Comparing U.S. and Indian coverage of the Mumbai attacks

Hoping to visit India in April, I recently bought a package of nine Indian TV channels on the satellite dish here. Coincidentally, service was activated just hours after last week’s attacks on Mumbai began.

Since I’m recovering from a brief illness, I was stuck on the couch anyway, so I watched a ton of both Indian and U.S. coverage of the attacks. From India, I watched two English-language 24-hour news channels, TimesNow and NDTV 24×7, frantically reporting details as they came in. (I also spent some time with Star Plus‘s interruption of its normal programming for 9-11-style temporary 24-hour news; my knowledge of Hindi is pretty much “dal,” “namaste,” and “tayelet kahan hai,” but most of the graphics were in English.) The U.S. channels I watched were mostly CNN and MSNBC, with smatterings of Fox News and network news broadcasts.

Readily conceding the obvious anaytical limitations of what some dude saw on his TV while sucking down cough meds, a few thoughts:

• In the early going, U.S. news networks were more useful for a quick thumbnail of events. There’s a habit of recapping every few minutes — “in case you’re just joining us” — that the Indian networks didn’t bother with while scrambling new footage up. Indian networks were inevitably better for detail and new information, albeit often without context — just tossed on the fact stack before the next footage of shocked people amid darkened streets.

• Indian news producers seem to like flashing big-font headlines just as annoyingly as their U.S. counterparts. During breaking events, nearly a third of the screen may be blocked. At least the headlines are impossible to miss.

• The wide variety of targets and tactics made the story hard for anyone to comprehend right away. Some of the attacks (the police station, Nariman House) had highly specific targets; some (the CST train station shootings, the Metro Cinema drive-by), had completely random victims. The attempted destruction of the Taj hotel would also have had highly random (albeit many Western) victims; however, during the standoffs which followed, it was also reported that attackers attempted to specifically select U.S and British citizens.

• This latter aspect of the story was given wildly different emphasis. Indian reports tended to treat it as only one aspect of massive, varied, semi-random carnage. In contrast, some viewers of U.S. channels could be forgiven for thinking that the U.S. was the ultimate target of the attacks.

• I have yet to see a South Asian commentator utter the words “Al-Qaeda.” Not once. I’m certain somebody must have, but not in front of my eyeballs, anyway, after dozens of hours of viewing.

In contrast, especially in the first days after the attacks, the phrase seemed to pop reliably within minutes of flipping over to CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. U.S. networks seemed to assume that if goes kaboom, it must be Al-Qaeda, as if there’s no one else violent on earth. For a while on CNN, “all the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda” seemed almost like a chant, with about as much thought behind it.

• The group now widely believed most likely involved, Lashkar-e-Taiba (“the Army of the Pure”), is hardly obscure. LeT is one of the larger and more violent groups in South Asia, founded more than 20 years ago to claim the entire disputed region of Kashmir, currently split between India and Pakistan (with a smidge in China), as part of Muslim Pakistan… and then to do the same to the rest of India… and (someday) the rest of the planet.

LeT considers both Hindus and Jews as particular enemies of Islam — which certainly fits the Mumbai attacks, given the targets — and they’re accused of striking Mumbai before, most notably in the 2006 train bombings.

Not a real hard group to land on as suspects. Heck, they’ve blown up enough stuff up to garner a mention in my 2007 book Who Hates Whom (see p. 109), which is anything but encyclopedic (it’s just a pocket-sized bunch of short essays on 30-odd hotspots, in no way exhaustive) — and I’m hardly an expert. If LeT made it into my teeny book, they ain’t minor.

• LeT was specifically and repeatedly discussed as a probable culprit within 24 hours of the bombings both 24-hour Indian news channels I monitored. (I’m certain of this because of time-stamped emails I sent to friends at the time.)

It’s probable, of course, that many in the Indian government would have looked to blame Pakistanis in any case. A domestic plot would also make New Delhi look pretty damn ineffectual, so external culprits would be highly desirable. (Think about how the anthrax attacks have been all but officially ignored in the U.S., even while external threats are constantly discussed.)

That said, LeT was the only specific group discussed with any frequency on the Indian telecasts.

• U.S. TV networks got a large amount of their footage in early days directly from these Indian feeds. In the first hours after the attacks began, MSNBC even spent considerable time just showing ND 24×7’s signal — the bug was visible in the corner — simply adding their own graphics and audio commentary.

I don’t see how any competent U.S. news producer, actively trying to comprehend events on the ground, could not have known about the rapidly growing Indian consensus around LeT.

However, many U.S. reports continued to speculate about Al-Qaeda — much more than LeT or any other group — for days. (Somebody should do a Lexis-Nexis search and compare the numbers.) One wonders if many U.S. news producers were so blinded by having reported on Al-Qaeda for years that they simply couldn’t recognize any other possibility.

It’s either that, or they couldn’t comprehend the language spoken on the Indian news channels: English.

One laudable exception was Larry King’s program on the very night of the attacks, where LeT was at least mentioned a few times — although Al-Qaeda was still mentioned more than twice as often. However, many reports continued to shoehorn events into Al-Qaeda-targets-the-Anglos.

• Since LeT is based in Pakistan, it’s certainly likely that LeT guys and Al-Qaeda guys have indeed allahued some of the same akbar. But this may or may not indicate Al-Qaeda involvement in this specific attack. We should keep this in mind while digesting new information to come.

Connections, by themselves, don’t mean a lot. Christopher Columbus was hardly behind the Spanish Inquisition, or vice versa — even though they shared the same god, home turf, benefactors, and many of the same general ideas about how the world should be made to look.

Hell, I know a guy who knows a guy who knew a guy who knew Hitler. I also know a guy who knows a guy who knows Anne Hathaway. I am pleased to be one step closer to the latter. But it doesn’t prove much.

• As to what LeT (and/or Al-Qaeda, domestic Indian Muslim extremists, and/or whoever else was involved) might have been aiming at:

The governments of India and Pakistan have been making a surprising amount of nice lately. On the very day of the Mumbai attacks, the Home Secretaries of both countries were meeting in Islamabad, while the Foreign Ministers were meeting in New Delhi.

Compare that to the mood of the two countries now.

As to LeT’s Kashmir ambitions, in the days before the bombings, both the Pakistani president and the Indian Foreign Minister briefly spoke of a hypothetical resolution of the Kashmir issue — which would negate LeT’s reason for existence. (Obviously, the gunmen were already at sea when these comments were made; still, it demonstrates just where the mood of cooperation was.)

If Pakistan and India cool tensions, both governments have more resources to tackle extremists on their own soil. But now, post-attacks, everyone is re-freaked, and each government will now devote energy and resources into alternately threatening and then (hopefully) not blowing up each other.

In that climate, extremist groups like LeT can not only survive, but thrive.

The U.S., meanwhile, is in a bind: pressure Pakistan too little, and piss off 800 million Hindus, possibly weakening the Indian government — playing directly into LeT’s hands. Pressure too much, and weaken relations with Pakistan — whose stability and cooperation are essential for fighting Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Whether or not Al-Qaeda had any involvement or influence with LeT in Mumbai, the U.S. dilemma is a desirable outcome for both.

Or at least that’s how things look from my couch, half-gorked on Sudafed Slurpees. What do I know…