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Outside, Looking In: Q&A with Journalist Geeta Anand

December 17, 2018
by Sonia Paul
Geeta Anand Journalist Geeta Anand // Photo by Greg Kroitzsh, edited by Leah Worthington

With a wide smile and a penchant for laughter, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Geeta Anand is hardly as intimidating in person as she seems on paper. From her start at Cape Cod News, a free weekly newspaper, she’s gone on to cover everything from local courts and cops, to biotechnology and business, to foreign correspondence in South Asia, most recently for The New York Times. Her 2006 book The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million—and Bucked the Medical Establishment—in a Quest to Save His Children, was turned into a CBS movie starring Harrison Ford. In 2003, she and her colleagues at The Wall Street Journal won the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for their series on the impact of corporate scandals in America. And growing up, Anand was a champion swimmer who represented India in the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.

Anand, who was raised in Mumbai by an American mother and Indian father, describes herself as “from two places and neither.” Once an activist, she might have gone into politics but worried about being neither completely American nor Indian. Instead, she turned her love of writing and storytelling into a career as a journalist or, as she calls it, “a good occupation for an outsider.”

Now, after a decade in Mumbai, Anand is making a new home in Berkeley, California. She recently joined the faculty at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism where she’s teaching courses on international reporting in India, as well as in local stops like Richmond, California.

California Magazine sat down with Anand to talk about her experiences as a journalist. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your journey as a journalist, as a sort of outsider writing about different communities?

I just started out covering communities closest to where I was. I went to Dartmouth College, and I got my first job on the Cape. And then went to another small paper in Vermont, and then to The Boston Globe, and then to The Wall Street Journal, and then to The New York Times. But in my first few papers, it was very clear to the people I covered that I wasn’t from there.

I had a strong Indian accent. And my name was Geeta Anand. [Laughs.] They wanted to know if I had married someone. “Oh, what are you doing here?”

So, what would you tell them?

Usually my answers are long-winded family histories: “Well, actually my mother’s American, my dad’s Indian. I grew up in India, my family now lives in the U.S.” And, you know, I would soon win them over by making them laugh and engaging them in a chat. I didn’t find it to be an insurmountable obstacle at all.

I didn’t feel like an outsider, but they very much saw me as an outsider. When people described me, they’d be like, “Oh yeah, the Indian woman.” You realize how much ethnicity is a part of identity.

Could you talk a bit more about transitioning from doing local news to foreign correspondence?

I think the most important experience I got was doing really good local reporting. Really good journalists work at small newspapers, often, because they love the state and the area. And I had really good training covering local government and courts and cops. At The Boston Globe, I fought really hard to cover Boston City Hall and the state house—those were the core beats that usually had Irish American men covering them. But that training was really good, so by the time I got to The Wall Street Journal, and they wanted me to cover the biotech beat, I could cover anything. I knew zero about biotech, but I knew how to ask good questions, how to source, and how to investigate something.

The Wall Street Journal’s editing process is really rigorous. Doing a lot of investigative pieces for them over a 10-year period was excellent training—the questions asked, the attribution required, the intolerance for unnamed sources, the focus of fairness, the training on going to the other side in your story, and at the start of the story, not at the end.

Anand (center in red) with a farming family in Punjab, India, reporting for the NYT on why farmers set their crops on fire // Photo courtesy of Geeta Anand

Then when I decided to go back to India and be a foreign correspondent [in 2008], I knew I could report in India. I could report anywhere. I just had to learn how to do a different kind of story.

So, my advice is always, go where you can get great experience, wherever it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s covering India or covering Richmond, California. You know what I mean? It’s just having a chance to write a lot, do difficult stories, have great mentoring. If you can do that, jobs will come.

What was it like serving as a foreign correspondent in your home country?

I felt like it gave me a huge advantage. I felt like it was a secret weapon. [Laughs.] I had all the training of a foreign correspondent. I knew how to see stories as an international newspaper would, but I could speak Hindi and I understood the culture well, so I didn’t need to rely on translators or fixers for the most part. Though I learned early on that was arrogant of me, actually. And if I had a translator and fixer, I did better.

Foreign correspondence tends to be a euphemism for western correspondence. What did working as foreign correspondent teach you about the way the rest of the world perceives India and, by extension, how people anywhere understand countries other than their own?

I think that newspapers were gradually making the transition to realizing that they couldn’t cover [foreign countries] just from a Western perspective as they always had because everyone in the country can read the stories. [Laughs.] So, they were realizing, as I was there, that you have to cover the country as an insider and an outsider, which is a very special edge that you’re trying to stand on. The longer I was there and got back in touch with India, the closer I was to the important issues in the country and the better my understanding of what was happening.

I am someone who believes that international publications should send people who have a deeper knowledge of the country. They are realizing that with China and countries that are super important to the U.S. economy. They haven’t yet understood that with India, or at least U.S. newspapers haven’t. I think newspapers in the UK and Europe have a little bit more.

Anand interviewing a family near Pune, India, in 2017 about the high rate of diabetes // Courtesy of Geeta Anand

My first idea at Cal is to develop a South Asia expertise at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, because I feel like it’s some expertise that I bring to the school, and I also see the need for it.

Were there any stories of yours that made you rethink how you practice journalism or were particularly challenging?

Two stories I did on corruption: One for The Wall Street Journal about a stock market analyst being harassed after writing a tough report on a big company in India. And another for The New York Times when I was writing about allegations of corruption against another big Indian company. My first story got held up in the courts, because the company was able to get the Delhi High Court to issue an injunction and block the story in advance of it appearing in the paper—just based on my questions.

So, to avoid that scenario I didn’t give the company as much time [to respond to] the second story—I didn’t give them time to rush to a court. But neither is an ideal scenario because you want to give companies you’re accusing of serious offenses time to respond, for the story to be fair…I mean, it just questions the ability of journalists to write tough stories in India about corruption because the system is not set up to protect freedom of speech.

We’re at a moment of rising distrust in the media. How do you think journalists should respond to that?

I guess I believe that we have to question ourselves first. I think we should take part of the blame for a lack of trust in us—and not just interview people who are like us and who agree with our beliefs. We should really reach out and try to do stories on communities that don’t trust us and understand why they don’t trust us.

So, I think there’s reason to worry, but I think that [we should] try and do our jobs better. And not be so smug about how good we are in our accomplishments and how right we are. I think it reflects, in some ways, a liberal smugness, and a full-of-itself-ness.

So what do you think, then, of some people calling right now a sort of “golden age of journalism” or a “journalism renaissance?”

I think that The New York Times and The Washington Post have been doing a great job covering Trump. It is a golden age, in part, but we’ll also be looking at this age quite critically. That we did do the important critical stories but that sometimes we’re reflexively jumping on the bandwagon and doing stories that will have no importance, just the latest bumble.

There’s absolutely reason to write really critical stories [about the administration]. But we also don’t want to lose perspective, which is hard to retain when you’re in the midst of a storm.

You mentioned that you used to be an activist. Would you say there’s an inherent conflict if a journalist wants to produce active change in the world but, at the same time, is supposed to be objective?

I think there is a conflict if you try to manipulate the facts to produce the goal. But I believe that journalism can bring about change in the world if you just report what’s happening and report fairly. Readers can actually tell what responsible journalism is. And when a story is well-reported, it has the potential to make enormous change.

I think we’ve all gotten a little discouraged by Trump and his accusations of fake news. And we’ve lost sight of the fact that there are actually facts. You shouldn’t hide behind the “he said, she said” story and not say clearly and powerfully what the results of your reporting are. But if you do that, you have the potential to create much more change than if you decide you’re an activist and just leave out the other sides’ points of view in order to produce some result. I think that is fooling yourself, and that is misleading.

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