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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Moral Choices

Another Interactive Piece

As I mentioned in my last blog, I was on a panel with Ann Bausum, whose new book is about the turn-of-the-20th-century muckrakers. She explained she grew up during Watergate, with her parents being riveted by each day’s new revelation in the Washington Post. Well we all — and our students — have a chance to experience exactly the same thing right now, today, only it comes with a very interesting set of moral/journalistic questions.

Do any of you know Tehelka — the muckraking magazine out of India? They made their name a few years ago with a brilliant "sting" operation where they posed as people offering bribes to top government officials, videotaped the transactions, and posted them on a website. All India watched high officers setting prices and accepting expensive Scotch, bags of money, and other bribes. Last week they revealed their latest sting. Here you can find out all about it: http://www.sajaforum.org/2007/10/tehelkas-sting.html 

Here’s the background: in 2002 Muslims were attacked in the Indian state of Gujarat, perhaps as many as 2,000 were killed. Was this a riot, a spontaneous expression of Hindu hatred against their neighbors? The Tehelka team posed as Hindu nationalists, and went to talk with fellow Hindus in Gujarat. They filmed as high, very high, government officers (including the Chief Minister) admitted that they had planned everything. This was a carefully orchestrated pogrom, not a random act. Just as in Birmingham, when the police promised the Klan 15 minutes to attack the Freedom Riders, in Gujarat government officers told the Hindu extremists exactly how much time they would have to assault Muslims. Tehelka’s revelations are just as devastating as the news that Nixon was behind Watergate.

But here is the catch: on tape we also hear Tehelka reporters promising not to reveal the names of the people they were, at that moment, filming. With the speed of modern digital filming, websites, the internet, we lose any sense of the difference between public and private, something said in confidence and something exposed to the entire world.

If you are in a high school, or even the right middle school, what a perfect subject for discussion — was Tehelka right or wrong? What does it mean to be a reporter these days when our digital tools mean we can turn a whisper into a global story? If a high school student tapes a friend telling a secret and then shares it, is that OK — even if revealing the secret is crucially important? 

If any of you do use this story and these questions in your schools, tell us, I’m really curious where the discussions will go.