Wednesday, September 26, 2007

If it's Hip, Fast and Furious, Is It Journalism?

I know I've blogged about this before, but seriously, why is it so hard for the NY Times to turn out a news story about India that doesn't degenerate into misrepresentation, ridiculous stereotyping and general incoherence?

So India wins some new-fangled cricket tournament. Fine, whatever. This is not a hard story to write.

Para 1: "Cricket fans on the subcontinent were jubilant today as....Twenty20[1]...blah blah".

Para 2: New format - change from one day matches, which themselves were shortened form of test matches - 20-over format talked about for a while - (weren't there some earlier attempts to do something similar).

Para 3: Well received - hope will be more popular format - quotes from cricketers on how they feel about it? (note to self: if current team is not reachable, find retired cricketers and ask) - purists?

Para 4: Context of win - Cricket in the popular imagination - status of cricketers - yet, World Cup, etc. - excitement that Indian team actually won something - how much of popular reaction to this new form is biased by that?

Para 5: (Closing) Exciting new phase for cricket? Maybe, maybe not. Fireworks in New Delhi for now anyway.

There. Cheesy, true, but as simple as falling off a log.

Instead, we get this grotesque mockery of a piece from Somini Sengupta, who doesn't seem to have seen a cricket match since 1972 and apparently figures that just because she's writing a piece about cricket is no reason to leave out all the other tidbits she's been collecting for stories she's never going to get around to doing now.

Look, I have no interest in cricket and haven't watched a cricket match in ten years, but even I know that cricket does not consist of "gentleman players" distinguishing themselves in "white trousers and knit vests" in a "customary" five day match. Ms. Sengupta is contrasting this new format with a caricature of cricket that resembles the modern game about as much as life in England today resembles the novels of P. G. Wodehouse.

But that, frankly, is the least of her crimes. The really appalling bits are the ones that involve 'deep exploration of the Indian psyche'. So we're told that one of the gifts of this "new face of Indian cricket" is

"to present, for the first time, a powerfully athletic presence on the pitch. Athleticism has never been associated with Indian cricket, nor with Indians in general, and that has been a chip on the shoulder of Indian manhood."

Wtf? Not only am I supposed to have spent the last 28 years of my life feeling insecure about my manhood because I'm Indian and Indians are not athletic (why don't they tell you this stuff in school?), I can now stop feeling conflicted about it, not because I've got any fitter, but because some unshaven troglodyte can swing a piece of wood. Joy. I wonder what Indian manhood is going to do the next time the Indian cricket team gets trounced, which should take, oh, about two weeks? Ms. Sengupta attributes this opinion to one Rajdeep Sardesai [2] and "other cricket watchers" (whatever that means), but even if they actually said this, is it really so hard to see how completely ridiculous the statement is?

It gets worse. We're then told that

"The average age on the 11-man Indian lineup was about 23, and on the Pakistani team just under 25. That reflected two disproportionately young nations: the median age in India is about 24, and in Pakistan, 19."

Huh? Again, I know nothing about cricket, but I would think most cricket teams would tend to be fairly young - with average ages in the sub-25 range, completely independent of the demographic profile of the country they were drawn from. Surely it would be more relevant to tell us how the average ages of the Indian and Pakistani teams compare to the average age of other nations participating in the tournament? Or with the average age of the one-day sides of these two countries.

My favorite part, though, is this:

"It was impossible for the cricket-watching audience, which today excludes very few Indians, not to seize on the metaphors that Twenty20 offers for the changes sweeping the country, like the rise of small-town working class India and the fading of the old cricket decorum itself."

Really? So in a population of (purportedly) one billion viewers there wasn't a single one who was just enjoying the game for the sport itself? No, no, they were all sitting there thinking "What a lovely shot! Soaring straight into the stands! What a glorious metaphor for the rise of the Sensex". Or "Look, look, that boy from Ranchi hit another four! Don't Class A towns rock?". And just why was it "impossible" for them "not to seize on the metaphor"? What if they tried really, really hard? And will someone please explain to me how Twenty20 is a 'metaphor' for the fading of the old cricket decorum? Or for that matter how the fading of the old cricket decorum is a "change sweeping the country"?

The next paragraph achieves even greater incoherence:

"Much was made of the fact that the captain, Mr. Dhoni, grew up in an uncelebrated eastern city called Ranchi. The batsman S. Sreesanth, it was said, defied cricket manners by being unusually aggressive. The bowler Joginder Sharma was celebrated as the son of a small shopkeeper who could afford to buy no more than a cloth ball for his son."

I'm not even going to ask what "uncelebrated" means. Or what "cricket manners" are, or what being "unusually aggressive" consists of, or by whom "it was said". Or why Ms. Sengupta needs to say both "defied cricket manners" and "unusually aggressive" - surely each by itself would be enough? But I'd love for someone to tell me what sentence two has to do with sentences one and three. The latter are about cricketer's background, the former is (supposedly) about their behavior. Is there a reason why those two themes need to alternate? Twelve-year olds can write better than this.

Finally, I must make special mention of the line "Twenty20 was accompanied by cheerleaders wearing what resembled sports bras". First, what is something that resembles a sports bra? Can you buy them in stores? At what point do they stop resembling sports bras and actually become sports bras? I'm not being flippant, really. I'm genuinely curious. After all, these are weighty issues, probably allegorical of the uplift of India's poor and / or a long-standing chip on the shoulder of Indian womanhood. Second, was there a particular kind of garment these women were wearing, or did they just put on anything that struck them as resembling a sports bra? Third, were they really "cheerleaders" or were they just cheering fans?

Look, I understand that journalists get tough deadlines and don't have the luxury of doing as much research as they would like to. I get that they may have no interest in cricket and be bored and bewildered by having to write about it. Hell, I empathize. But that doesn't excuse writing this ridiculously bad - poorly structured, sloppily edited and full of non sequiturs and hyperbole. And it doesn't excuse propounding some half-baked theory or unsubstantiated generalization and passing it off as fact. This piece reads like it belongs in the Delhi Times. And it's a shame that people who know nothing about cricket or India are going to read it and come away with an even more warped understanding of both than they started with.


[1] By the way, Twenty20? Most uninspired name ever.

[2] And that's another thing - why is it that whenever the NY Times interviews people in India for 'public opinion' they always seem to find the loopiest fruitcakes? It is so difficult to find someone capable of offering an intelligent, lucid point of view? I don't know who this Sardesai character is, but someone should make him stay back after school and write "I shall not use shopworn cliches, such as the names of daytime soaps I watched in my hormone soaked adolescent days, in interviews with the international press" 500 times with a blunt pencil.


Alok said...

god, that was not even an op-ed, some small article in a corner... feeling sorry for her now.

usual charges against journalists. they want to make the subject weighty and serious when it doesnt deserve either. there were usual headlines in the indian press about india becoming world superpower too.

that comment about atheleticism and indian manhood struck me too. it is an old accusation and I think partly true though I think indian manhood is far from feeling insecure on account of this :)

Anonymous said...

I think you have been too harsh here :)

..but even I know that cricket does not consist of "gentleman players" distinguishing themselves in "white trousers and knit vests" in a "customary" five day match.

You may be surprised..that is what they are "expected" to be!! None of this Zidanesque head thumping stuff here..knit vests of course is more for the expression but it is excusable.

You have to know the context why this win was big. The chances of Indian team making it to the final (leave alone winning it ) was not that bright really. Totally new format, new largely untested players and the opposition teams had almost come with their full strength. Suffice it to say I ( and can safely say most of us practical people expected us to be routed out notwithstanding the tiny hope that "anything can happen in cricket!" )

The format of the game was liable to cause upsets but the victories we had were no freak ones. It was high voltage stuff and some really innovative strategies used ( not seen in Indian cricket ).

Also is it even possible to say anything about Indians without exposing it as being too stereotyped or generalist for one segment or another?


Zach Taylor said...

good one dude! i hate that senguptha..i haven't seen her write a decent article about india without those stereotypes or just bad research.

continued-contemplation said...

Whatever his other afflictions may be, Rajdeep Sardesai is definitely no fruitcake..Used to be NDTV's star reporter, then branched out on his own with CNN-IBN. Also, his father was Dilip Sardesai, who used to play for the Indian side. Though I don't follow cricket, I am told that senior Sardesai was a pretty well known player..

Though I do think that the manhood comments were pretty out there, Indians are definitely not known to be athletes..Are they? However, refering to 2020 as the birth of Indian athleticism is definitely weird...I agree...So were previously cricketers laggards?

I have been reading Indian newspapers too, and you will find references to small town India, the old and the new, the purists and what not... all over

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Came here by way of DP. I agree the manhood thing was silly, but otherwise I think you're being pretty unfair. Most cricket fans still see Test cricket as the "real thing", and yes, it is still played in white flannels and in a fairly gentlemanly spirit (compared to other sports, anyway). The small-town-revolution has been remarked on by numerous Indian writers, for example this one. And those creatures wearing what looked like sports bras really were cheerleaders, not spectators. (And can you say for sure, from that photo, that those are sports bras and not things that look like sports bras?)

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Another thing -- Rajdeep Sardesai may be a twerp but he's one of India's highest-profile TV journalists -- easily as well-known as Dan Rather was in the US. It makes as much sense for the NYT to ask him as for Indian media to talk to, say, Thomas Friedman (and Sardesai's verbal skills are probably better than Friedman's).

Another thing -- when you self-admittedly know nothing about cricket, and are sufficiently out of touch to India to not have heard of that Sardesai character, I have to wonder: why did you write this post?

Anonymous said...

Sreesanth the batsman! Awesome post.

Also, Rajdeep played cricket for Oxford and actually faced Malcolm Marshall (a former west indies fast bowler who was rather good, just in case you don't know who Marshall was either)

Falstaff said...

alok: Yes, exactly. Though I think it's more than the fact that she's trying to make some "weighty and serious" connection that doesn't exist, it's also that she misses / skips lightly over the basics - the fact that it was (I'm told) an exciting, closely fought match with a nail-biting end, for instance. Surely that had more to do with the excitement over it than all this talk about the rise of small-town India.

(To be fair, she does mention the match being exciting. In the last paragraph. Where she says: "Near the end of the close and tension-filled game, India beat Pakistan by five runs" I'm not sure how you can beat the other team 'near' the end of the game rather than at the end of the game; I'm also not sure how this fact helps to illustrate the fact that "the swagger of youth seemed to matter as much as simple serendipity", but still, she does say it.)

anon: on what players are 'expected' to be - okay, so maybe some people still think test cricket is 'proper' cricket (though I wonder how many people actually test matches anymore), I find it hard to believe that anyone watching the Twenty20 series and trying to decide whether they liked the new format or not was comparing it to a test match - surely a one-day format is the obvious comparison. Yet Ms. Sengupta doesn't mention one-day matches even once. The impression the story gives to someone unfamiliar with cricket is that cricket so far has consisted only of five day matches played by (presumably middle-aged and unathletic) people in white, and now suddenly there's this new format with colorful clothing, loud fans, advertising, etc. If that isn't a gross misrepresentation I don't know what is.

As for the context - yes, of course. But see, that's precisely the kind of stuff Ms. Sengupta should have been writing about, instead of giving us theories about how people love this new series because it makes them feel more secure in their manhood. A good article would have explained the uncertainty coming in, would have talked about the innovative strategies used, etc. Instead of which we get told that the players spoke Hinglish and one of them took off his shirt. Tchah!

yugandhar: ummm...thanks, but I have nothing against "that sengupta" (aka Ms. Sengupta). I think it's a terrible article, but I'm not interested in bashing the person who wrote it more generally. For all I know Ms. Sengupta was just having a bad day.

continued-contemplation: Same as above. I'm judging Sardesai by what he says in this piece, which firmly establishes him in fruitcake territory. Maybe he's a really smart guy who just said something really, really silly. It's still a ridiculous comment. (as an aside, I'm not sure why being a fruitcake and being NDTV's star reporter are mutually exclusive, but let it go).

rahul: for test cricket as 'proper cricket' see above.

On the small-town-revolution: I find it hard to believe that that was one of the key factors driving the euphoria / excitement following the win. Even the article you link to starts by saying it's something no one's paying attention to. To then say that it was "impossible" for anyone watching the match not to connect India's triumph with the "rise of small-town working-class India" is patently ridiculous.

On cheerleaders / sports bras: So, they were cheerleaders. Interesting. Was this the first time cheerleaders attended a cricket match I wonder? If yes, then surely that, and not their wearing what may or may not have sports bras was the point to have made. If no, then I fail to see how the factoid is relevant in the first place.

And yes, from the photograph I would say they were sports bras. Obviously I can't be sure of that, anymore than I can be sure that the person playing in the center was Dhoni and not someone who resembled Dhoni, or that the fireworks in the air over Delhi were really fireworks and not something the resembled fireworks. The point is that saying "what resembled sports bras" only obscures and confuses the description for the reader. Plus it's a non sequitur - contrasting what players used to wear in the old days with what cheerleaders wear now makes no sense.

On Sardesai: See above. So he's a big media personality, equivalent to Friedman. So? He's still saying something incredibly dumb. The day the Indian media publishes stories that quote Friedman as saying that the emergence of Japanese players in MLB is proof that the world is getting flat I'll be happy to describe that as idiotic too. Besides, it's not "why did they ask him?" so much as "why was he the only person they could find to talk to and quote when what he said was so clearly besides the point".

Finally, on why did I write this post - simply because the article annoyed the hell out of me. Bad, incoherent writing is bad, incoherent writing. This is not about content - it's about structure and logic. As for my knowing very little about India or cricket, that's the point, isn't it? - if even I, with my limited knowledge on the subject can see that this article is a gross misrepresentation, then it must be really bad.

Blue Bike said...

Though I think you might have been harsh at some places, I defenitely find many flaws in Ms. Sengupta's PoV.

1. whats wrong with glorifying the achievement of a small town Indian ??? He's earned it for himself ...

2. Ms. Sengupta has taken the stand of a purist here ... though I might not call our team "superheroes" or anything, I'd defenitely applaud them for their achievement ... as i've criticized them for their failures. And anyways whats wrong with changing a games format ... you see that happening in every game ... things change with time and you can only feel nostalgic about the past ...

3. Rajdeep Sardesai has supposedly played cricket for Oxford ... so there is no question about his authority or knowledge of cricket also I did not find his words negative in any sense ... the negative sense was created by Ms. SS in her own analysis ... "young and restless" is associated with the current generation world over and there is nothing wrong with it.

4. The age related piece of stats was total rubbish

5. And the last para of that article ... I might agree that India's win was a serendipity but isn't it what we see sports for ?? the "glorious uncertainties" ?? the rise of underdogs and defeat of goliaths ?? How many ppl thought Italy could will football WC in 2006 or Greece winning Euro in 2004 ! If games always resulted as outputs of predefined theories then why would someone even bother to play them ??? just work out a mathematical formula and hand out the trophy !!!!

Cheshire Cat said...

"Minutes later, apparently in a moment of abandon, Mr. Dhoni took off his jersey, gave it to a young fan and marched topless before the crowd." (italics mine)

How could you omit the piece de resistance?

Shivaji said...

Good post...
I wonder how people who cant spot the difference between a batsman and a bowler (Sreesanth) can spot such sweeping undercurrents of change in India.
Also, small town and rural India had risen a long time back, through Maoist rebellions and not cricket.

Falstaff said...

sportsnob: Thanks.

sportsnob & bluebike: about Sardesai playing cricket for Oxford - I fail to see how that's relevant. The opinions attributed to him have little to do with cricket and more to do with social / gender perceptions. So the man's an expert on cricket. All the more reason for him to talk about what Twenty20 means for the sport instead of shooting his mouth off about some the insecurity of Indian men. (btw, bluebike, I'm assuming in all this that he did actually say this, and Ms. Sengupta is not misattributing this to him.)

cat: I think I stopped reading before that point. Or maybe I was so busy counting the number of times the word "abandon" get used in the article that I didn't notice.

Shivam: Ah, but were the Maoist rebels athletic? Did they reflect the median age of 23? Were they young and restless and did they rebel with abandon?

Anonymous said...

Point(s) well made:)
And to think India's middle class rose within the infinitesimally small interval (in terms of social uprisings) between WC 2007 and Twenty20 WC 2007. Whee.

Anonymous said...

i agree that the article in the NY Times is very poor and when i read it earlier i hoped it would be in some inconspicuous corner of the paper

but your post sadly comes across to be as half-baked as that article was.

as somebody pointed out in the comments, when you admit to not knowing much about the topic in question there is really no point in ranting about it.

Rajdeep Sardesai has been a very prominent face on Indian TV for quite some time now.
and the small town thing is fairly apparent to anybody following indian cricket for a while. most of the indian cricketers in the past came from big cities, with mumbai dominating disproportionately.

dancing cheerleaders in sports bras: they are rare enough on a cricket pitch for all commentators to repeatedly refer to them.

??! said...

The cliches? Fair point. The bad metaphors and analogies? Accepted. The poor sentence structure? Yes.

But Falsie, much as I loved this rant, you really cannot be excused from attacking some of the points she's made, since (as mostly everybody has rightly pointed out) you yourself are so detached from them. Much of what you object to, is still valid (though badly phrased).

1) The Indian cricket team has not been known for athleticism - notice she uses the phrase "on the pitch" - and the difference between the team in question and the regulars was quite marked. (The chip on shoulders bit was unnecessary, agreed.)

2) She's right in saying "Restraint was out" - even one-dayers don't have the kind of music/cheer-leading gimmicks that this one did.

3) And much has been made of players coming from small towns, and not the major metros. There's been a marked difference in on-field innovativeness, as these players have learnt their craft in often odd conditions. There's also a stronger fighting spirit, which they've picked up enroute to actually having made it to the national team despite coming from some (relatively) obscure place.

4) Most one-day teams are not relatively young - in fact, a lot has been made of the fact that the top teams have a distinctly creaky quality. The four-five top players from Australia, India, Sri Lanka are all in their thirties.

On a separate note, you say I wonder how many people actually test matches anymore - lots, actually. If anything, the format has seen a resurgence in recent years.

Also, not knowing who Rajdeep Sardesai is - just how long have you been out of India, and just how little TV did you watch while you were back home?

Falstaff said...

anon2: Whatever. This "you shouldn't talk about what you don't know much about" argument isn't worth dignifying with a response.

What has Sardesai's being a "prominent face on Indian television " got to do with anything. Does it prove he's not a fruitcake? No. Does it make his argument any more sensible. No. Is it sensible to ask a TV reporter to comment on the insecurities of Indian manhood? No. Stop wasting my time with irrelevancies.

??!: Sigh.Who's disputing her content? If she'd said, "some commentators have remarked on the fact that the more players coming from small towns" I wouldn't have had a problem. When she says it was impossible for anyone watching it not to think of it as a "metaphor" for the rise of small-town middle-class India (not in cricket, mind you, but more generally) that's ridiculous. If you look hard enough into any Delhi Times Page 3 article you'll find some truth in it - that doesn't make the kind of purple prose they churn out okay.

Okay, so I don't know much about cricket. the point is my knowledge of the game is probably superior to that of the average NY Times reader. So if things weren't clear to me they probably weren't clear to most people who read that article either. You say one-day teams are typically older. Fine. But I don't know that. And neither do most people reading that article. Telling us that the average age of the teams is under-25 without giving us a benchmark to compare it to is meaningless - because I have no way to judge whether an average age of 23 is unusual. Which is why this is bad writing.

Oh, and I never watch TV. Consider that Sardesai is apparently a prominent TV personality, and you can see why.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, writing shoddy pieces on India / about India has become a norm both with NyTimes and WashingtonPost, both of which have employed Indian idiots who have no clue what they are writing about.

??! said...

ah - one sees your point. Rationale accepted.

And never? Never ever never? What did you do for current news et al before the Net?

Falstaff said...

supremus: I don't know if it's the writers who are to blame or the editors. I feel like there's often a conscious attempt made to complicate things, make them, in a way, more exotic, add local context where none is required. So a simple story about how Indian fans were thrilled because their home team won an exciting match in a new format of a beloved sport becomes a story about male insecurity and the rise of the middle-class. It's as though just the fact that it was a great game isn't enough - we need to justify the thrill we get out of it by linking it to some underlying socio-economic trend.

??!: Well, not never ever never, obviously. But a) the Internet's been around for a while you know - I probably haven't systematically watched a news channel since 1999; b) I've never really cared much about current news anyway - was it Thoreau who said that he never learned anything worth knowing from a newspaper? - I figured if it was really important someone would tell me and c) there are certainly rare occasions when I have watched news on TV - I remember surfing through a bunch of news channels for some half an hour when the Bombay Train blasts happened, for instance (I was in India then) - but if you watch TV once in 6 months or a year you don't really pay attention to the names of the reporters.

30in2005 said...

Falstaff, brilliant and spot on, every single point.

If you want poor journalism watch NDTV or INB - its full of idiots with bad diction and not the first clue about journalism.

??! said...

so this is why we don't get critiques and lampoons of terrible TV shows. To think of all those potential Falsie-rants after watching a daytime talk show, or a reality show. We are being denied.

Anonymous said...

Check this out for average age of all the teams participating in the Twenty20 world cup:


Australia 30.93
New Zealand 28.925
Scotland 28.739
England 28.542
Sri Lanka 28.278
South Africa 27.659
Kenya 26.661
West Indies 26.506
Pakistan 26.102
India 24.32
Zimbabwe 23.404
Bangladesh 21.656

Anonymous said...

Aren't you a smug one? For those of us who read the piece from Indian (not from some Midwestern hicktown), the piece was spot on. If you had read the headlines in India, you'd have seen how The Times of India ran a single headline that exulted both at the stock market rising and the cricket victory.
It's all very well to defend your nation's honour from far away, but if you lived in India, you exultant little morons, you'd probably be forced to admit that there's more truth to the piece than you can detect through your budweisser haze.

desh drohi

Anonymous said...

TOI says all kinds of things, heck most of India's newspapers are crap these days, but isn't the NYT supposed to be a beacon? What is wrong with pointing out the crap that comes out about India? I do believe there is a pattern to Ms.Sengupta's views on India - Falstaff you are too polite on that :)

Nanda Kishore

Falstaff said...

30in2005: Thanks

??!: You are indeed. But watching television is too much of a sacrifice to make, even for one's public. I would do anything for this blog but I won't do that, and other Meatloaf songs.

sameer: Thanks. Now wouldn't it have been interesting to present the figures for Australia / England in that article along with the figures on India and Pakistan?

desh drohi: Ah, I see the sight of these athletic young men cavorting about on the pitch has clearly made you feel more secure about your manhood.

Nanda Kishore: I wouldn't go quite so far as calling the NY Times a beacon, though I'd agree that it certainly has higher standards than the ToI (this is NOT difficult).

Lucid Illusions said...

very interesting post and post-mortem of it by others :o)

yeah, and the supporters of rajdeep, flashing his credentials is equivalent of a certain president's supporters telling us that he can get away with spouting nonsensical statements because he is who he is :o) ....

Atleast one of her factual errors have been acknowledged now - "

Correction: September 28, 2007
The Memo from New Delhi article on Tuesday, about the popularity in India of a radically compressed new cricket format known as Twenty20, misidentified the position played by S. Sreesanth, a member of the Indian Twenty20 team that defeated Pakistan in a tournament played on Monday. He is a bowler, not a batsman."

waiting for the rest like " they were cheerleaders, indian manhood not questioned, etc etc" :oP

the left hasnt yet read it here I guess, else the red flag would have been raised by now about how this is linked to world domination attempt by forcing the nuclear deal on us :o)

okay, am ending my bad jokes session here ... but again, nice post ....

Anonymous said...

I "discovered" your blog today (via Ammani's) and have been having a terrific morning reading through some of your posts (and being completely unproductive as a result!). This one was spot-on - I don't know how I missed the original considering that I live in NY and read the Times, but I agree with everything you have written, and really, one cannot be too harsh about Somini Sengupta - a lot of what she writes sets my teeth on edge.
Your writing is a real pleasure to read. I will now visit this blog regularly.