Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Media self-censorship

A Deccan Herald article speaks of an unnamed company CEO’s disenchantment with IIT graduates. In reference to their poor caliber he is quoted as saying, “we are not likely to recruit them any longer”. Who are ‘we’ and who is this person speaking on their behalf? He is Mr Muthuraman, MD, Tata Steel.

Naming name in this context would have added credibility. Without the name, the story carries no thrust. And is unlikely to be taken with the seriousness the issue deserves. What’s worse, the writer of the newspaper article, Bhamy V Shenoy, exposes himself to the charge of dressing up his prejudice (against IITs) by inventing a quote by conveniently unnamed sources.

Dr Shenoy says he named the company and its MD; it was the newspaper that withheld the names. And he was not informed about it. A newspaper has the prerogative to edit any article it receives to make more sense of it or for reasons of space, editorial policy norms,or to address judicial or libel implications. And our media is also known to have exercised their prerogative to play favorites or not hurt their advertising interests.

Whatever the reason, the newspaper succeeded in watering down the story that speaks of the needlessly tough CET, the role of mushrooming coaching shops, and a corporate tendency to go to institutions other than IITs for recruits. The article was based on Dr Shenoy’s interaction with Mr Muthuraman (both graduates of IIT Madras) and some others at the recent alumni meet in Chennai.

Tata Steel MD’s observations were based on his recent interaction with a group of final-year students of IIT-Madras. Dr Shenoy quotes him as saying that the students could not even name the authors of the course books IIT students were supposed to have studied. Worse still, even some faculty members were no more knowledgeable about the subjects they taught.

Dr Shenoy, quoting his fellow IITans, attributes such sorry state to flaws in the admission process that encourage IIT aspirants to resort to coaching classes to clear a patently tough common entrance test. Once they are in IITs, students pay little attention to the rigors involved in higher education. The newspaper article, citing IIT admission figures in a recent year, says that out of the 979 successful candidates from the South Zone, as many as 769 were from Andhra Pradesh. In the Northern zone, says Dr Shenoy, Rajasthan is “an unlikely state that is reported to have been doing well by sending a high proportion of students to IITs”. This reflects the success of, what Dr Shenoy calls, ‘pressure-cooker coaching shops’ that have mushroomed in recent years in Hyderabad and Kota.

Dr Shenoy, who has worked in oil industry in the US for 20 years, is now settled in Mysore and intensely involved in social welfare NGOs and consumer activism. He writes newspaper articles in the fond belief that he could effectively put across a social message. He wrote the Herald piece – Brand IIT takes a knock – to be able to highlight correctable flaws in the IIT admission system.

This, indeed, was the point Mr Muthuraman had in mind in making his observations at the IIT alumni meet. Dr Shenoy said Mr Muthuraman and many of the IIT alumni that came to Chennai from all over the world were all in it together to ensure that IITs regained their past reputation. Mr Muthuraman, who was sent a draft of the article, is reported to have said that it deserved extensive publication in the media.

This piece has been cross-filed in Desicritics.

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