Photo of a piece of torn paper with the #metoo hashtag on top of newspaper. Photo via istockphotos.com.

Editorial oversight has been one of the primary challenges with reporting about the #metoo movement. After all, if you give a survivor space in your magazine, newspaper, or online portal, how much can you really edit their story? It’s their story, often told in first person. That story often represents a major step in their recovery, and telling that story is fraught with pain and fear. Understandably, most organizations have taken a light touch with such first-person accounts allowing the survivors to speak relatively unfiltered.

But, I would offer the example of Chetan Bhagat and Ira Trivedi as a warning to those who do not properly fact check their sources before publishing them.

On 13 October, Outlook India published Ira Trivedi’s allegations against Chetan Bhagat and Suhel Seth. Because Outlook published Trivedi’s story, I believed the editors had done basic fact checking. That belief lent credence to her accusations. As much as I did not want to, I had to believe her. At least until I saw clear evidence indicating otherwise.

For, as Bhagat’s own editor Shinie Antony so wisely stated in a recent blog, “The sisterhood must not spare boys in their own backyard. For this is the price we pay for exposing other men — our own men stand exposed.”

Naturally, as a Chetan Bhagat fan, I did not want to believe that he is capable of such behavior. Yet, he offered little public proof otherwise. At best, I doubted Trivedi’s story, but I did not believe it fell into the #fakemetoo category, as he claimed on Twitter.

Until last Friday. That’s when a friend’s comment led me to search for the video from the JLF 2010 session Trivedi mentions in Outlook.

The video reveals that the Outlook article mischaracterizes both Chetan Bhagat’s question and Ira Trivedi’s answer. At first, you might think it’s understandable for Trivedi to not remember the exact wording of a question and response from 8 years ago. Can you? I sure can’t.

As a news organization, however, Outlook had an obligation to check the publicly available facts, even in a piece such as this. The JLF exchange Trivedi cited was objectively wrong and contradicted a material fact in her story.

To be frank, the entire question and answer session is painful to watch. Bhagat’s questions are at best inane and at worst blatantly sexist. While he is clearly trying to sound provocative, he comes off as awkward and somewhat terrified to be onstage with these three women. It feels like his brain is operating about five levels higher than his mouth. What he is seeking to do is expose the cultural biases associated with women writers. What he actually does is…wait for it…compares them to white tigers.

You can watch the video here. The exchange with Trivedi begins at about minute 38.

After questioning Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan about whether she has ever had a bad review (yes, he really asked that), he then asks Trivedi about potential suitors. The following is a slightly edited transcript of the exchange.

Bhagat: “How do your potential suitors…like men for example…react when they hear you are a writer? For example, if a guy comes to meet you and guys are not really interested in what the girl is doing, but they’ll still ask what you do, and you say I’m a writer. What happens to them? Does it affect them?…It’s different to be a woman and a writer. It’s not something you find very often. It’s like spotting the white tigers….Do they get intimidated? Do they get more attracted to you? What has been your experience?”

Bhagat’s question reflects only the male gaze. He wants to understand how the men, not Trivedi, feel. At first, Trivedi talks about how the men think she writes in a diary or for a fashion magazine. But, then, she tells this unprompted story:

“When the Great Indian Love Story came out, I was so paranoid, I said OK if you buy 50 books I’ll give you a kiss. If you buy 500, I’ll have an affair with you, and if you buy all the books, I’ll marry you.”

She laughed.

To which Bhagat said, “500 is it?” He then suggested that men could form a consortium to buy the books. The comment was disgusting, but he laughed, she laughed, everybody laughed. Everybody except Anjum Hasan.

One account written at the time characterized the look on her face this way:

“fellow panelist Anjum Hasan sat tersely on, arms folded, looking like she wanted to grab the closest mike stand and clobber both Trivedi and Bhagat with it.”

The exchange was friendly, but clearly Trivedi did not consent to anything at JLF. She was playing along for the laughs. Such jokes are the stuff lit fests are made of and one reason why many women have signed a petition asking JLF organizers not to give anyone accused of sexual harassment a platform.

Now, I am not giving Chetan Bhagat a pass for seriously inappropriate and quite frankly sexist comments. No, no, no. But his interest in 500 books is not only driven by lust, but by numbers. Because if there is one thing we all know about Chetan Bhagat, it’s that he loves the number 5.

Which brings me to the Outlook article.

Quoting here:

“During the panel in front of 5000 people in the audience, he asked me a joking question: ‘what do you do when men hit on you at book launches?’ I replied, also a joke, something along the lines of ‘I tell him that if he buys a 100 books, I will kiss him, and if he buys all my books, I will marry him.’”

Trivedi is obviously not giving an exact quote here and even says “along the lines of.” But the problem comes in her story when she uses the number 100 from the quote to explain Bhagat’s actions. She says that when asked why he would try to kiss her, he replied “that he had bought a hundred copies of my books and donated them to a library in Pune, so a kiss was his prerogative.”

As obsessed as Bhagat is with numbers, it’s unlikely he would have forgotten the price of a kiss was only 50 books, not 100. The discrepancy in the numbers forced me to re-examine whether or not I believed Ira Trivedi’s story. If such important details are wrong, what else about her account is wrong?

If you’ve read this far and think I am giving Chetan Bhagat a free pass and see me as a traitor to the feminist cause, you have missed the point. I found the first set of accusations triggering and disgusting. His comments at JLF even more so. No, he does not get a pass.

Trivedi’s allegations are serious, and factual inaccuracies must be questioned. First and foremost by the news outlet publishing the allegations. Outlook failed to perform due diligence on this story. I should never have been able to punch a hole in her story like this. Every sentence must stand on its own merit. The Outlook editors failed Trivedi, they failed their readers, and they failed the movement.

My suggestion to Outlook India is to add more women on its staff, especially at the copy desk level. The lack of diversity in its newsroom reflects in its coverage. In short, a female editor would have understood the seriousness of these allegations and why getting this story right was so important.