect this for an ad for a journalist – business or not," he said. "It is commentary, and implies that this is the kind of opinion they expect from the journalist they want for the position. It is surprising that this is coming from the NYT."
Storm in a teacup
For some, the outrage was mismatched to what the job posting actually said. With the likes of Zee News and Wion spending hours implying that the job posting demanded a candidate who was anti-Modi and anti-India – even though it did not explicitly say so – the issue got a lot more airtime than it needed.
“I frankly thought this was a storm in a teacup,” said a former editor of a business magazine. “I could not find anything that was anti-Hindu or anti-Modi about the posting.”
The posting also noted that under Modi, India was moving to “rival China’s economic and political heft in Asia,” and that there was “a drama playing out along their tense border and within national capitals across the region.”
“As a nation, we would definitely like to rival China in terms of economic and global heft,” the editor said. “Do we have ambitions of rivalling China? Of course, we have had it for decades, not just now. Will that create tensions? Of course it will.”
Apart from that, the editor asked, what was controversial? “Muscular nationalism is not a bad thing if it pushes you to protect your country's interests. The fact that we are seen as a huge potential market by big multinationals and digital giants around the world is quite true. We have a big and rising inequality in income and that has been pointed out by many commentators, including me. Income inequality is rising and becoming a special problem now and, after Covid, it is slated to rise further.”
The editor suggested that the controversy blew up due to NYT’s coverage of India’s Covid crisis, which he described as “pretty critical”. He added that prominent right-wing activists and news portals who were outraged over the job posting also dislike publications like the Guardian, NYT and BBC “because they are not being uniformly laudatory about India and the Indian government”.
He continued, “NYT's big problem was trying to describe India in one paragraph. If you are looking for a correspondent or editor who is intimately familiar with the region, you would not need to spell this out.”
Sevanti Ninan, a media commentator and founding editor of the Hoot, said the ad did not look like a job posting for a business reporter.
“It reads like a job posting for a bureau chief rather than a business correspondent, with its reference to needing experience in developing a network of journalists, etc,” she said. “The paragraph about nationalism and policing free speech sounds like it is queering the pitch for the kind of reporting it wants.”
According to business journalist Sucheta Dalal, while the paragraph about Modi’s nationalism was highly unusual, it didn’t overtly suggest a bias in the potential correspondent.
“It would normally be very questionable but the advertisement hasn’t overtly suggested that they want a journalist who will write with a particular slant,” she said. “On the other hand, the paper is probably putting out upfront the challenges involved. And we do have to admit there are serious challenges to being a journalist today.”
Jarshad NK, a former business editor and the current dean of the Asian College of Journalism’s business journalism course, said the posting was strange as a potential candidate would obviously research India's dynamics before applying for the job.
“The person who is coming to the job is obviously going to do the research,” he said. “There’s no need to mention all this background; they should be knowing the background if they are good enough for the job. It is very redundant and created an unnecessary controversy that they could have avoided.”
Postings like these aren’t common, Jarshad added, pointing to job listings by NYT in other countries. “Usually, these postings are written by people who are in the bureau. It looks a little strange, because why would you want to put these things in a job posting?”
He added, “If I am a recruiter, one way I would test is how well they’ve done the research. Why would they give it away in a posting?”