February 11, 2007

Mundane story behind a media scoop

If it was not for the old fashioned beat reporting by Orlando Sentinel editorial staff the NASA astronauts love-triangle story would have perhaps been missed by the media. The Sentinel editor credited his paper’s scoop to the shoe-leather work by beat reporters. Referring to this my friend and retired resident editor of The Economic Times, Bangalore, Mr N Nageswaran recalled his experience as police reporter in the Madras edition of The Indian Express in the late 50s.

As reporter on late night duty (also called the mortuary beat) it was Mr Nageswaran’s job to make late-night calls to all city police stations, followed by a visit to the General Hospital mortuary. It was on one such routine visit the reporter learnt that the police had brought in a short while earlier a body identified as Arumugam, a rickshaw-puller. It made little more than a news-in-brief. Cases of drunk and dead rickshawmen picked up from street by the police were not uncommon.

As Mr Nageswaran was leaving the hospital mortuary its caretaker in need of a smoke told the obliging reporter that the body had marks of injury, probably caused by beating. On the basis of further information he gathered from a police contact Mr Nageswaran pieced together a story that made Page One.

The story was that a sub-inspector in the Flower Bazar area had an eye on flower-seller Rukmani. Her inconvenient husband was taken to the police station on the pretext of investigation. That was the last Rukmani saw of her rickshaw-puller husband. His name: Arumugam..

It was a story the police wanted to bury. On the morning it appeared in The Express the Madras police commissioner, S Parthasarathy Iyengar, sent Inspector Senthamari to Indian Express to get a retraction and an apology from the reporter. The inspector met the Express supremo Ramnath Goenka to register a complaint of false and misleading reporting by the Indian Express. Goenka directed chief reporter Ganapathy Sharma to sort out the issue. “We used to call him ‘Gunboat Jack’”, said Mr Nageswaran, “the chief reporter wanted me to meet Goenka and apologise to the inspector”. He did neither, saying his (Mr Nageswaran’s) job was to report to the chief reporter, and, that he stood by his story. Meanwhile the story of Arumugam’s death in police custody was picked up by other papers. The police sub-inspector who started it all was eventually convicted on the strength of Rukmani’s testimony.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Goenka directed chief reporter Ganapathy Sharma to sort out the issue. “We used to call him ‘Gunboat Jack’”, said Mr Nageswaran, “the chief reporter wanted me to meet Goenka and apologise to the inspector”.

Compare the above to the attitude of the editor of the Washington Post in early 1970s when he suspected that his ace investigative reporter Woodward was into something. After listening to the story, he was stupified, but gathering his senses quickly he said he had confidence in Woodward and would support him all the way. That story that Woodward brought was -the break in of the Watergate building in Washington DC, and the attempts made by the Presidents' White House henchmen Haldeman and Erlichman to bury the criminal act. Woodward supported by his editor broke the story and the rest is history. Washington Post issues then were in so much demand that most of them were sold out in the Washington DC area itself, and I at that time in a city in Midwest had to read them in my university library waiting in a queue!! The television versions were much edited as the reporting rights were tightly controlled by Washington Post. Despite this Walter Cronkite did a superb job in CBS evening news- after all he was a second world war reporter!