The Tulabhara of Today’s Media
The Value of Truth and Journalism Today
Weighing objects in exchange for life has been part of an ongoing metaphor and symbol of evaluating human value for thousands of years. Roman playwright of the Old Latin period, Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE) wrote in his Curculio “Find me a reasonable lover against his weight in gold” (I, 3, 45). In this play, curculio is the Latin word for “weevil,” a beetle whose larva eats many times its weight in grain and also the name of the main character of the play where the weight of human life is made metaphor throughout the comedy. This expression later found its way into the English language in Henry Medwall’s A Goodly Interlude of Nature (ca. 1500), “Nay ye ar worth thy weyght of gold.”
However, if we go far further back in time, we find the Hindu tradition of Tulabhara तुलाभार, the ancient Hindu practice in which a person is weighed against a commodity such as sandalwood, gold, grain, fruits or other objects where the equivalent weight of that commodity is offered as a donation. One reference to this practice is recorded in the Mahabharata (c. 800BCE) where weighing life takes a potentially mortal turn as King Shibi, a descendant of King Bharata of the Lunar dynasty, who was known for his truthfulness, being just, and keeping his word. One day, Shibi is approached by Indra, king of the deities, and Agni, the god of fire, who have taken the forms of an eagle and a dove. The dove flies to Shibi seeking his protection from the eagle. The king decides to protect the dove; however, the eagle explains to Shibi that he must return fresh flesh in the equal weight of the dove. So, the king, in keeping his word to protect the dove, decides to give his flesh in exchange for the exact weight of the dove’s body.
Shibi begins to slice off bits of his thigh and with the dove standing on one side of the balance, the king removes his own flesh putting it on the other side of the scale. Yet, even after much cutting off pieces of his body and adding his flesh to one side of the scale, the scales do not move. Finally, Shibi stands on the scale and says that the hawk can eat him in order to spare the dove. At this moment the gods Indra, king of the deities, and Agni, the god of fire, appear to Shibi and bless him. Indra heals the king’s wounds and the two gods disappear leaving everyone astounded by these events.
Tulabhara is mentioned throughout Hindu ancient texts and is still performed in several parts of India today. I bring up this practice because, like King Shibi who takes great care to keep his word to the hawk and to be truthful, we depend upon those who tell the truth, those who are committed to the honest portrayal of events. In recent centuries, this has been the role of the media—to provide facts that allow the public to be better informed about the issues that matter while also providing criticism and debate to ensure that information is tested and examined from various points of view. Anyone reading this previous sentence is likely to chuckle as this mandate is rarely embraced by major media today which is fully awash in corporate sponsorship, sponsored news stories, and entertainment posed as news.
I woke up this morning and did my usual passing through some major media sludge—you can’t criticise it if you don’t read it. The first story that stuck out on CNN’s home page was this: “I keep forgetting you're still alive:' Elon Musk trolls Bernie Sanders on Twitter.” Step over Hello! magazine. I then posted on Facebook: “If there were a drinking game where every time major media runs pieces on Gates, Musk and Bezos, we'd be drunk all the bloody time. This isn’t even remotely journalism. Cat videos are more news-worthy.” Sadly, my comment isn’t even a slight exaggeration.
I head over to Forbes, a publication that runs a huge chunk of its stories as “real news” when the reality is that large corporations pay Forbes to cover their brands. Here are the two biggest stories on its front page this morning: its top story, “Trump’s D.C. Hotel To Reportedly Sell For $375 Million” and this bit of self-aggrandisement “Bill Gates’ Rank On The Forbes 400 Is The Lowest It’s Been In 30 Years.” Scroll down and Elon Musk is not only the subject of one story, but he is the subject of two. Go to MSNBC and a similar story unfolds as Trump Derangement Syndrome seems to have a permanent home on its website with nine stories on Trump, only three on the current sitting president and an op-ed entirely misrepresenting the recently announced University of Austin project which claims “In exchange for paying to indulge in racism and transphobia, the students get ... nothing.”
These major media outlets run fake news throughout their websites interspersing the paid advertisements with stories that resemble more traditional news items which may also be adverts. The strangest thing is that these companies openly advertise this fact on their platforms: Forbes’ “Connoisseur” claims to be a “Reimagined Storytelling Experience” and its “Insights” section touts itself with the tagline “Trusted Insights from Leading Business Minds.” Its “Brand Voice” Forbes claims “connects your brand with Forbes’ influential global audiences, through resonant storytelling, expertise and thought leadership.” There is quite a bit of “storytelling” here which must be the millionaire version of “saying my truth.”
Forbes runs these pieces daily throughout its website where readers are given very little indication if they are reading fake news, elaborately-written publicity that sort of sounds like news but isn’t, or if what is before their eyes is journalism of any shade. This has been standard fare for these online media giants since early 2000 which sustain their budgets by selling ad space as new stories— euphemistically called “advertorials—for tens of thousands of dollars. And when these media giants aren’t hosting their in-house advertisement dressed up as news stories, there is a plethora of marketing agencies bringing clients to these media centres.
Similar programmes exist with most major media enterprises such as CNN’s CNNIC and MSNBC’s “branded content” which are just a drop in the bucket in how major media plumps up its pages with paid content. What’s frightening is that not only is this happening in plain view, this is considered a successful news funding model that persists within myriad other news outlets that constitute what we call “major media.” Even The Atlantic was caught up in a branded content scandal demonstrating that smaller publications are not immune to such encroachments of journalistic ethics.
It’s not that I have anything against Elon Musk or neoliberal journalists secretly in love with Donald Trump—it’s that none of what they write is news! It’s pulp fiction at best and a twisted version of Hello! magazine at worse as we are handed daily musings of party sycophants being handsomely paid to shill for the billionaire class making their tweets front-page news.
Following last week’s revelation that Igor Danchenko is alleged to have lied to Christopher Steele about Sergei Millian's involvement while never having “corrected” Steele’s “erroneous belief” and the 4 November indictment of Igor Danchenko, it’s safe to say that Russiagate is not only fully debunked, but it has mirrored in many ways the fake news of Judith Miller’s WMD lies published under the headline of The New York Times resulting in hundreds of thousands of dead. On 12 November, The Washington Post corrected and removed large chunks of two of its published in March 2017 and February 2019 regarding the Steele dossier that identified Millian as a source.
We are living in dystopic times where people are still turning immediately to major media for their news only to be handed one lie after another. Where journalists have become political actors in recent years, printing outright lies that led to the invasion of Iraq or that has resulted in the fusion of the security state with corporate media, we can no longer trust stories from these sources.
We didn’t learn the lesson with the Judith Miller’s lies run by The New York Times, we haven’t learned in the years of Russiagate having been proven a hoax time and time again despite Rachel Maddow’s brand of spinning off daily fictions about alleged “Russian sources.” Despite the plethora of facts having been presented—more than enough in fact to douse her nightly Trump Derangement Syndrome dumpster fire of disgraceful fake news proselytisation—Maddow not only continues to be employed by MSNBC, but she is digging down into her lies.
We were told that this would never happen again, yet here we are, less than fifteen years later, with full evidence of the Russiagate hoax perpetrated in large part by major media. There is only one response to this problem: Turn off major media, subscribe to independent outlets that are trustworthy and which have been getting it rights years before last week’s Washington Times retraction.
While The Washington Post is able to quietly ensconce its retractions behind the smooth rhetoric of its executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who states that the paper “could no longer stand by the accuracy of those elements of the story,” one must ask why the Post ran story brimming with unsubstantiated claims in the first place?
Even though major media is accountable to no higher authority, we the people must hold media accountable to the truth. In the tradition of the Tulabhara, we must ask ourselves what value these publications hold in the equal weight of truth. Indeed, we must wonder if they hold any value whatsoever.
Putin judged, rightly, that information warfare was a cheap, low-risk way of attacking a vulnerable adversary by taking advantage of right wing conspiracy theories; that a wilderness of mirrors would provide endless fodder for the left to take part in conspiracy theories; that America's partisan polarization, media decay, and ossified institutions would render the nation unable to cope. Meanwhile, off the top of my head I can name a dozen "independent voices" that belong to the Kremlin. The propaganda game is far older than any of us, or of these publishing platforms we think so novel.
I'm subscribing BECAUSE of this post. It is always such a relief when someone speaks the truth, something utterly lacking in my society whose foundation is falsehood. As Caitlin Johnstone says, "You lie and lie and lie and then wonder why people don't believe that covid is serious."