Danny Schechter: Moving Images Person of the Year 2008

Moving Images Person of the Year 2008
Danny Schechter: Moving Images Person of the Year 2008

As 2008 – clearly an Annus horribilis for tens of millions around the world – draws to an end, we announce the Moving Images Person of the Year 2008: Danny Schechter.

Nicknamed “The News Dissector,” Danny is a television producer, independent filmmaker, blogger and media critic who writes and lectures frequently about the media in the United States and worldwide.

He has worked in print, radio, local news, cable news (CNN and CNBC), network news magazines (ABC) and as an independent filmmaker and TV producer with the award-winning independent company Globalvision. He is a blogger and editor of Mediachannel.org, a web and blog site that watches and critiques the print and broadcast media.

Another way to introduce Danny is to recall the scary headlines and TV news images that have dominated 2008 – of reputed banks going bust, leading stock markets crashing and these events triggering a global financial meltdown that, for now, has been slowed but not completely averted by unprecedented governmental intervention…by the very governments of the industrialised countries who should have kept a sharper eye on what was going on in their free market economies.

As the carnage on Wall Street and other global financial centres continued, some hard questions were asked: Did anyone see this coming? If so, why weren’t they listened to? What is the real cause of all this chaos? Where was the news media and why weren’t they doing their job of sounding the alarm?

Well, one man who saw it coming and tried very hard to raise the alarm was Danny Schechter. In 2006, as part of this effort, he made a documentary film called In Debt We Trust. In this, he was the first to expose Wall Street’s connection to subprime loans and predicted the global economic crisis.

This hard-hitting documentary investigated why so many Americans – college and high school students in particular – were being strangled by debt. Zeroing in on how the mall has replaced the factory as America’s dominant economic engine, Emmy Award-winning former ABC News and CNN producer Danny Schechter showed how college students were being forced to pay higher interest on loans while graduating, on average, with more than $20,000 in consumer debt.

An inconvenient truth that America ignored for too long...
An inconvenient truth that America ignored for too long...

The film empowers as it enrages, delivering an accessible and fascinating introduction to what former Reagan advisor Kevin Phillips has called “Financialization” — or the “powerful emergence of a debt-and-credit industrial complex.”

Danny and his film have done for global financial meltdown what Al Gore did for global warming with his own film: investigate rigorously, gather and present the evidence of a gathering storm, sound the alarm — and keep badgering until the warnings were heard. In both cases, the inconvenient truths they presented were ignored for too long — and we are paying the massive price for such indifference.

Watch the Trailer of In Debt We Trust:

Deborah Emin, writing in OpEdNews in October 2008, noted: “In Debt We Trust…brought Schechter a lot of grief. Rather than being seen as a prophet of doom, which in and of itself was not so terrible, he should have been lauded for sounding the alarm when it would have been in time. It is truly an amazing fact of American life that the powers that be can so disastrously determine what information we are able to see based on their subjective judgment of what is too negative or too harsh a view of a specific topic. From this perspective, we should judge all these gatekeepers as those on the Titanic who did not want to alarm the passengers that the ship was going down.”

Watch an extract from In Debt We Trust: How did we get into this mess?

Watch In Debt We Trust in full on Google Video

So here’s the trillion-dollar question: if this film was made in 2006, and has since been running to packed houses scaring a lot of thinking and caring people, why was its message not heard in the corridors of power in Washington DC — and elsewhere in the G8 countries’ capitals?

The short answer could be that there have been no thinking and caring people running the American government for the past eight years.

Read all about it!
Read all about it!
The long answer is found in a book that Danny published in mid 2008. Titled Plunder: Investigating Our Economic Calamity and the Subprime Scandal, it’s an outgrowth of – and update on – his 2006 film. It documents with shocking evidence how debt has restructured the American economy and put Americans under a burden that many will never overcome.

Plunder also offers an analysis based on current events, going behind the scenes, identifying the key players and culprits, challenging the financial industry, government deregulation — and the financial and most sections of the mainstream media who have been cheer-leading the financiers as the latter took ever larger risks. Danny also argues that this has been a criminal enterprise — a point only touched on in most media coverage — and of global significance, given the globalization of markets.

Read my Sep 2008 blog post: Financial Meltdown: Putting pieces together of a gigantic whodunnit

On a personal note, I have been a great admirer of Danny Schechter and his work since I first met him 13 years ago. In the Fall of 1995, he gave an inspiring and provocative talk to a group of journalists and producers from the developing world who were on a UN-organised media fellowship in New York. As part of our tour of media and development agencies in the US East Coast, we visited Danny’s GlobalVision productions.

Danny introduced himself as a ‘network refugee’ — one who had worked for the mainstream network television in the US and had left in disgust. From outside, he was trying to find alternative ways of speaking truth to power — the original mandate of the mass media which many corporatised media companies had abandoned, knowingly or otherwise.

In that pre-Internet era, Danny engaged in his media activism through independent filmmaking, through which he supported and often participated in struggles for social justice in his native United States as well as in places like apartheid-ridden South Africa and strife-torn Palestine.

Danny was one of the early media activists to take advantage of the web. In 2000, he co-founded with Rory O’Connor MediaChannel.org, the first media and democracy supersite on web. Operating on shoe-string budgets, it has sustained critical spotlight on the mainstream media (MSM) for 8 years in which the MSM landscape has been completely transformed. While its scrutiny and chronicling of the political economy of the media is more crucial than ever, and veterans like Walter Cronkite whole-heartedly endorse the effort, the non-profit effort struggles for survival.

Now in his 60s, Danny is simply indefatigable. Besides running MediaChannel and GlobalVision, he blogs every few hours, writes a regular column on Huffington Post, lectures on media, writes books and still has time to make investigative films. He is extremely well informed, witty, funny and completely irreverent. He writes and speaks with justified outrage but no malice. That’s a tough balance to maintain.

Danny visits Wall Street on 20 September 2007 – typical of his funny, incisive reporting:

I was delighted to catch up with Danny in May 2008 when we both participated in Asia Media Summit in Kuala Lumpur. He and I were in a small minority of participants who were familiar with the inner works of the mainstream media and transformational potential of the new media. In characteristic style, Danny stirred things up, livening the usually staid proceedings, and I did my best to back him up from the audience. We both enjoyed asking irritating – if not outright annoying – questions from the 400+ media mandarins and press barons who’d come together for the Summit.

One evening, Danny and I had a drink with Malaysiakini’s CEO and leading new media activist Prem Chandran where we talked about the slow but inevitable decline of the mainstream media dinosaurs — or what Michael Crichton called Mediasaurus. The trouble with mediasaurus, we agreed, was that they are taking a long time going extinct and for now, they still command significant numbers of eyeballs and the dollars that follow.

After Prem left, Danny and I continued our chat into the evening. Over a spicy Indian meal, Danny gave me a crash course on subprime crisis (or sub-crime as he calls it) and how that was going to have a domino effect on markets everywhere. I listened with growing comprehension — and deep admiration for the man’s ability to communicate complexities without oversimplification.

Events in the weeks and months that followed have shown how remarkably prescient Danny Schechter was. And what a monumental, global scale mistake it was not to have heeded this man’s cautions in his blogs, films, columns and elsewhere.

We end 2008 with my cartoon of the year. As I said in a blog post in September 2008: “This cartoon by Pulitzer prize winning Tom Toles first appeared in the Washington Post in 2007 – it brilliantly anticipated the global financial meltdown that we’re now experiencing. Coming in the wake of confirmed global warming, it is a double whammy.

Meltdown 2
Meltdown 2

Remembering the Children of Tsunami, four years later…

Jantakarn Thep-Chuay, known as Beam
Jantakarn Thep-Chuay, known as Beam

For many weeks, Jantakarn Thep-Chuay — nicknamed Beam -– did not understand why her father was not coming home. The eight-year-old girl, in Takuapa in Thailand’s southern district of Phang Nga, had last seen him go to work on the morning of 26 December 2004.

“On that Sunday, the day there was a wave, my dad wore his tennis shoes,” she recalls as she gets into his pair of sandals. “My dad didn’t have to do much work — he just walked around looking after workers.”

Beam’s father Sukaroak –- a construction supervisor at a new beach resort in Khao Lak –- was one of thousands of Thais and foreign tourists killed when the Asian Tsunami hit without warning. His body was never found.

For months, Beam would draw pictures of her family. These, and family photos of happier times, helped her to slowly come to terms with what happened.

The first year was long and hard for the family Sukaroak left behind: Beam, her two-year-old brother Boom, and mother Sumontha, 28. The determined young widow struggled to keep home fires burning -– and to keep her troublesome in-laws at bay.

As if that were not enough, she also had to engage assorted bureaucracies: even obtaining an official death certificate for her late husband entailed much effort.

Just a few weeks after the disaster, the local authorities approached Sumontha suggesting that she gives away one or both her children for adoption. Apparently a foreigner was interested. She said a firm ‘No’.

“Her dad wanted Beam to become an architect. He was hoping for a day when he could build something she draws,” says Sumontha. “If I am still alive, I want to raise my own children. I am their mother. For better or worse, I want to raise them myself.”

The Tsunami destroyed Beam’s school, but she continued to attend a temporary school set up with local and foreign help. Before the year ended, she moved to a brand new ‘Tsunami School’ that the King of Thailand built to guarantee education for all children affected by the disaster.

Sumontha, Beam and Boom are three ordinary Asians who have shown extraordinary courage, resilience and resourcefulness as they coped with multiple challenges of rebuilding their lives after the Tsunami. Theirs is one of eight families that we followed throughout 2005, under our empathetic communication initiative called Children of Tsunami: Rebuilding the Future.

It was a multi-country, multi-media project that tracked how ordinary Asians rebuilt their lives, livelihoods and futures after one of the biggest disasters in recent years. We at TVE Asia Pacific documented on TV, video and web the personal recovery stories of eight affected families in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand for a year after the disaster. Our many media products — distributed on broadcast, narrowcast and online platforms -– inspired wide ranging public discussion on disaster relief, recovery and rehabilitation. In that process, we were also able to demonstrate that a more engaged, respectful kind of journalism was possible when covering post-disaster situations.

where Children of Tsunami stories were filmed for much of 2005
Four countries, eight locations: where Children of Tsunami stories were filmed for much of 2005

Meet the Children of Tsunami

They have never met each other. Yet they were united first in grief, then in survival. Five girls and three boys, between 8 to 16 years of age, living in eight coastal locations in four countries. Their families were impacted by the Asian Tsunami in different ways. Some lost one or both parents -– or other family members. Some had their homes or schools destroyed. Others found their parents thrown out of a job. During the year, these families faced many hardships and challenges in rebuilding their futures.

These remarkable children were our personal heroes for 2005:
Selvam, 13, Muzhukkuthurai, Tamil Nadu state, India
Mala, 11, Kottaikkadu, Tamil Nadu state, India
Putri, 8, Lampaya, Aceh province, Indonesia
Yenni, 15, Meulaboh, Aceh province, Indonesia
Heshani, 13, Suduwella, southern Sri Lanka
Theeban, 14, Karaitivu, eastern Sri Lanka
Bao, 16, Kuraburi, Phang Nga district, Thailand
Beam, 8, Takuapa, Phang Nga district, Thailand

With their trust and cooperation, we captured their unfolding realities unscripted and unprompted.

Read and experience much more on the Children of Tsunami dedicated website

Filming with Theeban in eastern Sri Lanka...now only a memory
Filming with Theeban in eastern Sri Lanka...now only a memory

As I recalled in early 2007, when we tragically lost one of eight survivor children – Theeban – to Sri Lanka’s civil war: As journalists, we have been trained not to get too attached to the people or subjects we cover, lest they affect our judgment and dilute our objectivity. The four production teams involved in Children of Tsunami initially agreed to follow this norm when we met in Bangkok in early 2005 for our first (and only) planning meeting. We also resolved not to reward our participating families in cash or kind, as they were all participating voluntarily with informed consent.

“But the ground reality was different. 2005, Asia’s longest year, wore on. As survivors slowly patched their lives together again, our film teams found themselves becoming friends of families or playing Good Samaritan. Sometimes our teams would find a survivor family close to starvation and — acting purely as human beings, not journalists — they would buy dry rations or a cooked meal. At other times, finding the children restless or aimless, they would buy them a football, kite or some other inexpensive toy that would produce hours of joy and cheer.

“As commissioners and publishers of Children of Tsunami stories, we didn’t object to these acts of kindness. Journalism with empathy was far preferable to the cold detachment that textbooks recommend.

In 2007, my colleague Manori Wijesekera – who served as production manager of this challenging effort – and I wrote up our definitive account of the project for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book. That chapter can be read online here.

Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues
(25mins) was the end-of-year film that captured the highlights and ‘lowlights’ of our families’ first year following the disaster. It can be viewed online at the Children of Tsunami website.

Children of Tsunami: No More Tears (25 mins) was the shorter version of the end-of-year film that captured the highlights and ‘lowlights’ of our families’ first year following the disaster. We co-produced it with the Singapore-based regional broadcaster Channel News Asia.

Watch the first few minutes on YouTube:

All images courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Early Warning for Planet Earth: How to avoid mother of all Tsunamis!

Next tsunami could begin with this...
Next tsunami could begin with this...

Today marks the 4th anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004.

The tsunami was triggered by a massive quake that erupted off the coast of Sumatra, and 6 miles deep under the Indian Ocean’s seabed. The estimated 9.1 to 9.3 magnitude earthquake was the strongest in 40 years and the fourth largest in a century. The U.S. Geological Survey later estimated that the amount of energy released was equivalent to the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

Despite a lag of up to several hours between the earthquake and the impact of the tsunami, nearly all affected people were taken completely by surprise. There were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean to detect tsunamis or to warn those living on the Indian Ocean rim areas. This cost the lives of over 225,000 people in 11 countries — many of who could have lived if only they had a timely warning to rush inland.

In the past four years, there have been various efforts to set up such early warning systems – as well as effective ways to deliver credible warnings to large numbers of people quickly. These are meant to provide 24/7 coverage to Indian Ocean countries in the same way the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre has been covering Pacific Ocean countries for many years.

All this is necessary – but not sufficient – to guard ourselves against future tsunamis. For it’s not just earthquakes undersea that can trigger tsunamis. An asteroid impact could trigger the mother of all tsunamis that can impact coastal areas all over the planet.

An asteroid that struck the Earth 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs and 70 per cent of the species then living on the planet. The destruction of the Tunguska region of Siberia in June 1908 – whose centenary was marked this year – is known to have been caused by the impact of a large extraterrestrial object.

Space artist David Hardy's vision...
Space artist David Hardy's vision...
When discussing the possible consequences of asteroid impacts on Earth, more attention has been given to the destruction it can cause by such a falling piece of the sky hitting inhabited areas of land. Some people seem to be comforted by the fact that two thirds of the planet’s surface is ocean — thus increasing changes that an impact would likely happen at sea.

In fact, we should worry more. Duncan Steel, an authority on the subject, has done some terrifying calculations. He took a modest sized space rock, 200 metres in diameter, colliding with Earth at a typical speed of 19 kilometres per second. As it is brought to a halt, it releases kinetic energy in an explosion equal to 600 megatons of TNT — 10 times the yield of the most powerful nuclear weapon tested (underground). Even though only about 10 per cent of this energy would be transferred to the tsunami, such waves will carry this massive energy over long distances to coasts far away. They can therefore cause much more diffused destruction than would have resulted from a land impact. In the latter, the interaction between the blast wave and the irregularities of the ground (hills, buildings, trees) limits the area damaged. On the ocean, the wave propagates until it runs into land.

Scientists have been talking about asteroid impact danger for decades. Arthur C Clarke suggested – in his 1973 science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama – that as soon as the technology permitted, we should set up powerful radar and optical search systems to detect Earth-threatening objects. The name he suggested was Spaceguard, which, together with Spacewatch, has now been widely accepted.

In November 2008, a group of the world’s leading scientists urged the United Nations to establish an international network to search the skies for asteroids on a collision course with Earth. The spaceguard system would also be responsible for deploying spacecraft that could destroy or deflect incoming objects.

The group – which includes the Royal Society president Sir Martin Rees and environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell – said that the UN needed to act as a matter of urgency. Although an asteroid collision with the planet is a relatively remote risk, the consequences of a strike would be devastating.

Not if, but when...
Not if, but when...
The International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation, chaired by former American astronaut Russell Schweickart, urged: “The international community must begin work now on forging three impact prevention elements – warning, deflection technology and a decision-making process – into an effective defence against a future collision.”

Read more media coverage and commentary at:
The Guardian, 7 Dec 2008: UN is told that Earth needs an asteroid shield
World Changing, 10 Dec 2008: Giant asteroids and international security

This is exactly the message in an excellent documentary called Planetary Defence made by Canadian filmmaker M Moidel, who runs the Space Viz production company. Over the past many months, the film has been screened at the United Nations, on various TV channels and at high level meetings of people who share this concern.

Its main thrust: Scientists and the military have only recently awakened to the notion that asteroid impacts with Earth do happen. Planetary Defense meets with both the scientific and military communities to study our options to mitigate an impact. It makes the pivotal point: “Civilization is ill prepared for the inevitable. It’s not if an impact will happen with the Earth, it’s when!”

In such an event, the film asks, who will save Earth? The 48 minute documentary explores the efforts underway to detect and mitigate an impact with Earth from asteroids and comets, collectively known as NEO’s (Near Earth Objects).

Watch the trailer of Planetary Defence on YouTube:

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Director, American Museum of Natural History, in New York, says: “Planetary Defense, the film, is a documentary that explores how ill-prepared we are to prevent our own extinction from asteroid and comet impacts. Filmmaker M Moidel interviewed all the right people, asked them all the right questions, and leaves the viewer scared for our future, but empowered to do something about it.”

Read more about the film at Space Viz Productions website

Although we have never met, I have been in email contact with M Moidel for several years. I know how deeply committed he is to each of his documentary projects. Working on incredibly tight budgets and performing multiple tasks on his own, this brilliant Canadian has made some eminently accessible, timely and captivating documentaries on ‘big picture’ topics such as the search for intelligent life in the universe, the future of space exploration and, of course, coping with asteroid impacts.

Sir Arthur C Clarke, interviewed on some of Moidel’s films, including Planetary Defence, has highly commended his efforts.

Sir Arthur, whose Sri Lankan diving school was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, wrote a few days after the disaster:

“Contrary to popular belief, we science fiction writers don’t predict the future — we try to prevent undesirable futures. In the wake of the Asian tsunami, scientists and governments are scrambling to set up systems to monitor and warn us of future hazards from the sea.

“Let’s keep an eye on the skies even as we worry about the next hazard from the depths of the sea.”

From Trincomalee to Mars: The fascinating journey of Percy B Molesworth

Percy B Molesworth
Percy B Molesworth
It was Sir Arthur C Clarke who first told me, nearly a quarter of a century ago, about a forgotten Ceylonese astronomer who has a Martian crater named after him. His name was Percy Molesworth, and I was fascinated by the story of this man who lived and died in a world so different from ours…and the trails he blazed.

Christmas Day 2008 marks the hundredth death anniversary of this remarkable man who pioneered astronomical observations in colonial Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Most people in the land of his birth have never heard of him, and therein hangs a sad tale of how the country neglects its intellectual and scientific heritage.

By profession, Percy Braybrooke Molesworth (1867 – 1908) was a major in corps of Royal Engineers, but he is better remembered as one of the world’s leading amateur astronomers at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. From his personal observatory in Trincomalee, on Ceylon’s east coast, Molesworth both observed the night sky and photographed celestial bodies, the results of which he shared with leading astronomical groups in the west. Armed only with a basic telescope, a sharp eye and good drawing skills, he made significant contributions to advancing our knowledge of the heavens at the time.

To revive memories and introduce Molesworth to a new generation a century after his death, I have just written an article in The Sunday Times newspaper, Colombo, which prints it today.

Read the published version of my article: Immortalised on Mars, but hardly known in land of birth

Read full length article, with additional illustrations, on Thilina’s Cafe, the blog of young Sri Lankan astronomer Thilina Heenatigala, a modern-day follower of Molesworth’s steps

In these articles, I weave together material gleaned from a dozen different sources, including obituaries of Molesworth published by the British Astronomical Association (BAA) and Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), and later papers and reviews of the formidable body of work that Molesworth left behind after a short but highly productive life of 41 years.

Sir Arthur Clarke, sitting next to the historic telescope, shows a photo of Crater Molesworth
Sir Arthur Clarke, sitting next to the historic telescope, shows a photo of Crater Molesworth
One of my principal sources is Sir Arthur C Clarke, another astronomically-inclined Englishman who was to settle down in Ceylon decades later, and with whom I worked for over 20 years as a research assistant. Molesworth combined in him several elements that resonated with Sir Arthur -– Ceylon, Trincomalee, night sky observations and Mars. In the years that followed my introduction to Molesworth, Sir Arthur allowed me unrestricted access to his library and archives where I read more about Molesworth, principally from BAA and RAS journals and newsletters.

I also had the privilege of associating the late Herschel Gunawardena, who co-founded the Ceylon Astronomical Association (CAA) with Arthur Clarke in 1959, and served as its first secretary and later president. Herschel told me details of his personal quest for Molesworth, which he had chronicled in an article he wrote in the CAA journal, Equatorial, in 1971.

Others who gave me information or insights into this story include the late Dr V K Samaranayake, who played a part in restoring the telescope in the 1960s, and Fr Dr Mervyn Fernando, a keen amateur astronomer who continues to promote the subject in the local languages through the Subodhi Astronomy and Space Study Centre.

Crater Molesworth
Crater Molesworth
My own connection with Molesworth happened over 20 years ago. In early 1988, while Sri Lanka was engulfed in a brutal southern insurgency, vandals looted the Colombo University dome – by then housing the Molesworth telescope – and removed several parts purely for their metallic value. I covered that incident as a young science journalist working for The Island newspaper, and later wrote a feature article titled ‘The death of an observatory’ (published on 26 March 1988).

Given the political turmoil at the time, it barely made any ripples. I still remember being ridiculed by some for reviving the memory of a long dead man at a time when hundreds of innocent, non-combatant lives were being lost every week due to extra-judicial killings.

Indeed, for much of the past 30 years, Trincomalee has been affected by Sri Lanka’s long-drawn civil war in the country’s north and east. I had planned to visit Trincomalee this year to personally find out the current status of the Molesworth bungalow and tombstone. But that didn’t happen due to the pressure of work and other distractions. I might well do that in 2009, now designated the International Year of Astronomy.

Naming celestial objects is a serious business, carried out by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) through a careful process. There are hundreds of thousands of craters on Mars, but only some of them have names. The Wikipedia has a list of Martian craters which are by convention named after famous scientists and science fiction authors, or if less than 60 km in diameter, after towns on Earth.

Iodised Salt: How to make the world smarter, faster?

A miracle powder?
A miracle substance to get smarter?
One of the earliest video films I helped distribute at TVE Asia Pacific, soon after it was set up in 1996, was called Ending Hidden Hunger.

This 20 minute film, made in 1992 by Bedford Films of UK and narrated by Sir Peter Ustinov, described how the UN children’s agency UNICEF was working toward eliminating micronutrient deficiencies from iron, vitamin A and iodine in different parts of the developing world. Examples are taken from Africa and Asia to both illustrate the extent of the problem as well as steps being taken to reduce these deficiencies that cause mass-scale disability and death.

The main premise of the film was simple: those lacking micro-nutrients in their regular diet often don’t show immediate signs of starvation. This deprivation builds up over time and causes slow – sometimes irreparable – damage.

Nicholas Kristof
Nicholas Kristof
I was reminded of this film — and its still very relevant message — when reading an excellent essay by Nicholas Kristof in International Herald Tribune a few days ago. He is a columnist for the New York Times who travels the world reporting from the various frontlines of survival and struggle.

In Raising the World’s I.Q., dispatched from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Kristof was talking about ‘a miracle substance that is cheap and actually makes people smarter’: iodised salt.

Here’s the context, as he put it:

“Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.

“When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.”

In nearly all countries, the best strategy to control iodine deficiency is iodisation of salt — one of the most cost-effective ways to contribute to economic and social development. Especially in these hard times, development professionals are looking for smart ways to get the biggest bang for their limited (and still shrinking) bucks. Investing in micronutrients – such as iodine – can provide some of the biggest bangs possible.

UNICEF Report 2008
UNICEF Report 2008
In June 2008, UNICEF published Sustainable elimination of iodine deficiency, a new report on progress since 1990 when the world’s governments set the target to eliminate iodine-deficiency disorders worldwide.

In October 2008, The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, published a report that noted: “Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of preventable mental impairment worldwide.”

The medical, public health and development communities have known and talked about iodine and other micronutrients for over 30 years. Significant progress has been made – for example, UNICEF says by 2006, more than 120 countries were implementing salt iodisation programmes, and 34 countries had managed to get rid of iodine deficiency among their people through this smart strategy.

But there still are major gaps — which continue to cause preventable damage to tens of millions of people including children.

Nicholas Kristof navigates through the heavy, jargon-ridden developmentspeak and churns out an eminently readable, accessible piece. It’s written in first person narrative from a part of the world where illiteracy, superstition – and their erstwhile companion, religious fanaticism – are trying to prevent people at risk from using iodised salt. This is science writing at its finest: anecdotal, personalised and purposeful.

And he’s absolutely right when he says iodised salt lacks glamour, doesn’t have too many stars or starlets singing its praise and (almost) no one writing about it despite its potential to improve lives for so many people.

I should know: one of the earliest topics I tackled as a young science reporter – getting started in the late 1980s – was salt iodisation. I struggled to put together a readable, engaging piece — which I then had to push through jaded editors who wondered what all this fuss was about.

I have only one (minor) bone to pick with Kristof. He pokes fun at Canada for hosting and supporting the Micronutrient Initiative, “an independent, not-for-profit organization committed to promoting simple cost-effective solutions for hidden hunger and developing innovative new solutions where needed.”

He calls Canada “earnest and dull, just like micronutrients themselves”. It’s a personal view – perhaps expressed with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Having travelled a fair amount in North America, and having good friends in both countries, I think that the nation north of the US-Canada border is a tad more civilised, certainly more caring and better engaged with the rest of the world.

But then, that too is a personal view. I’m darn lucky that I get enough iodine in my diet so that I can think for myself, keep asking lots of annoying questions…and occasionally even get some answers right.

Two billion people – almost a third of humanity – aren’t so lucky.

Read Raising the world’s I.Q. by Nicholas Kristof

Salt iodisation is not universally hailed. Read an alternative point of view that appeared in India’s Frontline magazine in 2006: Imposing iodine

Remembering Arthur C Clarke, the public intellectual

Cartoon by W R Wijesoma in The Observer (Sri Lanka)
Space prophet mobbed by anxious politicians: Cartoon by W R Wijesoma in The Observer (Sri Lanka)

This cartoon is nearly as old as myself! It was drawn by Sri Lanka’s leading political cartoonist W R Wijesoma and appeared in The Observer newspaper of Colombo sometime in the late 1960s (I haven’t been able to ascertain the exact date).

It shows science fiction writer (later Sir) Arthur C Clarke, already settled down in Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) and ‘Serendipitised’ enough to sport the native attire of sarong, being mobbed by the island’s leading politicians — all of them now departed — each wanting to know what he can foresee or foretell about their personal political futures.

Sir Arthur, whose 91st birth anniversary falls today, took pains to explain that science fiction writers like himself were not soothsayers with powers to predict the future. He was fond of quoting fellow SF writer Ray Bradbury’s famous saying: “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.”

But that kind of reason never deterred politicians of every colour and hue, who are always anxious to know just when they can get elected – or return – to high office and all the trappings of power that go with it.

To mark the birth anniversary – the first since his death in March 2008 – I have just published an op ed essay, titled Sir Arthur C Clarke: A life-long public intellectual, on Groundviews website. In this essay I explore, briefly, some of his life-long pursuits for more rational discussion and debate in public policy. I also wonder how and why he lost his struggle against Sri Lankans’ obsession with astrology.

Here’s an excerpt:

But even half a century of Arthur C Clarke could not shake Sri Lankans off their deep obsession with astrology — the unscientific belief that human destinies are somehow shaped and controlled by celestial bodies millions of kilometres away. A life-long astronomy enthusiast, he repeatedly invited astrologers to rationally explain the basis of their calculations and predictions. This challenge was craftily avoided by astrologers who continue to exercise much influence over politics, public policy, business and everyday life in Sri Lanka.

Despite his broad-mindedness, Clarke couldn’t understand how so many highly educated Sri Lankans practised astrology with a faith bordering on the religious (another topic on which he held strong views). Ironically, even the government-run technical institute named after him used astrologically chosen ‘auspicious times’ for commissioning its new buildings. In later years, Clarke would only say, jokingly: “I don’t believe in astrology; but then, I’m a Sagittarius — and we’re very sceptical.”

On a personal note, I’m truly privileged to have known and worked with both Sir Arthur Clarke and his cartoonist W R Wijesoma (who was my senior colleague at The Island newspaper which he joined at its inception in 1981). I know how much Sir Arthur liked this cartoon, the original of which he obtained from Wijesoma and preserved among dozens of other souvenirs and mementos.

Alas, Wijesoma left us in January 2006 — or he might just have drawn another brilliant cartoon to send off Sir Arthur on his final journey. In fact, a worthy follower of Wijesoma’s cartoon tradition did just that earlier this year – see this blog post of mine from March 2008: Arthur C Clarke autographing all the way to the Great Beyond….?

Read the full essay on Groundviews citizen journalism website.

Climate Neros: Films chained, unchained…


“Twenty centuries ago, Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Today, some media companies are squabbling over copyrights while the planet is warming.”

These words, which I first uttered during an Asian workshop on moving images and changing climate in Tokyo in early October 2008, have resonated with many journalists, producers and activists concerned about climate change.

The latest outlet to carry my views is Down to Earth, the fortnightly magazine on science and environment published from New Delhi, India. They have included a condensed version of my remarks in their issue for 15 December 2008, under the heading: Films chained, unchained

It’s part of a special issue to mark the 14th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the fourth meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, being held in the Polish city of Poznan from 1 to 12 December 2008.

In fact, Down to Earth editor Pradip Saha was part of our Tokyo workshop which called for climate change to be recognised as a copyright free zone.

When Down to Earth editors first mooted the idea of carrying my views, they suggested a catchy headline: Climate’s Niros. I rather liked that…but that didn’t survive their copyediting. Ah, well…

Last chance for Kyoto Protocol? Courtesy Down to Earth
Last chance for Kyoto Protocol?
In its preamble to the special climate change issue, Down to Earth editors say:
“Eleven years after the Kyoto Protocol was signed — only to be consigned to irrelevance over the subsequent decade — nations are meeting in Poland to negotiate post-2012 action.

“The realities of climate change are clearer than ever, and the cost of action is mounting. Rich countries, historically responsible for climate change, are proposing new mechanisms to share the burden. Leading developing countries such as India and China need to negotiate hard as well and make a big push for renewables…” Read full story

On 5 November 2008, SciDev.Net published my op ed essay:
Planet before profit for climate films

On 7 November 2008, Asia Media Forum published a longer version of this essay:
Climate Change or (c)limate (c)hange: Guarding copyrights on a warming planet

These have been linked to, or commented upon, by various blogs and websites. Interestingly, the big time TV/video production companies and broadcasters have been keeping quiet in this debate.

Perhaps they are too busy counting their money accruing from license fees?

Mumbai siege revisited: Live television, terrorvision or mass hysteria?

Courtesy Daylife.com
Courtesy Daylife.com

“The attack on Mumbai by ten highly trained gunmen on the night of Wednesday, November 26, and the drama that followed over the next 60 hours, was physically confined to one corner of a very big city. But it extended its ambit to the rest of the city, the country and the world because of the non-stop media coverage.

“For two days and three nights, television channels gave blanket coverage to the drama around the siege of two hotels, the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, and the Oberoi and Trident Hotels, as well as Nariman House in Colaba, a synagogue and centre for a Jewish sect. And the entire country watched in horror and fascination.”

This is how my friend Kalpana Sharma, one of the most respected journalists in India, looks back at the momentous events that took place in her home city of Mumbai from 26 to 30 November 2008. In a thought-provoking analysis published on Tehelka.com, Kalpana assesses 60 hours of continuous media coverage of the Mumbai crisis and notes the significant gaps.

As Mumbai and India recover from the daring attack, the media continue to play the dramatic images over and over. I was in Hyderabad, in southern India (more than 700 km away from Mumbai) for a few days from November 30 and saw this first hand – especially on India’s several dozen 24/7 TV news channels in English and many local languages. Even before arriving in India, I was following the unfolding events on India’s leading English news channel NDTV 24/7 and their website.

Kalpana Sharma
Kalpana Sharma
I could see that the high adrenaline that every channel and reporter drew on during the 60 hours of drama has now changed into a mix of patriotism, jingoism and an incredible suspension of journalistic ethics and norms. This makes Kalpana’s reflections extremely timely and important.

She is not an armchair critic of the media, and understands the tough challenges that reporters and their gatekeepers face on a daily basis. “When such developments hit a city, it is understandable that there is a time lag before the media, particularly the electronic media, can react,” she acknowledges in her essay, and asks: “The electronic media, in particular, has to ask whether at a time when they were the only source of information for most of the city, and indeed the country, there should have been some restraint placed on information given out.”

I have met some professors of mass communication who have never been inside a news room and well-meaning media activists whose naive idealism makes me laugh. Kalpana, in contrast, counts over three decades of mainstream media experience and retired last year as Deputy Editor of The Hindu newspaper.

Read Kalpana’s full essay here: Unpacking The Pixel

Breaking News 24/7?
Breaking News 24/7?

Others inside and outside India are also offering critical analysis of media’s role in the siege of Mumbai, or India’s 26/11 as it’s being called. One is by Anjali Deshpande and S K Pande of the Delhi Union of Journalists who have written an interesting commentary in the South Asian mediawatch website, The Hoot.

They acknowledge how “24×7 reporting of terror has indeed been has also been a traumatic experience for our colleagues” and go on to say that “Some of them really did a good job under the circumstances”. But their piece is are less charitable than Kalpana when they say: “If there is one thing the electronic media helped in particular to do in the last three days was to bolster the confidence of terrorists and to give them a sense of achievement far greater than their action may have provided them.”

They note: “The initial role of some of the media was to grab the eyeballs rather than ask questions and reflect all facets of life as they unfold without adding to the tension strife and trauma in such situations. In some cases the ethics evolved over the years was thrown into the dustbin. Add to it all the fact, that when some restraint began more than a touch of jingoism took over.”

They add: “The media behaved as if the country was so terrified it came to a standstill. As if Madhya Pradesh did not go to polls, as if Delhi did not vote, as if a former Prime Minister, V P Singh did not pass away, as if nothing else happened in the country.”

Read the full essay in The Hoot: Three Days of Mumbai terror reporting.

There are dozens of other debates underway in the passionately argumentative Indian society, some of which are being conducted in the newspapers, news magazines, on the air and online. One that especially interested me was the role elitism played in how the media covered the siege of Mumbai.

The attacks took place at multiple locations in the heart of Mumbai, which included two leading hotels, a synagogue and Jewish centre and the main train station. But not all attacks lasted as long, and certainly not all of them received equal coverage.

Gnani Sankaran, a writer based in Tamil Nadu, southern India, asks some pertinent questions in a blog post titled Hotel Taj: Icon of whose India? “Watching at least four English news channels surfing from one another during the last 60 hours of terror strike made me feel a terror of another kind. The terror of assaulting one’s mind and sensitivity with cameras, sound bites and non-stop blabbers. All these channels have been trying to manufacture my consent for a big lie called — Hotel Taj the icon of India.

He adds: “It is a matter of great shame that these channels simply did not bother about the other icon that faced the first attack from terrorists – the Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station. CST is the true icon of Mumbai. It is through this railway station hundreds of Indians from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Tamilnadu have poured into Mumbai over the years, transforming themselves into Mumbaikars and built the Mumbai of today along with the Marathis and Kolis

Chatrapathi Shivaji (Victoria) Terminus - the true icon of Mumbai
Chatrapathi Shivaji (Victoria) Terminus - the true icon of Mumbai

“But the channels would not recognise this. Nor would they recognise the thirty odd dead bodies strewn all over the platform of CST. No Barkha Dutt went there to tell us who they were. But she was at Taj to show us the damaged furniture and reception lobby braving the guards. And the TV cameras did not go to the government-run JJ hospital to find out who those 26 unidentified bodies were. Instead they were again invading the battered Taj to try in vain for a scoop shot of the dead bodies of the Page 3 celebrities.

Gnani Sankaran
Gnani Sankaran
“In all probability, the unidentified bodies could be those of workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh migrating to Mumbai, arriving by train at CST without cell phones and PAN cards to identify them. Even after 60 hours after the CST massacre, no channel has bothered to cover in detail what transpired there.”

Read his full blog post: Whose India, whose icon?

Another interesting critique that touched on elitism in media coverage appeared in The Telegraph newspaper, published from Kolkata on 4 December 2008. Titled “WE, THE PEOPLE: The Mumbai tragedy and the English language news media”, it was penned by Indian writer Mukul Kesavan.

He echoes the same point as Gnani Sankaran about the Victoria Terminus being much more iconic than the Taj hotel, and comes to the same conclusion: “I can’t remember the last time that social class so clearly defined the coverage of a public event, or one in which people spoke so unselfconsciously from their class positions. The English news channels became mega-churches in which hotel-going Indians found catharsis and communion. Person after person claimed the Taj as home. Memories of courtship, marriage, celebration, friendship, the quick coffee, the saved-up-for snack, the sneaked lavatory visit, came together to frame the burning Taj in a halo of affection.”

In his closing para, Kesavan also touches on how the foreign media covered the Mumbai attacks: “English and American papers treated the terror attack as an assault on the West. The terrorists had, after all, specifically looked for American and British citizens to murder. Ironically, even as NDTV, CNN-IBN and Times Now put hotel guests at the heart of the horror and bumped train commuters to its periphery, older English-speaking peoples counted their dead and dimly regretted all Indian casualties as collateral damage. In that residual category, if nowhere else, the Indian dead remained one People.”

Read full commentary by Mukul Kesavan

Another dimension in the media coverage following the Mumbai attacks is how it is affecting the relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers. As The Hindu reported on 1 December 2008: “The escalating tensions between India and Pakistan over the Mumbai attacks have led to the declaration of hostilities in unexpected quarters – Pakistani media has declared a virtual war on Indian media for its ‘knee-jerk’ finger-pointing across the border, and its unquestioning acceptance of the Indian government’s ‘Pakistan-link’ theory.”

Moderate journalists and media-watchers across South Asia are calling for more restraint, self-reflection and plain common sense. On 4 December 2008, Himal Southasian – the independent and outspoken voice of South Asia – ran a special editorial which opened with these words:

“There is an attempt on to generate mass hysteria in India as television channels compete for ratings. The channels are using the Bombay attacks of last week in a dangerous game of TRP-upmanship which can well derail the political process and set back the India-Pakistan peace train. Going far beyond what is required of them even in times of crisis, some media houses are leading campaigns to get citizens to take pledges of patriotism. They are pushing a brittle, monochromatic vision of the resilient country we know as India.”

Read the full Himal editorial: No to mass hysteria

My journalist friend Beena Sarwar, based in Karachi, voiced her concerns in an op ed published in the leading Pakistani newspaper Dawn on 3 December 2008:

Beena Sarwar
Beena Sarwar
“Media might have brought the people closer but when nationalism rears its head, the beast of 24-hour television news also fuels conflict. This is where the commercial aspect comes in. When something big happens, the public seeks answers. The channels which cater to this need improve their ratings. Sensation sells. With viewers glued to the screens, channels keep them there with a continuous virtual reality show. They fill the time with speculative commentary, ‘expert’ guests and whatever footage is available. Sometimes such footage is repeated ad nauseum — like when the Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11, when the Marriott hotel was attacked, when the FIA building in Lahore was struck.”

She adds: “Some Indian channels are running the Pakistan factor like a movie trailer, complete with sound effects and watch-for-the-next-episode commentary. This obviously fuels Pakistani indignation. However, this indignation could be tempered by being less reactive and empathising with the Indians’ pain and grief that many Pakistanis share. Zealous commentators could also recall the times that their own media houses sensationalised an issue.

“Journalists may argue that they are just the messenger, reflecting official or public opinion. But the media must also question, and get people to think. The stakes are high in our nuclear-armed countries, in a post-9/11 world where the major players include armed and trained men around the world who subscribe to the ideology of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

Full op ed by Beena Sarwar: Media falls into old trap

Ordinary people outside the media industry have also started expressing their concern.

“Media on both sides of the border has stopped reporting and started indulging in senseless rants. The media, particularly in India seems to have thrown logic to the wind,” wrote Anand Bala from Bangalore, in a letter to the South Asian mediawatch website The Hoot. “The screaming for war on the Indian side has reached a din. The media is manufacturing consent for a war and manufacturing consent for the very people who they are blaming – the politicians.

I would give the last word to Kalpana Sharma: “Media rarely pauses to analyse itself as it hurtles from one breaking story to another. But the Mumbai terror attack shows us that it is essential that reporters be trained to handle such extraordinary situations, that they learn the importance of restraint and cross-checking as at such times the media is the main source of information. Professionalism and accuracy will ensure that we don’t contribute to prejudice and panic.”