A saffluencer exclusive with Fair Observer’s Atul Singh
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e had the opportunity to speak with Atul Singh, a South Asian who is more than American and more than Indian. He is a true global citizen who is growing in influence with government leaders, business executives, and citizens every day. People are starting to care about his vision to educate the public and ignite a global conversation on issues that matter. As Founder of Fair Observer, a publication with a mission to analyze the deeper issues behind the news and provide perspectives from around the world, he is growing his unique platform and making a difference in away that is the embodiment of a Saffluencer and is someone we genuinely respect.We caught up with Atul after his “Making Sense” cross-country road trip to learn about America and to ramp up Fair Observer’s Kickstarter Campaign as his organization adopts a non-profit model because it aims to inform, educate and inspire the global citizen across the world. He was reflective, refreshing and riveting. Here is hoping that he inspires you as much as he inspired us.
1. Atul, What inspired you to start Fair Observer?
When I was young, my father gave me four children’s history books to read. They were American, Soviet, British and Indian. You can imagine little me getting awfully confused and turning up to my father saying, “Papa, these four books tell me four different things. Which one of them is true?” My father would give me one of his mesmeric smiles and respond, “well, that is for you to figure out.”
So very early in life, I cottoned on to the fact that no one narrative is enough. All of us have blindsides and when we put many stories together, we get a better approximation of the truth. Yet, as I have lived and traveled in many countries, I have observed that most folks still get their news and shape their views on the basis of their national narratives.
When it comes to world news, the more cosmopolitan folks around the world rely on The Economist. In the US, such people turn to The New York Times or say Foreign Policy . The Economist began in 1843 at the height of the British Empire and opposed India’s independence for years. More recently, it supported the war on Iraq. The US media has a similar past. Back in 1953, The New York Times supported the British and American led coup that toppled the first democratic government of Iran. Foreign Policy was founded by Samuel Huntington, a man who posited the idea of the clash of civilizations. I have long been convinced that it is possible to do better.
However, it was in March 2010 that I had the “aha” moment. I was in Wharton doing my MBA then with no clue as to what to do once I graduated. All I knew was that I was not going back to working for someone else. I ended up in New York City at Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s “Media Summit” in 2010 thanks to an Israeli friend named Moti Levy. For a change, I barely spoke throughout the entire duration of the conference except perhaps to beautiful women. I was just soaking everything in and when I returned to Philadelphia, the historic city where the US declared independence, I knew I had to start Fair Observer.
At the conference, I observed how insular the news media world was, how homogeneous the people in it happened to be and how unaware they were of the wider world. When it came to issues, few cared about context or deep analysis or multiple perspectives. Most had a Pavlovian reaction to hunt out latest stories, come up with catchy headlines and obsess about ratings. There was too much noise. The issues and trends behind the news were being lost. No one talked about the times of historic inequality that we live in or the gradual encroachment by governments on individual liberties. How are we going to have a decent democracy or a functioning society if we are not addressing the great issues of our times. There was a reason folks like Benjamin Franklin and Gandhi were newspaper men. There are folks all the way from Minnesota and Mali that need to have their voices and narratives heard, that the issues we focus on do not have to be decided upon in New York or London newsrooms and that we could have a real shot at a global discourse in a global era. I returned to Philadelphia on a crisp cool evening and as I looked out at the sky, I knew that I would be starting Fair Observer.
2. You have led a rather extraordinary life, Atul. Was there one or two experiences from all of your career moments that have prepared you most for your mission at Fair Observer?
There are many experiences that have prepared me for Fair Observer. Two in particular stand out in my mind. First, was the slaughter of the Sikhs in 1984. I was a child then and my father was a military surgeon posted in New Delhi. To this day I remember vividly the blackened sky. I asked my father what was going on and he told me that Sikhs were being killed by mobs. As I grew up, it shocked me that the the dominant elite in India never bothers about 1984. Just as Russians often shrug off Stalin’s senseless slaughter, India’s English speaking elite is largely beholden to the Nehru family. Fed a version of history that minimizes roles of folks like Patel, Bose or Rajagopalchari, it has long ignored the pogrom of the Sikhs by leaders loyal to the Nehru family. That deeply personal experience has fired up a conviction that all narratives should have a seat at the table. The only way to have a better grasp of reality is to let light shine through many prisms. That is why Fair Observer is an open platform, and a place for debate and discussion where everyone is welcome as long as they are not spouting hatred or lying about facts.
The second is my experience at Oxford. Three people I was close to argued for the war on Iraq. The first was my politics tutor and a member of the Liberal Party. He is older and a bit of a liberal imperialist, and I expected him to say what he did. The second was a product of the elite Westminster School and Balliol College at Oxford, and his position was based on the narrow ground that Saddam Hussein had to be punished for breaching international law. The third was one of my closest friends whose beliefs ended up scaring me the most. Here was a home schooled mathematician who professed to be against British imperialism and indeed was not of the right pedigree in a still class divided society. Yet, he was arguing that Iraq had to be invaded to bring democracy to the Middle East despite the fact that he had never been to any country outside Europe and knew no other language other than English. He was parroting arguments made by The Economist and Tony Blair, and simply could not understand where we “colonials” were coming from. The fact that scared me was that, despite his good intentions and unconventional personality, he lacked an independence of mind when it came to the war on Iraq. In retrospect, my interactions at Oxford made me realize how deeply indoctrinated people can be. Even the best and brightest of the British were still prisoners of their imperial past just as the Delhi elite were prisoners of their Nehruvian past. Iraq.
I see Fair Observer as offering a more kaleidoscopic view of the world where certainties are challenged and folks are exposed to perspectives, voices and narratives that they might not have otherwise considered. Fair Observer is fundamentally about educating the global citizen and I would never have had this conviction had I not experienced the slaughter of the Sikhs or the smug certitude of folks at Oxford who believed that the war on Iraq was a noble endeavor.
3. How are you better/ different than any other publication?
We look at the deeper issues behind the news through many lenses. As of two weeks ago, we reached 720 writers from over 30 countries. Our ” 360 ° Analysis,” is unique because it provides the context to an issue alongside many perspectives cutting across borders, philosophies and backgrounds. Specifically, this means that when it comes to Syria, you learn the context and get many perspectives on the issue, particularly those from the Middle East which are frequently absent from mainstream American media. Furthermore, we are a bottom up organization. Anyone from anywhere in the world can suggest topics, send us articles or write a response to anything they disagree with.
To sum it up, we are more democratic, more open, more plural and more global than anyone operating in the realm of world news. Not only do we have have global coverage and global reach, we are actually creating a global discourse.
4. What was the first mistake you made and what did you learn from it?
I did not do my due diligence on the technology front and overspent horrendously on design and coding. I now spend a hell of a lot of time with folks in technology to educate myself and keep up to speed. More than that, I focus a lot more on details and prioritization because, if I have to successfully captain my ship, I have to know it well.
5. Tell us about your first big break.
Believe it or not, I am still waiting for it.
6. What’s the biggest challenge you have faced in this journey?
The biggest challenge has been the lack of resources. I have run out of cash and live with my car mechanic. For the last three years, I have not had healthcare. Folks look at the work we do and assume that we have done this on a decent budget. The truth is that we have created all this out of virtually nothing. We have an all volunteer team spread across six continents. It is my savings, my parents’ pension savings, my brother’s generosity, Abul-Hasanat’s leadership as Managing Editor and the sweat and blood of the fantastic folks in our team that has kept us going despite the odds.
7. Tell us about a typical day.
There is no typical day. I have just driven across the US on a “Making Sense” tour to ask regular folks about what issues they care about and to promote our crowd funding campaign. Not only are we crowd sourcing our content but we are also crowd funding Fair Observer so that we can stay independent. Right now I am in Boston. In five days I will leave for New York City, then I visit Philadelphia and then move on to Washington DC before driving all the way back to California.
Usually, I am up early and sleep late. A large part of the day is spent on emails, calls and meetings. I spend a lot of time jotting notes in my notebooks and, of late, I have started doing push-ups a few times a day to stave off back pains.
8. What do you think has fueled the success of Fair Observer?
It is very simple. People want to figure out what is really going on. They are not satisfied with catchy headlines and want to dig deeper. The Brazilian President just called off her trip to the US because Brazilians are furious that the US might be conducting economic espionage on their leading companies such as Petrobas. Americans want to hear what Brazilians might have to say and vice versa, and both care about world opinion. Actually, folks from around the world want to hear perspectives that are more insightful than the regular fare served up on mainstream media.
9. As a social entrepreneur – what’s the one piece of advice you would give other budding entrepreneurs?
Follow your instinct.and if your instinct is not clear then meditate, take a walk, listen to some music or do whatever it takes to reach clarity.
10. You are an inspiration for us. Is there someone that inspires you? If so, who is he/she and why?
A number of folks inspire me. Socrates, Julius Caesar, Buddha, Lincoln, Einstein, Gandhi and Mandela to name a few. I am inspired by folks who challenge the status quo and have the courage of conviction to be willing to die for their beliefs.
11. What does 2014 look like? What’s the one thing you are hoping to achieve?
2014 will be the year when folks around the world will begin to start recognizing what we do. The one thing that we aim to achieve in 2014 is to be known to any student who takes an interest in the humanities, whether it is politics, economics, history, philosophy, literature or international relations. In 2014, we aim to start educating large numbers of students to be better global citizens and to participate in a global discourse.
If you are inspired, please support Fair Observer’s Kickstarter Campaign and it’s mission to inform, educate and inspire!