Web Outage, Quote Attribution Drama Over Post’s India Story
Update about new correction appended, 6:41 p.m.
A story in today's Washington Post about India's prime minister from India bureau chief Simon Denyer earned a tough correction for using unattributed information from a magazine interview twice, and made the paper's massive tech problem an unlikely hot button issue.
Yesterday, the Post posted Denyer's article, which depicts Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh as a poor administrator who is rapidly injuring his once-successful legacy. According to the Times of India, Singh's government quickly demanded an apology from the paper for, it alleged, not trying to interview Singh or his supporters. The Singh administration soon claimed a partial victory, saying that Denyer had already apologized for the story.
Why would Denyer already apologize for the story? According to Post foreign editor Douglas Jehl and Denyer's Twitter account, Denyer did apologize to the Indian government—but not for his article. He apologized for the Post website being down, which made it impossible for the prime minister's office to respond in the comments section. The prime minister's office, deliberately or not, interpreted that as an apology for the entire article. The Post eventually posted a response from the prime minister and a rebuttal from Denyer once the Web issues were resolved.
So now that's all cleared up, but Denyer's article raises a more serious journalistic issue. A blogger writing at the site Sans Serif noticed that Denyer's story used quotes that are similar to those in a 2011 article about Singh in Indian magazine Caravan.
The most glaring example involves a former media advisor to Singh named Sanjaya Baru, who was also interviewed by Caravan. Here's Baru's quote in Caravan:
"He is facing the worst situation in his life,” said Sanjaya Baru, a business journalist who served as Singh’s media adviser from 2004 to 2008. “In politics, it’s alright to be loved or hated, but you should never be ridiculed. And his problem today is that he has become an object of ridicule.”
And here's the Post's:
In the process, he transformed himself from an object of respect to one of ridicule and endured the worst period in his life, said Sanjaya Baru, Singh’s media adviser during his first term.
The quote and the paraphrase are pretty similar, but people repeat themselves all the time. Baru's case became more interesting, however, after he wrote on Facebook that he never spoke to Denyer for the story, a charge Denyer denied on Twitter. Sometime this afternoon, the Post added a correction to the story saying that it should have credited Caravan:
An earlier version of this article failed to fully attribute remarks made by Sanjaya Baru, a former media adviser. The assertion that Singh had become an object of ridicule and endured the worst period in his life was included in a quotation by Baru published in 2011 by the Indian newspaper the Caravan. While Baru told the Post that the assertion could be accurately attributed to him, the article should have credited the Caravan when it paraphrased Baru’s remarks. It has been updated.
I've asked Jehl and Denyer whether there are any more forthcoming corrections on two other quotes that bloggers have tagged as similar to Caravan's. I'll update with their response.
Update, 6:41 p.m.: Jehl responds that the correction has now been expanded to include a second suspect quote, this time from Indian historian Ramachandra Guha. Here's Guha's quote in Caravan, again via Sans Serif:
The prominent historian Ramachandr Guha, who has described the current administration as “inept and incompetent beyond words”, told me that he now regards Singh “increasingly as a tragic figure”.
“He’s intelligent, upright, and possesses all this vast experience of working in the government for over four decades,” Guha said. “But the timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty will make him a tragic figure in our history.”
“More and more, he has become a tragic figure in our history,” said political historian Ramachandra Guha, describing a man fatally handicapped by his “timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty.”
Here the key phrases in common include "timidity, complacency, and intellectual dishonesty" and "tragic figure." Here's the new correction, with the additions related to Guha in bold:
An earlier version of this article failed to fully attribute two quotations published in 2011 by the Caravan, an Indian magazine. The assertion by Sanjaya Baru, a former media adviser, that Singh had become an object of ridicule and endured the worst period in his life first appeared in the Caravan, as did an assertion by Ramachandra Guha, a political historian, that Singh had been handicapped by his “timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty.’’ While both men told The Post that the assertions could accurately be attributed to them, The Post should have credited the Caravan when it used or paraphrased the remarks. The article has been updated.
Photo of Indian parliament by Shutterstock