In India, you might think that if you buy enough newspaper ads, those same newspapers won’t bother to check the claims you make in those ads. The papers wouldn’t want to lose ad money, right? But that old equation is changing, thanks to one scrappy youth magazine called JAM and the collective investigative strength of the Indian blogosphere.
It all started June 15, when JAM ran an in-depth report debunking the advertised claims of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), a private business school that had spent more than $1 million in ads for its MBA program in May 2005. JAM found that IIPM had inflated claims about placing all of its students in jobs; having teachers from Harvard, Columbia and Yale; and luxurious extras such as swimming pools, mini golf and Wi-Fi towers.
Then blogger Gaurav Sabnis, an IBM salesman based in Mumbai, linked to the JAM article on Aug. 5 with a post titled, “The fraud that is IIPM.” Perhaps the story would have died right there, but then IIPM made a tactical error by sending Sabnis a legal notice by e-mail on Oct. 4.
“The articles have caused unfathomable damage to the reputation of IIPM and to its various operational areas,” the e-mail read. “The articles further have affected innumerable future operations of IIPM. We have legally notarized and logged all the releases and are sending you this e-mail to you as the first notice of proposed legal, judicial and criminal action against you that has already been approved & cleared by the Post Graduate Fellow Programme committee at IIPM.”
While Sabnis at first found the whole legal threat funny, he wasn’t laughing when his boss at IBM told him that IIPM was putting pressure on IBM (which sells laptops to IIPM) to get Sabnis to delete the blog posts. Plus, IIPM told IBM that its students were planning to burn their IBM laptops in protest. Sabnis quickly decided to quit his job at IBM to spare the company the PR nightmare.
Meanwhile, IIPM served similar legal notices to JAM magazine and another blogger who had written about the school, Varna Sriraman. The furor in the Indian blogosphere — where bloggers refused to delete any posts — finally caught the attention of the mainstream Indian media, which then covered IIPM’s inflated claims.
“It looks like a breakout moment [for Indian bloggers] to me,” said Peter Griffin, a communications consultant and blogger in Mumbai. “With this case, the ingredients were just right. Popular bloggers being targeted using some very heavy-handed methods by an institution that’s not exactly highly regarded, a person at the head of that institution who doesn’t command any respect, the popular bloggers being respected by their peers … and, most important, the issue of freedom of expression at the center of it all — a cause that blogs, by definition, will support.”
Blogs make a difference
In fact, the Indian blogosphere, cheered on by American counterparts such as InstaPundit, rallied to the defense of JAM magazine, Sabnis and Sriraman — while also putting IIPM further under the microscope. With some ad hoc investigative work by bloggers such as Curious Gawker and Transmogrifier, the authenticity of IIPM’s MBA degrees were called into question.
Blogger Thalassa Mikra found that IIPM founder Dr. Malay Chaudhuri had lied on the educational backgrounder he filed when he ran for public office. Mikra discovered that Chaudhuri claimed in the file that he went to the Berlin School of Economics in the 1960s, even though that school was only founded in 1971.
“This entire matter has driven home the point that bloggers can help enforce accountability in public life, and that no one — whether they be the government, companies or even bloggers themselves — can get away with deception,” Varma told me via e-mail. “That is a fantastic thing. It has also made Indian bloggers more aware of the power they wield, and the ability they have to disseminate information quickly. We’ve seen this at different times in different ways, like during the tsunami, for example.”
In December 2004, Indian bloggers such as Varma and Griffin covered the effects of the Southeast Asian tsunami, and they used the lauded Tsunami Help group blog as a template for the more recent South Asia Quake Help blog focused on the Oct. 8 earthquake in Pakistan. Today, Oct. 26, happens to be Blog Quake Day, with DesiPundit calling on bloggers around the world to mention the Pakistan quake and link to charities that support relief efforts.
While Indian bloggers also rallied to support Mediaah blogger and journalist Pradyuman Maheshwari last March against a legal threat from the Times of India, Maheshwari decided it wasn’t worth fighting for and pulled the plug on his popular blog.
But the legal threats from IIPM did nothing to cow bloggers or JAM Magazine. Rashmi Bansal, the editor and publisher of JAM and a blogger as well, told me via e-mail that IIPM’s Chaudhuri and the school’s dean A. Sandeep showed up at JAM’s offices to accuse them of yellow journalism. After the visit, JAM received a 17-page legal notice threatening to sue JAM for defamation unless IIPM received a retraction and apology.
Amit Saxena, head of corporate communications for IIPM, sent me a statement that tried to deflect the criticism of JAM and bloggers, and accused the latter of a slant toward the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), a more respected and established system of business schools.
“We are stunned as to how the most pampered students of India (i.e. from the IIM) suffer from so much inferiority complex from us that given the first opportunity to pen something (be it [former] IIM students like Rashmi Bansal or Gaurav Sabnis, and all other IIM students on the Net and other media), they stoop down so low as to write relentless lies and spread baseless rumors about IIPM,” the statement read, in part. “But beyond a point IIPM can’t allow these kinds of shallow rumors mongering to go on and had to take an action.”
But Saxena would not discuss the details of the JAM expose, and IIPM has never explained discrepancies with its ads and the information unearthed by journalists and bloggers. Instead, IIPM has served legal notices, and a plethora of nameless blogs, allegedly by IIPM alumni, have sprouted up overnight defending IIPM and smearing the bloggers.
“None of this does IIPM the slightest bit of credit, nor does it enhance its reputation,” wrote Kanika Datta in Business Standard, India’s leading business daily. “If it wants to defend itself with dignity and credibility, the institution would do well to set up a blog of its own rebutting the facts in the JAM piece and publicly dissociating itself from the more injudicious comments of its enthusiastic alumni. The Net is increasingly becoming a pain point for corporations, especially large multinationals in controversial businesses. If there is a larger lesson for them in this incident, it is how not to deal with negative stories.”
Instead, the scrutiny of bloggers helped get the notice of mainstream media, who then piled on with their own reporting. CNBC-TV18 — a joint venture of CNBC and Indian TV18 — ran a story on Oct. 24 stating that IIPM did not have approval from the Indian government’s University Grants Commission (UGC) to offer an MBA.
“There is no private institution which is not recognized by UGC or which is not a part of a university, [that] can offer an MBA program,” V N Rajshekharan Pillai, acting director of the UGC, told CNBC-TV18. “That is the rule of the land. I do not know how exactly they call it an MBA program. This institution has not approached the UGC, it is not a university. It is not an affiliated institute of any university from their advertisement.”
Sabnis, the blogger who quit his IBM job, told me he is weighing various new job offers. He said that IIPM has made a few changes to their ads since the JAM story.
“I expect them to keep making changes because now there is literally an army of bloggers exposing lies of IIPM,” Sabnis said. “Just today, I got an e-mail from a blogger who mailed Philip Koetler, the father of modern marketing. IIPM uses his name in their ads. The blogger made Koetler aware of this and asked if he endorsed IIPM. Koetler replied saying that the institute shouldn’t be using his name in the ads. As such facts are unearthed and blogged about, IIPM will be forced to alter its ads.”
Bloggers + MSM = better media?
The story of IIPM and its battle with JAM and Indian bloggers follows a familiar trajectory here in the U.S.: There’s a story in a smallish magazine, picked up and magnified by bloggers, then picked up and magnified by the mainstream media (MSM). This snowball effect has bloggers exulting, and the MSM taking bloggers much more seriously.
S. Karat is a freelance journalist in New Delhi who writes the ContentSutra blog, a spinoff from PaidContent.org that covers digital media in India. Karat told me IIPM made a big mistake taking on bloggers.
“The bottom line is Indian bloggers have arrived,” Karat said via e-mail. “They have become strong opinion makers. Indian mainstream media has failed to take up the issue — one reason is that IIPM is a big advertiser and the mainline media is an interested party there. But they forget that readers are their first priority and not advertisers.”
While mainstream publications like The Hindustan Times and Businessworld have given bloggers credit in shining the light on IIPM, not everyone is happy with the bloggers’ methods.
Sajan Venniyoor wrote on the media watchdog site The Hoot that Sabnis went over the line in his blog post — and should use the same journalistic standards as the MSM.
“If blogs are to be taken seriously as an alternative medium, they should measure up to the standards of accountability and reliability of the mainstream media that the bloggers so deplore,” Venniyoor wrote. “Just because you are the underdog does not mean that you are always right.”
And though some in the Indian MSM are taking bloggers more seriously now, at least one mainstream journalist is not convinced.
T.R. Vivek wrote an in-depth story for Outlook India on the IIPM flap, even finding that the bloggers were on the right side of the law. But when describing Indian bloggers, Vivek struck a low blow.
“The Indian blogging community (or blogosphere, as it likes to call itself) is essentially a bitchy, self-indulgent and an almost incestuous network comprising journalists, wannabe-writers and a massive army of geeks who give vent to their creative ambitions on the Internet,” Vivek wrote. “Given that the average blogger-age is 25 years, it’s clear bloggers love to indulge in hearty name-calling and taking college-style potshots at others. This is probably why some of them get into trouble.”
Perhaps, but Vivek could be accused of taking the same type of potshot just within that paragraph. And in the final analysis, bloggers were the ones — along with JAM magazine — to stand up to a big institution without backing down.
“There are several issues that mainstream media doesn’t go after with as much enthusiasm as it should,” Sabnis told me. “Reasons can be manifold — business interests, the ‘sexiness’ of the story, effort involved, potential audience, etc. Bloggers, however, are not bound by any such constraints. They have no editors and no marketing team to answer to. Thus bloggers can pursue such issues with a lot more conviction. They can bring such issues to the notice of the mainstream media much more effectively.”
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More on the IIPM brouhaha
India: Defending Freedom of Speech
Global Voices Online
Bloggers join hands against B-school
Express News Service
Blogs come of age: IIPM comes under fire
Row over IIPM blogs
Breaking the Girl: IIPM’s Virtual Thugs Bully Rashmi Bansal
Sepia Mutiny blog
IIPM issues notice in ‘interest of IIPM and Planman fraternity’
Scribbler on the Net blog