Sequel to a Controversial New York Times Article

about Sathya Sai Baba




Copyright Brian Steel 2003

Date: 05-27-03

Document date: 05-23-03

By: Brian Steel



As some readers will remember, on 1 December 2002, the New York Times published an article by one of their senior reporters, the Head of their Hong Kong Bureau, Keith Bradsher. The well-written article, enhanced by photographs and full of interest and exotic appeal was titled 'A Friend in India to All the World'. It introduced to American readers the prominent Hindu guru, Sathya Sai Baba, on the occasion of a courtesy visit to his ashram by the new Muslim President of India, Dr Kalam.

This very positive presentation of the spiritual leader and his devotees to the American public, endorsed by the name and prestige of the New York Times (motto: 'All the News that's Fit to Print') was extremely simpatico.

Unfortunately, the colourful description and background information offered by Bradsher (including explanations by the guru's close devotees), was incomplete and therefore potentially misleading to the newspaper's readers. What Bradsher had failed to mention, and perhaps did not even research, was that, in spite of Sathya Sai Baba's undisputed appeal, massive charisma, and beneficent charitable Trust, he has become the focus of a great deal of media and Internet controversy and allegations over the past three years.

The allegations (mainly of sexual misconduct) and the controversies surrounding this guru's claims to be God on Earth have surfaced and proliferated on the Internet. The sexual (and other) allegations have been aired in newspapers like the British Times and Daily Telegraph as well as other newspapers and magazines in India, Canada, Holland, Scandinavia, Argentina, Australia, and Colombia, and also in TV documentaries in several countries. As a result of this snowballing publicity, many devotees have renounced their guru - some, including this writer, to investigate and publicise anomalies surrounding Sathya Sai Baba and the story of his Mission.

Like most other information these days, news of these controversies, including a Petition for further investigation of the sexual allegations against this guru, is freely available on the Internet to any surfer. It seems that the New York Times' Mr Bradsher (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) either failed to take this basic research step or chose to ignore or dismiss the controversy and rely on what he found out and was officially told at the ashram in India.

For those aware of these current controversies, the sudden appearance in such a prestigious American newspaper of this bland and one-sided report was almost unbelievable. Several (perhaps many) letters were sent from readers in several countries to the NYT Executive Editor and other officers, pointing out the peculiar lack of balance of the article and the inappropriateness of the NYT's tacit endorsement of the guru Sathya Sai Baba at a time when his Organisation is engaged in damage control operations, including publicity and propaganda initiatives which have been documented on the Internet.

As far as I am aware, these letters were ignored by the Editors of the NYT and no public comment was made on this reporting lapse. Was any internal action taken? We do not know.

And now, in May 2003, in the wake of a spectacular and unique reporting fiasco of serial misconduct (apparently mainly involving invention and plagiarism) over a lengthy period by one of the NYT junior reporters, Jayson Blair, the newspaper's readers and the general public are finally piecing together a picture of lapses or breakdowns in internal communications between NYT executives and other staff. Following an allegedly stormy meeting with the angry and embarrassed newsroom staff on 14 May, the Executive Editor of the NYT is quoted as admitting that "I was guilty of a failure of vigilance that, since I sit in this chair where the buck stops, I should have prevented." (New York Times, 15 May 2003) The Executive Editor also referred to the accusation by some of his own journalists and staff that he was "inaccessible and arrogant". The press is hinting that the rumblings and criticisms within the NYT have still not subsided and may well produce further internal upheavals.

Following a not unfamiliar media pattern, the junior journalist, although professionally disgraced, has now rocketed to instant fame, with fortune surely close on its heels with a bestselling book and other media "goodies" already being foreshadowed. The malfeasance (and the "malefactor"), now in the open and exhaustively exposed over the past two weeks, has been replaced as a news topic by a deeper and more important analysis of how such an extensive scandal came to besmirch such a prestigious American media establishment. According to recent media reports, the number and magnitude of the offences allegedly committed by the 27 year-old Blair suggest that one or two prominent NYT executives, and parts of the management system itself, may also have to share some of the overall responsibility for the lapses in professional standards. Murmurings about the internal NYT investigation of 'other cases' of unsatisfactory journalism and communication breakdowns are also beginning to be heard and eagerly followed up by the press.

Given this hugely embarrassing scandal and the questions which are now being asked, it is opportune to redirect attention to the New York Times' apparent lack of executive concern over some readers' displeasure at the Bradsher peccadillo in December, especially since current journalistic whispers point to the possibility of further revelations of sloppy work by other NYT reporters or inappropriate executive influence of some sort or other. If this does turn out to be the case, then the long-suffering public will recognise that they have just witnessed yet another egregious case of a large corporation (media, banks - especially the banks! - , and businesses) sweeping under the carpet inconvenient critical communications from its customers and its own staff, or spending millions of dollars on defensive Supreme Court cases - until somehow the truth seeps or bursts out. Then comes, if not a financial crash, a media feeding frenzy of schadenfreude, as with the New York Times case, over a no longer avoidable public confession of the breaching of standards, wrongdoing, or errors, followed by internal investigations and the eventual promises by the spin doctors that the faults in the management system have been rectified and "It can't happen again".

Bearing in mind this recent NYT affair, it will be interesting to see how much longer the officers of the Organisation that bears SSB's name will be able to continue to sweep under the carpet inconvenient news and publicity while simultaneously advising trusting devotes to ignore it.