Interview with Glenn Frankel: Principles of Good Journalism

19 Jan

Part 3 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glenn Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


People can be fairly clever in coming up with justifications for why they did what they did. Can empathy come in the way of critically looking at the choices made by people? How do you provide both an empathetic and a critical account?

I think you have to do both. First of all, journalism to me is a fairly large spectrum of things which ranges from the sort of very aggressive — move in there and find out wrongdoing and attack it — sort of Seymour Hersh approach to people who are writing perhaps more nuanced account — lets get into the mindset of people making decisions, trying to figure out why did the things they things. The best journalists can do that and do it critically– both be critical at the same time and give a full rounded portrait. To people who inevitably end up crossing the line and writing very sympathetically about the people who made terrible decisions.

I think the very best journalists find a way to do both and to not lose their critical edge. I am thinking, it may not be an appropriate example, but we can take someone like [not clear] writing in the 1960s about somebody like Joe DiMaggio, the greatest sports star. [not clear] writes this wonderful piece for Esquire about DiMaggio which both I think summons up both the grace and charisma of DiMaggio but at the same time when you walk away from the piece, you have a very very critical understanding of his illusions, of the damage he has done, and of his total inability to say understand women in his life, and the way he seeks to dominate, manipulate and control everyone around him. To me that’s a work of art — it almost surpasses journalism, but it is an act of journalism. That kind of piece, you know, is a model of being able to both understand someone’s mindset and why they do the things they do but at the same time delivers to the readers a portrait that also is unmistakably critical and powerful. Now that’s clearly the ultimate. I can’t do that, and I don’t expect most journalists to be able to do that, but I do expect people to be both tough and fair. That’s not too much to ask.

You can tell — to apply it to much recent example — when you look at say some of the people who wrote about the Iraq war, the run-up to the Iraq war — the obvious suspects like Judith Miller of the New York Times. I hate to mention Judy in such a way because she becomes a scapegoat but nonetheless that sort of rather uncritical recitation of the material that your sources provide you – you know I think we have to be able to do more than that. I think if you contrast some of the thinks Judy was writing at the time say with Bart Gelman of the Washington Post wrote, you can see the difference. And you can see kind of being a little more careful, a little more critical, a little more that step of asking yourself about the sources. That’s part of what good journalism is about. Always kind of asking yourself about the sources, double-checking — that’s part of what good journalism is about. Not falling captive to your sources or to a particular perspective, checking it again, being critical, I think that’s something that journalists can and have to practice on a daily basis.

Having singled out Judy, it’s also a process that involves editors because that’s what editors are for. Reporters often go in certain directions and believe they have come across something quite unique and sometimes they have, but it’s the function of the editors to ask those questions to reporters that things have been covered. So, I think our failure, as collective failure to the run-up of the war, was not just the failure of the reporting, but it was mostly a failure of the editing. This gets us into a whole different subject. I really believe strongly that good journalists could do both and that empathy is not the enemy of truth.

How do you make the informational landscape, the moral topography of the choices available to somebody, accessible to the readers? How can the journalist go about doing this?

Well, this is tough because you inevitably oversimplify things to an extent. Just the act of putting something in the story, you are leaving out. Part of the art of journalism is what you don’t put in. In fact, I think most of the choices you make — first you make them into deciding what you are going to pursue and what you don’t choose to pursue; of all the human activity we could be writing about. So the first really important question is what don’t we go after? And then of course in gathering material you always leave out a lot of things, any good journalist will tell you that they are leaving 90% or more of what they find out. You actually make a lot of choices, and it is in those choices that I would argue that in those choices that subjective individual values really emerge. There are so many different kinds of stories and ways of storytelling. We find out today, and we have to have it in the newspaper by tomorrow, and that can be very valuable and very important.

The place I have always strived to get to is to go back to those stories and to tell longer narratives that involve storytelling and that involve characters, explaining to readers who people are. It is a very character-driven form of journalism and it has its flaws because when you look at history — there are forces at work and there are individuals at work, and the balance between those and who is really in the driver’s seat is something that we have all studied for and debated and will continue to debate for a long long time. Character driven journalism that uses characters to summon dilemmas and choices that were made. I am thinking of a recent good model – Karen DeYoung’s new book on Colin Powell called Soldier. It comes way after the fact so it’s only one kind of journalism — the kind of re-exploration. Karen gets to have 5 or 6 interviews with Powell.

Her portrait of Colin is both empathetic and understanding his motive, who he was, where he came from and how important the military was for him, how important it was for him to be an autonomous individual yet also feeling his responsibility was to support his leader. And, she captures that very well and at the same time she captures what a huge mistake Powell made and how he feels about that. He feels betrayed on the one hand, which she captures as well; the fact that he wasn’t willing to take a more activist aggressive stance when he realized things were going badly — to blow the whistle on it if you will — ‘I can’t do this anymore. I am quitting, protesting, whatever.’ I think in the way a very very good journalist does, Karen both helps you understand what Powell is thinking, what he was trying to do, how he was trying to work within the administration to be a moral force if you will or force for moderation and how he failed.

This gets me to the thing that I think I have focused on most of all – beyond the breaking of news and in production of all the information that we deliver day after day in newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, I really feel that if we get 50% of it correct on that first day, we are doing very well because we are reporting on limited information, limited sources, under deadline with people constantly either lying to us consciously or unconsciously with information that they don’t themselves really understand and we are struggling to produce the subject for the next day. We are writing history on the fly. I don’t think there is any getting around that. There is no way – maybe we can improve it to 55% at times or 60%, but there is no way we are going to get much beyond that because of the nature of the enterprise.

Let me interject here. In a way, I feel that newspapers overstate their case all the time. They don’t let the readers in on the fact that they don’t know certain things or the constraints that they are working under.

I think you are absolutely right. You can almost put a box in every story—by the way, keep in the mind that we hope that half of this is true. We are coming at it again tomorrow, and we will try to do better on this particular story as we move along. First, we are going to tell you that we have won the war and tomorrow we are going to tell you that it turns out that we didn’t win the war. There is getting around it when you come out every day. It is a human enterprise.

It puts enormous pressure, enormous responsibility on us to go back at things, to revisit anything important. In my career – you always learn so much more when you go back the second time or the third time – so many things you assumed or thought you knew turned out to be wrong. A classic example of my time in Israel during the first Palestinian uprising when a young woman, a Jewish settler was killed in a small Palestinian village, called Beita. She was the first Jewish Israeli to be killed in the first uprising. So long ago and such a naive almost seems like a golden era compared to how many people have died since. Anyway, the circumstance of her death was so complex, and I went back last year or earlier this year and reread my first-day story, and it says she had been stoned to death by Palestinian villagers because that’s what the army had announced and that was totally wrong. It turned out she had been accidentally been killed by her own bodyguard. We got that story wrong the first day, and we got it a little better the second day, the army itself was investigating- whether in good faith or not. It took a week later when I went back to -had to sneak in through the army’s cordon – they had cordoned off the area- we weren’t allowed in. Two of us eventually made our way through — snuck our way in — interviewed the villagers, interviewed some of the Jewish settlers who were with her that day, got some materials from the army investigators as that came out and gradually pieced together a much much more accurate account of what had happened, and the sort of sequence of events that had led to the tragedy or disaster. It was very close to the truth, to the full truth about a week later. I looked at it and appalled at what we all wrote the first day, and I am very very proud of what I wrote a week later.

I think that’s all you can do in a sense—own up to the flaws, to the flaws of the process. There are both personal flaws, lack of skepticism at times. We can load our stories with phrases that say — “according to preliminary report”, “we had no way to being able to verify this,” “according to unconfirmed information because we weren’t allowed to interview witnesses at the time” — all those things can go in there, have to go in there but they don’t really mitigate enough of what we are saying. We have to be willing and able to go back to thing and to admit that we are mortal, that we are flawed, that the information that we provide is only as good as what our sources are giving us at that time, and to go back at it again and again, and to be as transparent and honest about the process as we can be.

And you are right—newspapers tend to speak in this magisterial, almost divine voice that claims omniscience when it is, in fact, it is a very flawed and hesitant process that we go through. I think we have come a long way over the years and admitted that and been more open about that. Certainly, that has been one of the advantages of having a blogosphere and to have everyone be a media critic. One of the real advantages of that is that it has made us more careful and it has made us a little more honest about, and a little more open about the process we go through. And surprise, surprise it’s a human flawed complicated and often subjective process.

It seems like European news organizations like the BBC are a little more careful about attribution and more conscientious in providing context. Do you think this is the case? How do you compare it to NY Times and Washington Post?

Yeah, I don’t really agree with you. First of all let’s separate out the British press—The Guardian, The Times of London, and those from the BBC. Those I would argue strongly are less careful in attributing that the Washington Post or the NY Times.

The BBC, compared to any other broadcast outlet, is head and shoulders above. Certainly, compared to certainly any American broadcast outlet, BBC is an absolutely marvelous news institution and the online version, which is what I see these days – I just got back from living in the UK for almost four years – and I admire BBC enormously.

They are thorough, they stick with things, and they cover a much broader range of countries than the New York Times or the Washington Post. They have an extensive staff. If we had a license fee and the zillions of dollars floating in from the government — we would be more extensive also. We are private institutions.

Nonetheless, I don’t agree that their attribution or their general accuracy exceeds ours. I just don’t buy it. They are good, they are careful, they may at times be a little more cautious but when I see what they write about events in America or covering the Middle East, Israel, and Palestine. I think they have a rather, at times the BBC has a sort of a London media elite set of assumptions – certainly about Israel and Palestine – that shines through their copy in ways and in their reportage –which can be skewed. Please keep that in context. I love BBC, and I think they do a wonderful job but no, I would defend us and the New York Times in terms of the quality and things that you talk about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Early Professional Experiences

19 Jan

Part 2 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


How was it working for a small newspaper? How did you learn the ropes of going about say finding and investigating a story?

There is nothing like a small newspaper in a small community because it really is the laboratory where you can begin to do things and where when you make mistakes, they are generally small ones – they don’t have a huge impact. At the same time, you really learn very quickly that accuracy is crucial, that you were accountable for what you were writing not only to the small group of people around you at the paper but to people you were writing about because they were reading you intensely. Even in this little weekly in Chesterfield County – its called the Chesterfield news journal, I was covering the board of supervisors, which is the county government which met weekly. Everyone read this little journal intensely, and if you screwed something up, they were on top of it and if you were critical, they knew it, and they quickly took your measure as to how they felt about you. So, you were accountable to them in a way – not so much to write things that weren’t true, to skew what you were writing to please them – more that you had to be accurate and you had to be careful.

I had fairly long hair, not very good clothes. I was making a $1.65/hour on this job, and I couldn’t afford a wardrobe or even a car that started very well. (Chuckles) I was driving a Volkswagen van that had to sit on a hill to push it to start it. There are not many hills in Chesterfield County. It was always an adventure to get that thing going. But it really was a good place to sort of learn the basics.

Because I had no training as a journalist, because I had never taken a course, never written a word for a newspaper, I really had to start from scratch and there wasn’t much help at the Chesterfield News Journal and I have to add that at least for the first year, there wasn’t much help at The Richmond Mercury, the place where I worked next, a weekly newspaper in Richmond, Virginia. Both of the newspapers no longer exist. I found that I had to teach myself by and large in this first stretch.

Fortunately Richmond, Virginia is on the outskirts of the Washington Post circulation area. So for 25 cents or 50 cents a day, I could get what turned out to be a very practical useful textbook guide to modern daily journalism, the daily Washington Post. I pored over it, read it thoroughly. Really for the first time, I read the newspaper thoroughly every day. I had been a newspaper reader, war fairly knowledgeable about governmental affairs and things like that, I certainly wasn’t an ignorant person, I was well educated, but I had a lot to learn. I would sort of simply look at the way Washington Post approached stories, both in terms of how they were written and the different forms. It’s not hard; it’s not brain surgery to figure out various forms of stories. What was in the second paragraph, how did the first paragraph work, I would just analyze it for that but also for attitude and the Post then was a very muscular cheeky newspaper. Some days it was not terribly well edited, some days it almost bizarre in parts but many days, it was really quite exciting to read and in this time of Watergate, especially exciting. I used that as my text. So, developing an approach to how you did the reporting very much came from that and from my own understanding of what a reporter’s role was – I felt I was there to uncover things, to find out things.

Lord Northcliffe, the old British press manager once said, ‘News is what they don’t what you to know, everything else is advertising.’ The direct quote is “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress, all the rest is advertising.” That’s not all news is but its certainly a good starting point and certainly coming out of Columbia University in the 1960s with everything that had happened over Vietnam and everything else; certainly, my attitude and my approach was aggressive, critical, looking for the problem. That type of newspaper approach fit well with what I wanted to do. So what I had to learn over time was to be -Yes, it was important to have had edge and that sort of critical attitude but at the same time to be open to new experiences, to not make too many presumptions about what a story was, to be able to be open to the experience of reporting and actually talking to people, getting out, realizing that the truth, as best as I could determine, was more complex, had more shades of grey than the sort of black and white that I had wanted to think. That only occurred over time, and it was a very long and painful process.

Did journalism change you as a person? It seems that you came to appreciate the subtleties more. Please talk a little more about how what impact did journalism have on you and how you changed over time.

Yeah, Everyone matures over time and hopefully becomes a little more sophisticated or a little more understanding, a little more aware of your own mortality and therefore a little more forgiving, a little more aware of your own personality flaws and therefore more understanding of other people’s. That doesn’t just apply to journalists but applies for all of us, and I think that process occurred with me.

I think you become a better journalist as you understand that the world is not a simple place. And there is a fine balance between in keeping a code and an edge in the sense of – ‘Lets get on that, lets get to the bottom of that, and lets be really relentless in pursuing a particular subject’, and at the same time understanding the sort of human frailties that go into a situation or developing empathy in other words. I don’t think we are automatically empathetic creatures. I think that’s an acquired quality over the course of time.

For me, the best journalism has always been about the most complex subjects and about getting to the bottom of things that are not simple either in terms of the information involved or the morality involved. Developing a taste for that and realizing that the sort of gotcha stories, where you do an expose’ – well that’s immensely satisfying in some ways, it is even more satisfying to write about complex mechanisms and people and the reasons why people do the things they do and figuring out of the motives.

I have always been more interested in the perpetrators than the victims – whether that’s the people who ran government in Virginia and who had a rather successful oligarchy of power – ‘Who they were, what they were thinking and what they told themselves about the decisions they made’ – or whether it was in South Africa – people in the Afrikaans league who were running the government back in the days of apartheid, or whether the Israeli establishment leaders – ‘What information were they getting? What were they telling themselves or how did they justify doing things that to me seemed unjustifiable, in some ways kind of evil?’

Saying its evil doesn’t get you all that far. In the end, it wasn’t as interesting to me as figuring out who these people were, what they told themselves, what they told their children about what they were doing and how they were justifying. That to me was fascinating, and it still is.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Early Influences

19 Jan

Part 1 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Where you were born and what were some of the early influences that shaped your choice to become a journalist.

I was born in 1949 in the Bronx in New York but grew up in Rochester, New York, which is up 300 miles north and west of there. I think the principal thing for me was wanting to be a writer at a pretty early age and trying to figure out how to do that. I had no real training. I had an English teacher in High School who was very encouraging and I was editor of the high school literary magazine. When I moved out to go to the university, I went to Columbia University in New York in the undergraduate, not the graduate. Especially in that era, in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was very hard for me to find a way to write in any kind of institutional setting. I was trying to write a novel at one point. I didn’t major in English but ended up majoring in American History which I think was very useful.

Just after the university, I moved out to the Bay Area, where I drove a school bus for almost year and a half here in San Fransisco. The school bus schedule is such that you worked early in the morning and in the evening and there was a big hole of about five or six hours in the middle of the day and I remember spending that time trying to write a novel, trying to write short stories, write songs, playing the guitar, doing various things and gradually coming to the realization that unless I could find an institutional setting of some sort that would actually pay me a regular salary to be a writer, I wasn’t going to be a writer, that it would fade away. I hadn’t found a profession and driving a school bus didn’t seem like a satisfying long-term way of using my Bachelor’s degree. It gradually occurred to me that newspaper business might be a way to go.

We are now talking about late 1972 or early 1973 and the Watergate affair is just beginning to bubble to the surface. The name of the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein are just beginning to appear, congressional hearings were beginning to be held. In the late afternoons many days the last group of kids I would take home, it was a private school that I was working for, and I would take the large station wagon rather than the large yellow bus to drive them home and the large station wagon had an AM/FM radio and so I would turn on KQED and listen to the news at 6’o clock, and the news was often about Watergate, Watergate dominated it in its various aspects. And it began to occur to me that newspapers might be the way to actually get paid to write.

To make a long story short, my then girlfriend got accepted into a teacher core program that gave you a degree while you taught, in Richmond, Virginia. That seemed like a better place for someone with a Bachelor’s degree and no experience to try to hook some kind of newspaper job rather than the Bay Area, where as far as I could see there were approximately 17 million recent college graduates with the same degree I had and no chance to get into a job in this kind of field.

So we drove cross country and moved to Richmond Virginia, and gradually I got a job at a very very small weekly newspaper, approximately 20 miles south of Richmond, in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Then I got a better job at a much better weekly in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a state capitol with a legislature and a governor and all that. I found quite quickly that not only that this kind of job satisfied my need to write and my dream of being paid to write but also sort of fit my personality and my sense of values because as a journalist I found I could be both inside a community and outside it. You sort of straddled if you will because you had to be knowledgeable about the community, you had to take part in things, you had to meet people and make your way through it but at the same time you were supposed to be the person who was analyzing it critically for new information about it, acquiring sort of intimate details of how it worked. Being inside and outside fit very well with my sense of who I was and so almost from the first week of the job at the little weekly newspaper in Chesterfield County, I thought yes, this could work, this is something I could do, this looks good.

I think you have to remember for many people who were growing up in that era, at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s, we were sort of deeply alienated from institutions in America, deeply suspicious of them and they were deeply suspicious of us; both sides had plenty of justification, I would say. Figuring out a way to live in this country or to decide not to live in this country was very much in the front of my mind and in many of my friend’s minds. People came to various conclusions. My conclusion early on, probably because I came from a sort of lower-middle-class background – my father was a television repairman and my mother was a secretary, neither had been to college, I was the first in my immediate family to go to university – I was a little more practical-minded than some of my friends in thinking that I should try to come to terms with the society. But how was I going to do that? How could I maintain my own sense of values and what I thought was important and still find a way to live without feeling that I was totally compromising. People left the country. Some friends ended up in places like Israel or Sweden. In the end, I actually visited Israel one summer and looked at their ongoing conflict and decided that I simply will be replacing ours with theirs and that didn’t seem like what I wanted to do. I really loved America and loved aspects of American culture and felt very much that this was my home and I felt that I needed to find ways to come to terms with that.

It turned out journalism was a good fit again because it allowed me to be very critical, to analyze things and be really tough but it also allowed me to get to know things, to get inside them and that was my training, and my mindset fit and it very well with that.

Interview with Kavita Khanna

26 Dec

Kavita Khanna is the author of Saturday Morning Omelettes.

Kavita, can you start by talking a little more about yourself? Where were you born? Where did you grow up?

I am the eldest of three siblings; I have two younger brothers. I was born in Delhi. My mom is a stay-at-home mother; dad is a retired Major General in the Indian army. Because of dad’s profession, we were posted frequently and moved around quite a bit. We spent the longest time in Pune, where my high school and college education occurred. I got married and moved to Virginia, USA in 1989 and have been here since.

Kavita, I believe you are a trained engineer. How and when did this writing bug hit you? Were you writing from a young age? Did you always want to become a writer?

There was never a conscious want/need to become a writer, no. I have always loved reading books and telling stories. I guess I just came to a point in my life where I decided to try something I would really enjoy – the engineering degrees and subsequent jobs got home a paycheck, but were certainly not satisfying the creative urge within.

As a South Asian, it is especially hard to pursue writing, given that it is typically viewed as fiscally non-remunerative. What kind of challenges did you face while writing this book and where did you find support within your family?

You know, that is very very true. The venture is certainly not a fiscally reliable, or even sound, one – maybe that’s why it took me so long to do this, who knows? Certainly, the fact that quitting my job and writing full time did not impact our lifestyle was a big plus – I doubt if I would have pursued this dream at the cost of myself or my family having to “cut back”.

Tell us a little more about the early influences that shaped you as a writer. What kind of writers (and books) influenced you? In a related question, which writers do you particularly like?

I grew up with Enid Blyton (Secret Sevens, Famous Fives), Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys, Chronicles of Narnia, Wodehouses, Perry Masons, Agatha Christies, Mills and Boons, Barbara Cartlands, James Heriots, Alistair MacLeans. I still enjoy Daphne Du Maurier, Janet Evanovich, Dave Barry, and Sandra Brown – loved Fountainhead, Catch 22, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Da Vinci Code, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Harry Potter series, Gone With The Wind,… gosh, there are too many to name.

In general, if I am picking up a random book to read, I prefer the plot to be fast-paced. I enjoy books with wit, keen human insights, and surprise endings. When I started writing Saturday Morning Omelettes, I made one conscious decision – to portray the story through dialogue rather than too many essay-style descriptions. I am guilty of tending to skip long wordy descriptions when I come across them in most books and wanted to avoid that in my work.

Let me focus my attention on your book – the book broaches on immigrant experiences. Was it difficult for you to assimilate in the US? Can you talk a little more about it in terms of issues around food (adjusting to American food), money, and socialization etc.

Growing up, when my dad was in the army, he was posted to the US Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California for two and half years. I was 10 then. So frankly, the process of assimilation when I came after marriage was not too difficult in itself. Here are my “milestone memories” of life in the USA as an adult:

  • My sheer terror of delis. You had to choose the bread, the cheese, the toppings. All of which were ridiculously foreign to me.
  • Enjoying the freedom of being able to sit on a bench at George Mason University and eating alone. No one ogled, sung Bollywood songs, or heckled me, and the feeling of freedom of being “inconspicuous” was divine!
  • Experiencing the first snowfall was surreal in its beauty
  • Realizing that asking all my classmates what their grades were after a test was considered rude.
  • Learning not to “nod” by moving my head side-to-side
  • The open “public display of affection” blew me away

Gambling over the past years has become an obsession in the US. What surprised me was its popularity in the Indian community. Tell us a little more about your experiences and how do you explain its popularity in the ‘model community’?

I think that’s maybe because cards are not considered a huge taboo in our culture. My parents played rummy (cards) ever since I can remember (and still do) – it’s an integral part of army life. Teen patti during Diwali is such a normal thing to do. Today I consider myself a pretty active parent… but like in my son’s high school these days there is a big brouhaha about a growing trend amongst teens playing Poker – and I find myself not nearly as upset as the other parents. I have to force myself to rethink my “it’s just cards’ mentality.

You peripherally mention the politically well connected rich Indian community in your novel. Given that you are living in Virginia, What are your thoughts about Indians and their involvement in politics, especially in context of the Macaca controversy?

Hehe, I actually know who the kid is that caused Allen’s career to come tumbling down. He (the boy with the mohawk who caught Allen’s eye) was the victim of a sleepover prank and sported the Mohawk cut to the rally. Anyway – I frankly do not follow politics too much. I think it’s great that more and more Indians are getting actively involved in politics – it’s a huge reflection on the acceptance of our culture in this country. Hubby will probably have more of an opinion on this question than I do  All I can say is – Indian or otherwise – if you are in politics, you’d better live up to the promises you make to get there!

It is outside the protective family cocoon that personalities are really tested. Tell us a little more about this in context of your portrayal of Amit in the book.

I think for most Indian adults of my generation – certainly for a person like Amit – it’s very difficult to defy the wishes of their parents. There is a deeply ingrained deference there that is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Had Amit’s parents been in the USA to rein him in before his addiction got out of hand, he would have definitely not gone down the path he did. As it stood, only Riya was there to try and stop him. He loved her, but the deference was not there. It was easy for him to shrug off her comments by thinking he knew better than she. It was his journey alone to realize the folly of his ways.

I am especially interested in asking you about your experiences in older retired Indians in US. Tell us a little more about what stuck you about them and any interesting anecdotes that come to your mind.

You know, when I came here, hubby’s daadaji used to live with us and my in-laws. He has since passed away, but I still remember how difficult it was to tend to his needs. He was a very active 87-year-old, and used to get bored out of his wits home alone all day (we all worked and/or studied full time). He hated the idea of watching TV all the time, did not drive, and was generally trapped at home till one of us returned. He often used to wander off for walks by himself and lose his way till a neighbor or the cops found him and got him back. We tried to get him to go to a nearby nursing home during the day and spend the day being entertained with seniors there, but he hated it. Language, food (he was a strict vegetarian), the huge cultural gap – it was all wrong for him. Very few families faced the issue back then, but now – now we are soon going to have a whole generation of seniors going through similar experiences. Many of them won’t even have the comfort of sons/daughters by their side.

Our generation is faced with the challenge of determining the future of retired seniors from our Indian community. It’s becoming obvious that we currently have absolutely no infrastructure in place to tend to their future needs. I go back to India almost annually and enjoy the sight of my naaniji going for satsangs, playing cards with her friends, going to the movies, doing yoga in the park, etc. Even while my mamaji and mamiji work, a maid stays with her and tends to her full time. I guess my book reflects some of my dreams/visions of old age here in the States – not just medical needs, but the more important emotional ones.

Kavita, what are your future plans. Do you already have another idea for a book on the anvil or you are too busy promoting your current book?

Writing Saturday Morning Omelettes has been an amazing journey and I would love for nothing more than to experience it again. I would love to write forever, but am sadly not struck with any particular inspiration as of now. Will keep you posted.

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The interview was conducted via email over the past week.

Thank you once again, Kavita for your time. I would like to wish you success in your future endeavors.

Book Review: Saturday Morning Omelettes

12 Dec

The ‘special’ omelets are not tasty though you wouldn’t want to put down the plate until you are done. In her first attempt as a novelist, Delhi born author Kavita Khanna entertainingly, or more appropriately –efficiently, narrates a heartwarming tale about the fortunes of a modern Indian family.

This charmless insipid novel explores the centrality of family in Indian culture by narrating the tale of an Indian couple that immigrates to the US to mitigate the financial strain on their family, successfully battles gambling addiction and returns wiser and closer together to India.

Ms. Khanna does an admirable job in pacing her novel though she does so at the expense of observation. She accepts as much, saying, “When I started writing Saturday Morning Omelettes, I made one conscious decision – to portray the story through dialogue rather than too many essay-style descriptions. I am guilty of tending to skip long wordy descriptions when I come across them in most books and wanted to avoid that in my work.”

A lot of times the novel chugs through the story; we don’t get to bite into the psychology of the characters or languorously appreciate the aroma of the morning omelet. Neither does Ms. Khanna spend time describing the initially humbling experiences that generally dent a recent immigrant’s life. For example, except for describing the damning quiet of the airport and the apartment, she neither spends time noticing the well-tarred roads nor the plush charm of US or problems interacting with Americans. In all, Ms. Khanna’s fails to conjure up the experiences of first-time visitors to the US in a nuanced fashion. The novel lacks the earthiness of a true immigrant tale for it shies from the endless awkwardness to talk superficially about chipped nails and nauseous fumes of Ammonia while cleaning the bathroom for the first time. Ms. Khanna would do well to write more honestly about the challenges of immigrant’s life. More damningly, the story sometimes seems rushed and mishandled.

I can’t help but bemoan the fact that Ms. Khanna fails to deal with issues more substantively. A lot of characters in the book don’t get much attention from the writer and hence come across as standard stereotypes like the struggling black girl and the sensible black grandparent. On multiple occasions, the dramatization in the story seems a touch melodramatic or Bollywood-esque. The ‘scenes’ (and that is how the book seems to be laid out) end abruptly, characters are one-dimensional, the angles explored are clichéd and the language positively empty.

In all a stunted exploration of important issues that is not recommended for anybody over the age of 14. Actually, make it 12.

Updated 12/12/06: “In the case of fiction, I have a particular abhorrence of reviewers who tell readers what book the novelist or short-story writer should have written instead of the one under review. If a reviewer can’t accept an author’s governing premise, or donnee, in Henry James’s famous term, then he or she has no business writing about the book.”
New York Times book editor Sam Tanenhaus in response to a reader’s question. I can’t help but agree that this is what happened to me and this book by Ms. Khanna.

A Small Government: US Federal Budget as Proportion of the Economy

11 Dec

The US federal budget is larger than that of any other country in absolute terms. The US government spends more than $2.3 trillion every year, about $500 billion dollars more than Japan, which has the second largest budget in the world at around $1.7 trillion.

Yet, as a proportion of the economy, the US federal government budget is small. The US federal budget of $2.3 trillion is about one-fifth (.197) of its $12.5 trillion GDP. The average budget-to-GDP ratio in developed countries in Europe is about twice as much. For example, UK’s budget of $951 billion is nearly half of its $2.228 trillion GDP, while France’s budget of $1.144 trillion is a little more than half of its $2.055 trillion GDP. The US budget-to-GDP ratio is closer to the ratios in the developing world. For example, India’s GDP of $720 billion is nearly five times bigger than its budget of about $135 billion. Surprisingly, the US budget-to-GDP ratio also matches the ratio of its left-leaning northern neighbor, Canada.

Petro-economies like Saudi Arabia have budget-to-GDP ratios that fall between those of the developing world and the developed economies in Europe. Petro-economies also fall in the middle in terms of budgetary dollars spent per person. Nigeria, unsurprisingly, is an exception in this regard, with budget numbers far below that of other petro-economies.

In terms of dollars spent per person, United States is far behind developed EU economies. The budgetary allocation per person in the EU is more than double that in the US.

There are two key caveats in interpreting all this. An exclusive focus on the federal budget understates the total government spending for countries with strong federal structures like the US. But the good thing is that federal spending and state and local spending are not inversely proportional in countries with strong federal structures but are strongly correlated. Hence, while relying solely on federal budgetary expenditure does understate the impact, it doesn’t do it by as big a margin as one would expect. Take, for example, the US, whose total budget at the state level is around $600 billion, adding which pushes total government spending to $3 trillion or still about .25 of the GDP.

Secondly, one must look at not only the size of the budget but also where it is spent. For example, the US military budget accounts for a fifth of its net budget by conservative estimates. In sheer numbers, US military budget exceeds the total military spending of the rest of the world, but in terms of its size relative to US GDP, it is a measly 4%.

Developed countries pool:

Country

GDP (in trillions, 2005 estimate, unless mentioned otherwise)

Budgetary Expenditure (in trillions, 2005 est. unless mentioned otherwise)

Proportion of budget/GDP

Population
(millions)
(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per
Person (thousands)

Germany

$2.73

$1.362

.498

82.4

16.529

France

$2.055

$1.144

.556

60.6

18.877

UK

$2.228

$.951

.426

60.4

15.74

Italy

$1.71

$.8615

.503

58.1

14.827

Norway

$246.9 billion

$131.3 billion

.531

4.5

29.177

Switzerland

$367 billion

$143.6 billion

.391

7.48

19.197

Asia Pacific

Japan

$4.664

$1.775

.380

127.4

13.932

Australia

$612.8 billion

$240.2 billion

.391

20.09

11.95

Developed North American economies

USA

$12.49 trillion

$2.466 trillion

.197

295.7

8.3395

Canada

$1.035

$152.6 billion(est. 2004)

.147

33.09

4.611

Developing country pool:

Country

GDP (2005 est.)

Budgetary Expenditure (2005 est.)

Proportion of budget/GDP

Population
(millions)
(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per
Person

India

$720 billion

$135 billion

.1875

1,095

123

Pakistan

$89.55 billion

$20.07 billion

.223

162

124

Indonesia

$270 billion

$57.7 billion

.213

245

235

Brazil

$619.7 billion

$172.4 billion

.278

186

927

China

$2.225 trillion

$424.3 billion

.190

1,306

325

Chile

$115.6 billion

$24.75 billion

.214

16

1546

Petro-economies

Iran

$181.2 billion

$60.4 billion

.333

68

888

Saudi Arabia

$264 billion

$89.65

.339

27

3320

Venezuela

$106.1 billion

$41.27 billion

.388

25.375

1626

Nigeria

$77.33 billion

$13.54 billion

.175

128

105

All figures from CIA World Fact Book which can be accessed at: https://www.cia.gov/redirects/factbookredirect.html

Topgraphy of book sales: What lurks beneath?

3 Dec

A full one-third of books sold worldwide are sold in the US. US is a phenomenally important media market and the success or failure of a book in the US can literally make or break the career of an author.

It is interesting to explore who reads the books, where are they sold, what books are read and the reasons behind these.

Let me start by providing the numbers around book sales in the US. In 2004, Nielsen Bookscan tracked the sales of 1.2 million books in the United States and they found:

  • Of those 1.2 million, 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies.
  • Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
  • Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies.
  • Fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies.
  • Only 10 books sold more than a million copies each.
  • The average book in the United States sells about 500 copies.

*The last point should be interpreted carefully as the average of a skewed distribution is neither an intuitive nor accurate representation. Here, the average of book sales distribution is disproportionately influenced by the few really large numbers. A much more useful statistic would be the median book sales figure, which is unavailable.

The statistics above show that a very small minority of books contribute to majority of book sales in the US. Let me put this in perspective with a separate set of numbers – of the around 120,000 titles that are published each year – only about 500 books (.4%) sell more than 100,000 copies.

This raises the question then that what is it that creates this extremely skewed topography of book consumption in the US (and elsewhere in the world)? A variety of hypothesis have been forwarded by people to explain this phenomenon – some trace it to the relative paucity of quality books (if we for a second don’t bicker over what means by quality – it seems like a reasonable assumption), paucity of works produced by popular authors (now we are faced with the chicken and the egg question – how did the author become popular), the book display patterns of major book vendors (books displayed on show windows of 2 major book chains in US – Borders and Barnes and Noble – are highly correlated to book sales), media coverage of books and authors (so topicality plays a role – controversial topics or authors, celebrity authors etc. will all sell more), topicality (feeds into above point), length of book’s title, complexity of sentence structure etc.

Business of Books

Book business is by varying estimates between $16.6 billion (US Census Bureau) and $26.9 billion (Association of American Publishers- 2002 figures).

Not only are the book sales limited to a few top earners, the book sales are also limited by publishing houses. Andre Schiffrin, former head of Pantheon Books, in “The Business of Books” states that in 1999, the top 20 publishers accounted for 93% of sales. Later in the book, he states that 80% of book sales originate from five media conglomerates.

Media and the medium

Book consumption is mediated by mass-media. The book is today a cultural product whose value is still primarily gauged by elite reviewers though this is changing with the onslaught on online review sites.

For more statistics on the publishing industry, visit: http://bookstatistics.com/

Rational Ignorance: Celebrities or Politics

29 Nov

It is a commonly held belief that people are too busy to be informed about policy issues. The argument certainly seems reasonable given the oft-repeated assertion that people are leading increasingly hectic lives with little time for leisure, except that it doesn’t stand well to scrutiny. Americans, as I corroborate below, have ample leisure time and ample access to informational sources.

An average American child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends about 44.5 hours per week, or six and a half hours daily, consuming media, according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report. More than half of this time is spent in watching television programs, movies, and other videos. The figures are comparable for American adults, who watch more than four hours of television each day or twenty-eight hours each week on average, according to a Nielsen study. Even if we assume that Americans do other tasks, say cook or clean, simultaneously for part of the twenty-eight hours, it is reasonable to conclude that Americans do have a fair amount of leisure time which they spend primarily watching television.

Given that people have ample leisure time and access to information, why do people choose not to be informed about politics? Some researchers have argued that people don’t care about politics because they are rationally disinterested – they don’t feel that they can make a change hence they don’t care to be informed about it. Inarguably fan support is at best peripheral to whether a sports team will either win or lose, then why do people often times posses close to perfect information on the teams (or sport) they follow and argue passionately over the matters related to sports?

Americans are not information averse; they are surprisingly well informed about things they care to know about like celebrity gossip and football. They also spend a fair amount of time and energy collecting, regurgitating and discussing this information. While talking about sports people show a surprising amount of talent for remembering and accurately interpreting statistics. So why is it that Americans are willing to spend time and energy in collecting entertainment and sports while showing little interest in foreign or even domestic policy?

Admittedly policy issues are generally more complex than celebrity news and perhaps people’s interest in entertainment news is driven by the fact that consuming entertainment news is less cognitively demanding. The explanation seems inadequate given people (perhaps mainly men) do keep track of elaborate sports statistics and present well-articulated positions on why a certain team is better than the other. One can perhaps argue that given the general lack of morally divisive issues, people feel more comfortable discussing entertainment news than say abortion. But then certainly there are policy issues that are bereft of morally divisive issues. It seems though that most political information is presented in identity packets rather than ideational packets as in choices are explained and understood as liberal or conservative choices. Choices marked with identity dissuade analysis and reflection, as research has shown, and combined with the chronic lack of factual information on relevant policy topics on American television, there isn’t much hope that people will get to critically think about the problem.

Movie Review: Independent Intervention

21 Nov

General Tommy Franks described the media as the “fourth front” in his (Iraq) war plan, according to Danny Schechter, an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker.
What he meant by that was that winning the “media war” is an important part of winning the war in Iraq. Three years down the line with the US stuck in an ever-worsening situation, we all know what happens when governments win the media war and succumb to their hubris.

Independent Intervention, a documentary by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, is superficially an exploration of how the Iraq war was fought on the “fourth front” in US media. On a deeper level, it is a well crafted expose’ of the effects of media conglomeration on the style, topicality, and quality of news.

Schei begins her documentary with a series of heartrending images from Iraq, images that were never shown on mainstream American media. This initial sequence provides the preface to her documentary- the Iraq war shown on the television screens of Americans was a very different from the one being fought in Iraq. Schei, stuck by the jingoistic, bleached (of the horrors of war), video game like coverage of Iraq war in US mainstream media, explores the reasons behind how and why mainstream American media became a willing partner in government’s propaganda machine helping it wage the war for the hearts and minds of American public. Using footage from the war and interviews with people luminaries like Dr. Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and others, Schei persuasively argues that a majority of what went wrong during media’s coverage of Iraq war can be traced to corporate media ownership.

The documentary does a stupendous job in tracing media’s coverage of Iraq war starting with the pre-war buildup by effectively using some well known statistics, for example about how during the two week period around which Colin Powell gave his speech at UN and during a time when more than half of the people opposed war, and– out of the 393 people who were interviewed on the four major nightly network newscasts – NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS only a meager 3% held antiwar views while a stunning 71% were pro war.

Independent Intervention is simply scintillating when it weaves snippets from local morning news shows to convey a point. It is jarring to see archival news footage of anti-war protests highlighting mundane inconveniences caused by protestors – “simply creating chaos during rush hour” or “protestors shut down the financial district in San Francisco” and sneeringly ignore to give time to explaining why protestors were against the war.

Independent Intervention explores how the merger of showbiz and “news biz” has had a damning impact on the way news is covered. In their effort to attract consumers, news shows have ramped up their production values to match those in entertainment. The ever-shrinking sound bite has limited what can be conveyed intelligibly to the audience and hence all that is complicated is left at the curb. So while reporting on the Iraq war, the ethnic complexities are left out.

Schei though is never is able to purposefully include some information in the documentary. For example, we are informed that five corporations – Vivendi, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, Viacom -own eighty percent of media but yet are left in the dark about how and why it affects media coverage in the way it does. Perhaps the critique is implicit but it is limited to corporate control (economics fudging the news) and not to effects of agglomeration.

Media is an important institution for democracy – a tool through which we understand the world and the world understands us (Goodman). We need to keep the media free and independent for we need good unbiased and uncensored information for a functioning democracy. And lastly and perhaps most importantly, media should never be confused as a tool of war.

Overall, Independent Intervention can be seen as part of the genre of documentaries inspired by Michael Moore – a genre of unabashedly political documentaries with an agenda, but its wider message – that of the need for independent media – would be of interest to both liberals and conservatives.

The DVD of the film is available at http://www.independentintervention.com

What is so Foreign About Foreign Aid?

18 Nov

A khaki-clad Western aid worker is helping unload a truck in a sun-baked dusty barren place surrounded by black (sometimes brown) faces. It could be a scene from any of the countless news clips from the equally countless number of crises that continue to rain down upon obscure parts of the world. The clips are ubiquitous and yet hardly anybody notices the egregious role of the Western aid worker, who ostensibly has flown around from whichever place s/he calls home at a pretty penny to do the readily outsourced job of (un)loading supplies from the truck.

Planners versus “the Searchers”
William Easterly, NYU economics professor and a former research economist at the World Bank, in his book “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, argues that the aid efforts led by the West have failed primarily because their utopian aid plans are based on the assumption that they know what is best for everyone. He argues that the West needs to get away from the model of “Planners”, imposing top-down solutions, and rather adopt the “Searchers” model, that tries to adapt innovations that come from native cultures. That may well be. But it is not clear if that is the primary sin.

Home Aid
Easterly misses the fact that many Western aid programs typically mandate that the recipient country buy provisions (defense armaments to cans of food) from the donor nation. Many times in fact aid is provided in form of products made by donor nation industries. So you can have “2.4 million Kellogg’s pop-tarts” being airdropped in Afghanistan (see Wikipedia which cites the book from which the figure is drawn), while much cheaper staples like rice and lentil are largely ignored.

This better explains why “the West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get 12 cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $4 bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $3 to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths” (White Man’s Burden).

Careerism and Bureaucratization
The rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the NGO industry are partly responsible for the failure of development assistance to the third world, according to Dr. Thomas Dichter, an anthropologist at The University of Chicago and author of “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed.”

Increased bureaucratization has led to a demand for “trained professionals” (air quotes because it isn’t clear what the training is in) to fill the ranks. Paying heed to the rising demand, “entire college programs have sprung up, such as Wayne State University’s Nonprofit Sector Studies Program (NPSS). The NPSS mission states, “The nation’s fastest-growing sector needs administrators, policymakers, program managers, and advocates who will guide them into the future” writes Michael Donnely for Peace Corps Online. One may expect that the rising compensation packages at non-profit organizations would attract better talent, instead, it has largely meant that the organizations are paying more for the same work or/and are led by ever more ambitious dimwits who want to push for ever larger projects at the expense of some little ones that do work.

The NGO-Ivy league Nexus
In the past two decades, an internship at an NGO has become a right of passage for countless Ivy League undergraduates, primarily in social sciences and humanities, interested in pursuing further graduate school education. Experience with a foreign NGO has become the best way for the ambitious ivy educated brats to pad up resumes and impress law and medical school admissions committees of their sociotropic ideals. There is little that these self-absorbed individuals bring to third world countries in terms of talent or ability to help but every year thousands of such students are farmed out to NGOs across the world and there they leech money and time from NGOs to get training to hang their mosquito nets and make their calls to mom and dad and make safari trips and learn the language.

NGO workers — Why do they get paid more?
“Government employees have complained their co-workers employed by some non-governmental organizations are getting high salaries that cause a socio-economic imbalance in the society. The high-paid workers of NGOs have clouded the status and standard of life of the low-paid government employees. Prestigious social status and high income of the NGOs workers have created envies in the poverty-stricken government employees.” South Asian Media Net “Venting her spleen, Torpikai, a government employee, told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday despite 18 years experience she was paid 2,000 afghanis (40$) but her younger and inexperienced neighbor with same qualification was getting double than her salary.” And wages are only part of the issue, real bills pour in from conferences at five-star hotels, and extravagant perks enjoyed by foreign aid employees like the use of SUVs, PDAs, and stays in five-star hotels. The sad fact is that majority of the aid money is actually funneled back to pay for the perks and salary of the Western aid workers.

Lack of accountability
The logic that underpins all NGO wastefulness is lack of accountability, both in tallying funds and actual accomplishments. Washington Post a couple of years reported that employees in non-profits often times take loans from the NGO funds at no or ridiculously low-interest rates. Other ethical violations are also rampant within NGOs. For example, Oxfam, an NGO and a 25% stakeholder of Cafedirect, campaigned vigorously against CafeDirect’s competitors, accusing them of exploiting coffee growers by paying them a small fraction of their earnings.

Food for Thought
Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article that passingly compares aid strategies between the West and China.

“The industrial nations conducted a sort of moral crusade, with advocacy organizations exposing Africa’s dreadful sores and crying shame on the leaders of wealthy nations and those leaders then heroically pledging, at the G8 meeting in July, to raise their development assistance by billions and to open their markets to Africa. Once everyone had gone home, the aid increase turned out to be largely ephemeral and trade reform merely wishful. China, by contrast, offers a pragmatic relationship between equals: the “strategic partnership” promised in China’s African policy is premised on “mutual benefit, reciprocity, and common prosperity.” And the benefits are very tangible.”