“Take any news item,” Prof Rao told us, “and write two biased versions of that. One positive, one negative.” That was the week’s assignment for our journalism class.
He was not a professor in the true academic sense. He was a senior editor with the city’s most respected newspaper. But, for us students, at least in terms of demeanour, he was a professor.
He took journalism seriously and he expected us to do the same. He didn’t cut jokes, didn’t pretend to be our friend, didn’t yell and didn’t bother to chase assignments. If someone submitted an assignment, he would give it his full critical attention.
Wednesday evening found me standing before him in silent deference, while he scanned the page I had given him—the actual news clip flanked by its positive and negative versions.
He read it for long, looked at me and then turned his attention back to the page. My confidence began to squirm. “Never,” he spoke suddenly, tapping the sheet. “Never do this.” The tapping finger turned to me in accusation, without breaking a wag. “Never!”
I was deflated. “Sorry, sir. I will rewrite it.”
“No, no! You have done this very well. But, if you ever become a reporter, don’t do this. No bias, good or bad. Just facts. The truth. Fearless. No color. Black and white.”
He scribbled something on the page. He didn’t believe in alphabetical grades. The scribble said he considered my work to be worth six marks out of ten.
“Good job,” he almost smiled as he returned the assignment.
“Only six sir? Did I make a mistake?”
“No, it is perfect. But if I give you more, it will go to your head. Remember, never do this. Now, go away.”
After a couple of years, I am a green reporter with a tabloid which champions the cause of the common man and regularly exposes all sorts of scams.
I am standing before an old woman, unable to utter a word. Just the previous week, I had assured her that we would publish her story. Yes, that would force the police to release her son. Yes, that would get her compensation for the hut the municipality had demolished to favour a builder.
Now she is back with the documents I had asked for and is eager to give me whatever else I want.
How do I tell her about what our owner-editor had decreed a day ago? “We will expose a scam only if it involves at least a crore of rupees. If it is about an individual, we must carefully ask if it is worth the newsprint. We are losing too many advertisers. Any tip you get, let me know first. We must try to negotiate first. Don’t forget, we are in business.”
The old woman has helped herself to a chair, too weak to stand. She is looking at me in confusion? Why am I silent? Why am I not taking the documents from her?
How do I tell her that the builder who has got her home destroyed and her son put away is one of our major advertisers?
She digs into her blouse and comes up with a few folded currency notes. “This is all I have, son. Please help me.”
I turn my face away, mumble something and escape into the inner office. As I hide behind the telex machines, I can hear my colleagues persuading the wailing old woman to leave.
As I wipe my face on my sleeve, I think of Prof Rao. Black and white? Reality is colored, sir.