ET’s charming whitewash

…this article was a masterclass in avoiding a word, a specific word — the word “crook”…or any variant thereof.
SUMANTH RAGHAVENDRA on ET’s curious coverage of the ShopClues founder

 

THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD ---THE CURIOUS CASE OF A CROOK NAMED SANDEEP AGGARWAL

 

Reprinted from medium.com

 

I am sure everyone knows that the letter E is the most commonly used English alphabet and most of us would find it almost impossible to put together even a single sentence without this letter. But did you know that there is an entire book that was written without using the letter E even once?!

I remembered this book when I was reading this article in the Economic Times:

How ShopClues founder Sandeep Aggarwal surviveda run-in with Preet Bharara and kept his dreams…

But unlike avoiding using a particular letter, this article was a masterclass in avoiding a word, a specific word — the word “crook”…or any variant thereof.

Now you might be wondering how difficult it could be to avoid the word crook and thinking that it surely can’t be as difficult as avoiding the letter E. It turns out that avoiding this word is several times tougher than avoid a letter because the primary dramatis personae in this article is quite simply, a crook.

Meet Sandeep Aggarwal.

A former financial analyst on Wall Street who was arrested by the FBI and was not only charged with but also pleaded guilty to a serious white collar crime. At one point in time, he was scheduled to be sentenced to up to 25 years in prison. Eventually that didn’t happen but that was probably primarily because of a $1.2 billion settlement that his associates agreed to pay as a fine.

Now against this backdrop, go back to the article — the journalist has managed to string together an entire story about this gentleman without once using the “C” word!

What’s more, it is quite apparent that every little thing from the descriptive terms to the choice of turns of phrases has painstakingly been contrived to paint Sandeep as a sympathetic, heroic character.

For instance, note the title — “How Sandeep survived a run-in with Preet Bharara…” — a protagonist battling against nefarious forces who are out to fix him unjustly. Using “survived a run-in” here is as appropriate as saying “Osama Bin Laden survived a run-in with George Bush” or “Ajmal Kasab survived a run-in with Narendra Modi”. It removes all traces of a clearly criminal activity and make it sound at a chance encounter at a park with a stranger.

The rest of the narrative follows a similar pattern — eulogizing  Sandeep as a statesman with deep strategic skills.

It is plainly obvious that this is a deliberate attempt to whitewash Sandeep’s hoary past and make him out like some startup exemplar.

Now what’s wrong in that, you ask?

Two things.

Firstly, admittedly as entrepreneurs I am sure all of us have had to do things that we are not proud of…things like that we have to do to just keep afloat. So normally, it would be churlish to moralize others’ actions and judge them harshly. But that doesn’t apply here — because by his own admission, Aggarwal committed this crime not under duress or any kind of mitigating pressure but simply because “he wanted to move up the chain faster”. A simple case of avarice driving a person to do unsavory things.

Secondly, it is one thing to commit a crime but entirely another thing to commit a crime and not feel a whit of regret for doing this. The article completely glosses over any sense of regret or contemplation that Sandeep ought to have had and instead paints the entire experience as an “awkward” inconvenience— how Sandeep had to for instance deal with his legal defence or work with his employees and investors. What’s more, not only does Sandeep seem to have no sense of regret, he actually seem to take pride in his actions — narrating how adroitly he managed to handle the situation despite this “traumatic” experience that was so unjustly foisted upon him. “Beg, borrow, steal, murder but survive”, he says — what a wonderful lesson to preach.

So why would ET do something as appalling as this — provide a skewed narrative eulogizing a crook?

As far as I can tell, it can be of one of only two reasons.

Firstly, this could be a puffed-up PR piece — a hagiography masquerading as a thought piece, a branding exercise for Sandeep in the guise of a news story. Why would Sandeep need this? Shopclues, the startup he founded and is still the largest shareholder in, recently raised a funding round that enabled it to enter the much-hyped “Unicorn” club — startups with a billion dollar valuation. It would do a Unicorn no good if its creator is primarily known as a convicted felon.

Alternatively, without any external inducements, the journalist penning the piece decided to create a “hero” — shaping the entire narrative along the contours of the “heroic journey” trope. In my opinion, this is much more dangerous and worrisome than the first reason.

Why so?

Journalists, especially those writing for major publications like the Economic Times, have a formidable power to influence public opinion in general. This is equally true in startup coverage where a single story can make or mar the fate of a company.

Unfortunately, not every journalist exercises this power responsibly. By building narratives that are palpably misleading as in this case, they deify unworthy souls but also give out a loud and clear signal that not only condones criminal behavior but almost advocates the virtues of doing anything to get to success even if it means cheating and stealing.

What’s more, this particular story sadly highlights how there are VCs too who couldn’t care less about such things as morals as long as the founders they back can give them a smart return.

How else can one explain the VC from Helion praising Sandeep for his “resilience”?

Worse still, how can Lightbox Ventures not only condone Sandeep’s past crimes but also back him with funding in his next venture? I would really like to know how the LPs backing Lightbox Ventures look upon them backing a person who by his own admission “misappropriated in breach of a fiduciary duty, or similar relationship of trust and confidence” — wouldn’t backing a person convicted of such a crime violate the first tenet of corporate governance?

Sandeep, for what it’s worth, is entitled to have a sense of self-preservation and continue on his merry ways but what explains the imperatives of journalists and VCs to continue to back him despite him clearly not showing any sense of regret for his crimes?

Is it too much to hope for expect journalists to have a moral core and write about folks and events who are worthy of such lionizing?

Is it too much to expect VCs to have a conscience that goes beyond a return on capital calculation?

I hope that at some point of time, these worthies realize that even if you are smart enough to construct an entire story without once using the “C” word and even if you call a crime an “incident”, a “setback” or a “situation”, a crime by any other name is still a crime and a crook by any other name is still a crook.

 

Sumanth Raghavendra describes himself as an average joe entrepreneur at www.pitchdeck.io tilting away at the windmills from Beantown, India

 

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