Two new documentaries detail the gradual death of journalism in this country and the rise of digital journalism in India. Both agree that newspapers—whether print or digital—can make a difference and that, without them democracy is at risk.
Rintu Thomas ad Sushmit Ghosh shepherded “Writing with Fire” through to completion and this story of women in India who started a newspaper in 2002 and risked their lives to make it successful won the Audience and the Grand Jury prize at Sundance.
The newspaper, Khabar Lahariya (which translates to “Waves of News”) is the only all-female newspaper in India and its chief reporter, Meera, put it this way: “I believe journalism is the essence of democracy…This is how one fights for justice in a democracy. “ She adds, “Journalists must use this power responsibly. Otherwise, the media will become like any other business.”
Watching the India documentary at the same time as the PBS documentary set in Storm Lake, Iowa and entitled “Storm Lake” provided an interesting contrast.
Art Cullen, the Editor-in-Chief of the “Storm Lake Times” for 40 years would agree with Meera, but the problems of Storm Lake, Iowa—the town where my Aunt and Uncle lived out their lives—seem infinitely less dire than those in Meera’s northern Indian Utar Pradesh area. The saying in India about the area where Meera and her team are writing and working is “as Utar Pradesh goes, so goes the country.”
For Art Cullen’s newspaper, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, “The newspaper weaves the fabric of the community in ways large and small.” When Art’s paper won the Pulitzer, it made it harder—not easier—for Whitney Robinson, Sales and Circulation Manager,to sell advertising, because one of the crowning achievements of the “Storm Lake Times” was to trace the life path of a young man who was deported from Storm Lake after a raid at the large Tyson Meat Packing Plant, which was an IBP plant, at that time (Iowa Beef Products).
Julio Barroso was a smiling, happy second-grader, age 8, and then he was gone. Art and his team investigated to find out where Art ended up and discovered him living in Guadalajara, Mexico, twenty-two years later, married, with three children.
Art’s writing about how Julio’s life trajectory was changed by the raid for illegal immigrants and his subsequent deportation may have earned kudos from the awards-panel, but the residents of Storm Lake in northwest Iowa don’t hold with Art’s Democratic-leaning views.
Storm Lake is Trump country. The immigrants who flock to work in meat processing plants in places like Storm Lake and Columbus Junction (the poorest town in the state) have a strong streak of anti-immigrant prejudice. There are 2200 packing plant workers. In the local elementary school 50% speak Spanish and 10% speak “other” languages besides English. (The documentary was filmed in 2019).
It is easy to imagine the residents griping about their formerly lily-white town gradually being infiltrated by Mexican (and other) immigrants. I grew up in such a town—although one without a meat-packing plant—and many of the residents of northwest Iowa were Dutch immigrants or from other largely white European countries. With good-paying jobs being out-sourced to other countries, the locals tend to get restless about losing out to immigrants from anywhere, (even though the locals aren’t generally likely to take on the back-breaking work in the meat packing plants, which offer no medical insurance).
During the pandemic, Iowa’s Republican Governor, Kim Reynolds, forced workers back into unsafe working conditions at meat-packing plants. The meat-packing company let it be known that workers who did not show up for work, perhaps because they were sick, would not get paid. I remember when the medical students at the University of Iowa were volunteering to staff a van to drive to Columbus Junction (IA) to offer workers in that town health screenings for pap smears and the like, because the meat-packing companies offer no health insurance.
There is a discussion of how Big Agra has bought up small family farms and, whereas, a decade ago in the 90s, a farmer could survive on 350 to 400 acres, now he would have to own 1,000 acres. The big companies now control both the raising of the hogs or cattle and the processing of them. I remember when Rath Packing Plant in Waterloo, Iowa, had unions, but the big companies have all but stomped out concerns that tried to look out for the workers and their welfare.
The other continuing theme in “Storm Lake” dealt with candidate visits from the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Andrew Yang. Dr. Jill Biden. They all make appearances at places like the Better Day Café and we are shown caucus night, 2020, in Storm Lake, Iowa.
Art Cullen—who has a dimpled grin like Billy Bob Thornton, but a shock of white hair like Mark Twain—says, “The main anxiety in Iowa was, ‘We’re gonna’ screw this up. And we did.” The father-son team agrees, onscreen, that Iowa will probably lose its “first-in-the-nation” status in presidential elections as a result of the colossal screw-up caused by trying to integrate new technology into the voting process without a series of dry runs, first. You might liken it to the roll-out of Obamacare, which was not without hiccups.
We hear a lot about the 300 “news deserts” that are springing up in the Hawkeye State as one in four local newspapers fold. Two-thirds of Iowa counties are declining in population and, as people move to the cities, small local papers fold. Mom and Pop stores are gone because of the corporate take-over of corporate agriculture and so are Mom and Pop newspapers. Still, those who majored in Journalism, as I did, write because it is what we do. (*Admission: I am a card-carrying member of the National Women’s Press Association, Illinois chapter, and was the official photographer at the 2019 Baton Rouge convention.) So, Art and his team attempt to cut wherever they can, thereby preserving their small hometown newspaper. They were always a “break even” newspaper and, once the pandemic hit ( advertising revenue plunges 50% in March), the question is whether they can keep the lights on. They do, but at what price glory?
INDIA’S “Khabar Lahariya” NEWSPAPER
On the other side of the world in India, the women who started this journalistic enterprise are of the Dalit, or “Untouchable,” caste. India has four main castes: priests, warriors, traders, and labourers. Woe unto you if you are born into the Dalit caste.
The opening interview is with a married woman of that caste who is being repeatedly raped by the men of her village. Although she has reported this to the local police, they refuse to do anything. Her husband even initiated a hunger strike to get sympathy for their plight. As the victim, Rampal Yadov, says, “These men can do anything. They can even kill both of us.”
Meena, who was married at 14, has a Master’s degree in Political Science and Teaching. She says, “Working was important for me, and I did not want to waste my education. And we needed the money.” She adds, “Power is very important. Being a journalist gives me the power to fight for justice.” Her husband (representative of the males of India, it seems) is quoted this way: “I never expected them to achieve anything. They’ll have to shut down soon.”
Meena’s husband is wrong. She leads the group into digital posts on YouTube and the hits on their stories rise from one million to 150 million over time. Meera Devi leads a staff of 24 who seem to be having great difficulty trying to use cell phones to write, illustrate, and post their stories. The stories deal with rape, murder, illegal Mafia mining operations, and, ultimately, the election being held that puts a Trump-like figure named Yogi Aditajanath of the BJP Party into power. The parallels are unmistakable.
Yogi stirs up chaos by making much of the election be about protecting sacred cows, rather than the real issues of the area. Here is one of Yogi’s pronouncements: “When the law of the land becomes ineffective, then society must take matters into its own hands, and I believe the time has come now.”
One of the reporters dares to ask him what he would do about Hindus who misbehave and he answers, “Hindus can never be terrorists” with a straight face. Meena says, “Freedom of women will be snatced. A climate of fear is being created. Everything is about religion and discord.”This seemed very much like the United States of America at this point in history.
Meena insightfully points out that “The symbolism of the cow is a distraction for this government’s corrupt policies.” She is more interested in the average Indian household being able to have “a toilet in every house.” (Reminded me of “a chicken in every pot” from the Hoover years.)
Reporter Shiyankali does a story on the police failure to investigate rape accusations and, one week after her story, a suspect is arrested on a rape charge.
The brave women of “Khabar Lahariya” face real risk. A female journalist in Bangalore who had been critical of the Hindu national party was murdered. Meera, herself, says, “Neither are we a democracy nor are the women free. Hail Mother India.”
However, by film’s end, she says with justifiable pride: “We made our journalism the voice of democracy. We didn’t let the Fourth Pillar fall, and we continue to hold a mirror to society.”
“Writing with Fire” won both the Audience and the Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. ‘Storm Lake” is going to be screened (and available virtually) at the upcoming Denver Film Festival.