At one point, Thomas Friedman pauses briefly but significantly in The World is Flat, his gushing endorsement for how technology is moving all kinds of American jobs to places like India. He chuckles, a little nervously. “Thank goodness I’m a journalist and not an accountant or a radiologist,” he writes. “There will be no outsourcing for me. . .”
But why not?
* Friedman has failed abysmally as a foreign affairs commentator.
* Accomplished columnists in India who are writing eloquently in English right now could replace him by tomorrow morning.
The New York Times is presumably paying Friedman for his knowledge and experience, but he has been wrong too often and for too long. He is supposedly an expert on the Middle East, but his analysis of the American invasion of Iraq and the calamitous, violent decade since then has been chronically misleading and worthless. Before the 2003 U.S. attack, while the genuine experts counseled diplomacy and caution, he told Americans: “My motto is very simple: give war a chance.” A few months after the invasion, he said that it “was unquestionably worth doing.” Some of his most offensive comments have been immortalized on Youtube, during an outburst in which he used a crude sexual metaphor that insulted people in the Middle East as part of an embarrassing rant that ended: “We hit Iraq because we could. And that’s the real truth.”
Let us set aside the immorality of cheerleading for a war in which nearly 4500 Americans and at least 160,000 (and possibly more) Iraqis have already died. Friedman failed to do his job – which was to accurately explain a far-off, foreign reality to his readers so that they could make informed choices. Among those he let down were: the U.S. voting public; business executives who may have been considering whether to invest in the Mideast; and, quite possibly even young people deciding if they should join the American army.
Friedman is fond of emphasizing that globalization is producing a competitive new world, which has no tolerance for inefficiency. If he worked for one of the big corporations that he likes to glorify, his blunders would have gotten him fired before the Iraq war had dragged into even its second year.
Fortunately, The New York Times would not suffer by losing him. There are newspaper columnists in India who could step right in immediately.
Palagummi Sainath, based in Mumbai, is the rural affairs correspondent for the English-language The Hindu. Sainath, who is one of India’s best known and respected reporters, is an elegant man in his late 50s, with a shock of gray hair. He has spent decades traveling through rural India, giving voice to the poor majority who have been left behind by the economic boom (which Friedman celebrates at every opportunity). Sainath spent part of 2012 in the United States, where he also wrote original columns about America. (His work is readily available on The Hindu’s website.) In today’s flat world, all he needs is his computer terminal, and his columns could be in the hands of his New York Times editors in nanoseconds.
Praful Bidwai, of New Delhi. Bidwai is a bearded bear of a man in his 60s, a tenacious, independent thinker. He spent years at the Times of India, but at present he freelances; thanks to the miracle of globalization, some of his work is instantly accessible at prafulbidwai.org. He writes about a broad range of subjects, including his regular indictments of India for developing nuclear weapons. By criticizing New Delhi’s atomic arsenal, he has shown the courage that a great newspaper columnist must have by speaking out about a subject on which the majority of India probably disagrees with him.
Arundhati Roy, of New Delhi. Americans who only know Roy through her remarkable novel The God of Small Things will be delighted to learn that she uses her mastery of the English language in outspoken essays on world politics, human rights, and war and peace. Some of her most effective articles denounced the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in the state of Gujarat, during which the state’s chief elected official stood by in complicit silence as mobs of Hindu extremists murdered 2000 people. (That official, Narendra Modi, is a strong candidate for India’s prime minister in this spring’s’s elections. Friedman’s 635-page-long The World is Flat is full of rejoicing about India’s high-tech industry, but he does not mention Modi and the mass killings once.)
This list of potential replacements for Friedman is only a beginning. Harsh Mander concentrates on hunger in India, which persists despite the much trumpeted economic miracle. Shubhranshu Choudhary spent seven years courageously reporting on the Maoist insurgency in east-central India, an uprising triggered partly by mining companies stealing land from the rural poor.
By replacing Friedman with one of these highly-qualified Indian candidates, The New York Times would not only improve its accuracy. The newspaper could also save money, which Friedman would agree is surely part of its responsibility to its shareholders. Back in 2005, he may have unwittingly composed his own pink slip.
“When the world is flat,” he wrote, “your company both can and must take advantage of the best producers at the lowest prices anywhere they can be found.”