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Let down by the ‘crumbling’ of the U.S news media

DISCUSSIONS | May 31, 2006

Ramindar Singh, Mumbai, India

1982 Nieman fellow; former resident editor, The Times of India, now president, Hinduja Group, a global banking and investment firm.

The people of India have always viewed America and Americans as friends. But this goodwill has often been strained by the policies of the U.S. government toward India and the Asian region.

Indian governments have historically felt more comfortable with Democratic regimes in the U.S., going back to the days of JFK, who offered military and material help during the India-China war of 1962.

This was a welcome change from the earlier Republican administration of Eisenhower, whose Secretary of State John Foster Dulles shut India out of all consideration after labeling it as a Soviet camp follower.

After the Kennedy era passed, Richard Nixon and Kissinger, revived the Dulles  legacy in 1971 by threatening to send the Sixth Fleet to help Pakistan in its war with India.

But even during strained relations between the two governments, the U.S. has remained the dream destination of every educated Indian. Indians going abroad for higher education chose the U.S. over their traditional destination England. And the more engineers and doctors emerged out of U.S. universities, the stronger the bond became between Indians and Americans.

But their political worldview remained poles apart.

The U.S. never accepted India’s doctrine of non-alignment and believed during the cold war that all those who were not with the U.S. were allies or stooges of the Soviets. This “for us or against us’ policy was in effect long before George W. Bush gave voice to it after 9/11.

For many decades, a large number of Indians unfortunately viewed the U.S. through the prism of Pakistan. And the U.S. saw India through the red haze of the cold war. This literalism has colored the view from both sides.

In the past, when the US befriended Pakistan, a military dictatorship for much of its history, it was seen as a rebuff to India and a negation of everything America claimed to stand for. 

Indians have always tested every U.S. action on the touchstone of U.S. constitutional tenets. (The U.S. constitution is taught in most Indian schools and colleges as the core document which enshrines democratic values.) Having grown up in a democratic environment, most Indian students believe in the values which the U.S. claims to stand for, namely, democracy, freedom, civil liberties, human rights, etc. But whenever it has come to the crunch, when these beliefs are tested on the ground, the U.S. has often chosen the convenient path rather than the rightful or moral one. Especially in recent times.

This belief that America says one thing and does another has been strengthened after 9/11.

After 9/11, Indian democrats in general and Indian journalists in particular, felt let down by the unquestioning acceptance of the Bush policies by the U.S. media, the U.S. Congress and American civil society. The media willingly suspended disbelief and critical judgment.

Right or wrong, Bush was off limits for criticism, even satire and humor for nearly a year after 9/11. Cartoonists called halt to Bush baiting, and for several months  Saturday Night Live steered clear of satirizing the President. Large sections of the U.S. media were unsure of where they stood professionally at a time when their nation was at war. Too many allowed their sense of patriotism to supersede their professional objectivity. It was as if large parts of the U.S. media had turned Bush’s  “with us or against us” dictum upon themselves, that they would be seen as pro-enemy if they criticized Bush. In its first severe test of objectivity after 9/11, the U.S. media crumbled.

U.S. coverage of the war in Iraq, its acquiescence in censorship of embedded reporters, its unquestioning acceptance of  civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan as “collateral damage,” have in the eyes of the rest of the world diluted the US media’s reputation for objectivity and professionalism. The umbrella excuse: “We are at war.”

The effect of this victim syndrome can be pervasive and it trickles down into aspects of everyday life in America. More than four years after 9/11, immigration  and  customs officers at U.S. airports still treat brown-skinned persons as suspect, confiscating nail-clippers and pen-knives with a one-inch blade. When you try to reason with them, you are told: “We have been attacked”. End of argument.

When the world’s largest superpower starts seeing itself as a victim, it loses respect.

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