Saturday, July 26, 2008
A letter to the Sampradaya Sun
Rocana Das is an old friend of mine from Toronto and other places in Canada, where we were in Iskcon together. Our paths diverged many years ago, but we came into contact a few years ago, in the early days of the Internet, when he first started his Harekrsna.com website and a listserve group called Garuda. We engaged in some fairly civil debates there, but Rocana and I were generally on the opposite sides of issues.
On the whole, Rocana cannot see past the fact that I don't seem to be a true "Prabhupadanuga" and indeed, though he made a pretense of politeness, he always managed to let it be known that he considered me to be a guru-tyagi and all that accompanies such a dreadful epithet.
Anyway, I still visit his Sampradaya Sun website every few days, though to be honest, I am completely bored with Iskcon politics; I have little or no vested interest in that organization and find most of the issues, philosophical or political, to be irrelevant to me personally. Nevertheless, I used to occasionally comment on articles to him in emails since as an old friend I thought he might be interested in my opinions. As he never answered, these letters, which were usually short anyway, became shorter.
Recently, there was an article by Henry Doktorski (Hrishikesh Das), which had the merit of being fairly well-written and had a little more substance than the usual griping and mudslinging. So I wrote a letter to the Sun saying "finally a good article." Rocana for some reason was aroused from his usual silence; the sum and substance of his answer was: "Stop writing these snotty letters. If you don't like the Sun, don't read it. Or start your own newspaper."
Ah Rocana... Here is my answer:
Dandavats. I am writing once again because I feel that your last letter shows that you have a complete misunderstanding of where I am coming from. It seems that your frustration goes far deeper than my letter, and I assume that you are feeling some difficulties in accomplishing what you set out to do with the Sun. Such activities can become burdensome, especially if they are not profitable, in whatever sense of the term you want to take it.
But what I really want to say (and I really should keep a letter like this on file, it seems I have written it so many times) is that you are falling into the same kind of trap that VNN did: You publish any damn bit of muckraking that crosses your desk, without any processing whatsoever. You have to take a newspaperman's attitude and vet your info. That means you have to find a way to get real reporters out there.
Someone says Mudha Das, the president of Ougadougou Iskcon, has been caught attending baby-sacrifice rituals to the pagan goddess Omeiwanki and drinking the blood of the sacrificed child. Do you just publish this without trying to reach Mudha Das for comment? Do you not try to find knowledgeable and unbiased people who will speak for or against these rumors?
Every time you just print the raw information by someone with an ax to grind, that lowers the value of the Sun and diminishes everything you are trying to do. The worst thing that can be seen in a newspaper is no attempt to be fair. But if you have no intention to be fair, at least try to have writing of quality.
That is why I condemn you for printing everything that Mahavidya writes, unedited. First of all, who knows what his background and agenda are? Maybe all these guys with a negative attitude to Iskcon are really angels wrapped in divine light who are being persecuted by the forces of evil--but do you really believe it?
Besides, as a manager, you should know that it is far easier to tear down than to build up. If you think I sound snotty, you should think about the way your website sounds sometimes.
So, most important, edit these articles and turn them into stories. If you are going to make a newspaper, act like a newspaperman. Mahavidya's rants sound and look like the typical conspiracy theorists' comments on some "The aliens are coming to take us away" forum. I am not saying he is not perfectly right, but edit his comments and make them prose instead of this weird free verse thing he's got going.
Second, divide your articles more clearly so that you have substantial editorials that are clearly defined and marked as such. Separate op-ed (outside opinion) from editorials (the official opinions of the paper). But try to avoid doing exactly what VNN did, which with the exception of your cultural articles and reprints of Vaishnava literature, you are.
Third, why not start a comments trailer for each article? Dandavats and most other quality newspapers like the Guardian, etc., are doing that. That way, you give people like Mahavidya the chance to say something (in the forum) without it appearing that you approve of it or are abetting his agenda. It will also give you the opportunity to trawl for reporters. You can find people who can write, who have access to information, who are investigative... even those who have an ax to grind and use their talents. In some cases, you could even summarize the information that comes out of such forums and use it for an original article.
And another thing: Don't you think that you should correct articles for spelling and grammar? Once you publish a piece, it becomes your article and reflective of your site. So if it is written in broken English by Harishatru Das of Zagreb, don't you think you should take the time to unbreak it before you post? That is the minimum definition of an editor, is it not?
But my most important point is still that you need to investigate. This requires a little extra effort. It means spending money too, which is a more delicate and difficult matter. But a couple of phone calls to Ougadougou might be more revealing than a scurrilous email from a disgruntled brahmachari who had to leave because he was creating a bad vibe in the temple.
Do more with less. Go for quality rather than quantity. Try to at least appear objective, instead of a clearing house for anti-Iskcon propaganda. Find a few people who will try to act as REPORTERS and not rumormongers. Keep your editorials and your news articles separate. Widen the scope of the paper.
So, I realize that it is almost impossible to do all the above without having to consecrate more time and resources. The most important thing, and I say this to you because you are an experienced manager who knows how to mobilize and inspire, is to find people who will try to be objective and intelligent, neither pro- or con- Iskcon propagandists, but ones who recognize like you that a free press is an essential part of any organization or movement. But there is still a big difference between a true free press and what you are doing.
Yours in service,