The Indian journalist Palagummi Sainath, famous in India for writing about the poor, is now on a U.S. speaking and teaching tour. A recent interview with him by journalist Brian Kaller, published in the Twin Cities weekly newspaper Pulse, raises some important questions about how the Western media covers global poverty.
As I read this interview of a modern muckraking journalist on a scale 1000 times vaster than Jacob Riis could ever have imagined, I had a sinking feeling in my gut.
I know how mainstream reporters look at reporters like Sainath. They take one look and quickly say "Oh, another Third World idealist, a neo-Marxist, a goody two shoes."
What a shame that is. Because Sainath's perspective is not ideological but rather pragmatic and humane. Also, it shines a light on what's wrong with how the U.S. media covers the world beyond American borders. Which also perhaps explain why Western reporters are so keen to overlook him and journalists like him.
The rural editor of the Hindu newspaper in southern India, Sainath spends 3/4 of his time not at the office but out with the people he covers with his articles and photographs (that he does both, write and shoot, is another throwback to an earlier journalistic era of the United States that perhaps we should bring back). His 1998 collection of articles, "Everybody Loves a Good Drought -- Stories from India's Poorest District," was a non-fiction bestseller in much of the world that year.
Sainath's essential critique of the Western media is that it covers Third World poverty using guiding metaphors -- "frames" to use the latest journo buzzword -- that exclude poverty from the journalists' vision.
The frame-du-jour for India today is "Booming Thanks to High-Tech Explosion." Which is true as far as it goes. There is a vastly expanding middle class in India and the stock market is soaring. Tom Friedman is all over the story. But that frame excludes a far bigger story that isn't being told -- that the food supplies in India are at their lowest point in half a century, and that poverty is also increasing in the great majority of the population, just as wealth is increasing in a tiny percentage of the population.
The Sensex stock market index, Sainath notes, is universally quoted these days by Western journalists and Indian journalists alike. It has a talismanic appeal. Yet only 1.15% of Indian households has any share in the market. Further, although the top 10% of the population is becoming wealthier and more modernized, 90% of the population is losing ground in income, health, housing, education, and living conditions.
So why does the Western press focus so maniacally on the top 10 percent of the Indian population so often -- the "techie entrepreneur" stories, the "rags to riches" stories, the "rising middle class stories," etc?
Is is that the numbers involved in the poverty frame are just so big that journalists and readers have a hard time grasping them? Nonsense, Sainath says. "The numbers are huge, but there is also a choice whether we want to comprehend it or whether we want to evade those facts to feel better."
Providing basic food, clean water, and sanitation to everyone in the world who needs it would cost about $40 billion a year, Sainath says, compared to $34 billion spent each year in Western countries on pets and pet products like low-carb pet foods and hip replacements for old dogs.
Sainath cites a New York Times story about a politician from the Andhra Pradesh region, a supposed technoligical wizard who turned the city of Hyderabad into an Indian Silicon Valley in the 1990s. Now there's a great story line!
Only problem is, Sainath says, the story was apparently written out out of a press release. It rehearsed all the politician's favorite self-aggrandizing tales about himself. Again, not that the story wasn't true at some level. Life has gotten better for a small percentage of elites at the top.
But at the same time, life has gotten worse for a far larger percentage of ordinary people at the rock bottom. During the same period when the techie-politician was on the rise, Sainath says, the same region, which happens to be where Sainath is from, poverty levels were dramatically rising and farmers by the thousands were committing suicide under the weight of crushing personal debts.
The fact that even a small percentage of the Indian population is a huge number (10% of India's population is half of Europe's), is hardly an excuse for missing the larger story of growing poverty. Returning from reporting on a house fire, what reporter would offer as an excuse to his editor, "I missed the skyscraper burning down because it was just too big compared to the house next door!"
So who or what is to blame? To point out that the abuses flow mainly from control of the economic system by a small handful of corporations and elites is not to be a Marxist (such an ancient red herring by now) but only an observer of the facts.
"In India there has never been a greater period of inequality since the British Raj," Sainath says. "There are two reasons why this has happened. First, there has been a complete collapse of restraint on the power of corporations, and second the elites in most countries have captured the most power."
It would be more than a shame if we dismissed Sainath's clear, plainspoken, I am tempted to say "non-aligned" journalism with easy labels. Sainath has spent his time with his subjects. His reporting is straightforward and shattering. The way he keeps his journalistic searchlight focused on the areas outside the favored story frames of the elite is in the best tradition of Steffens, Tarbell, Riis, Agee, Murrow.
"It is extremely important that Americans look critically at their own media," Sainath says. "This is a media-saturated society, and you have to wonder that Americans can have the world's largest media and some of its least-informed public."
Not only citizens, readers, and viewers need to stand up. Journalists, who should seriously consider re-embracing their own best traditions, need to as well.