Who Will Keep Our Media Honest?

Posted on November 11, 2008
Filed Under >Mast Qalandar, Society, TV, Movies & Theatre
40 Comments
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Aziz Akhmad

While I am writing this, a young, attractive woman appears on the TV screen, on a Pakistani channel, her head partially covered in a headscarf and her wide eyes dyed in kohl. She looks into the camera and delivers the following message in Urdu to promote her own talk show:

”Khabar woh jo sachi, tabsara who jo khara, tajzia who jo haqeeqat ke qareeb-tar …” Roughly translated it would be: We present news that is true and views that are sound and based on facts …

How one wishes this were true!

While the number of newspapers and news channels in Pakistan has vastly increased, as has their reach, thanks to the Internet and satellite communication, sadly, however, the quality of their reporting and commentary has not.

For example, a widely read columnist, writing for a leading Urdu daily, made the revelation that President Bush had recently threatened the US Congress with martial law if it did not approve the $700 billion bailout package for American banks that Bush had proposed in an effort to overcome the current financial crisis. Not only that, the columnist added, the troops were deployed in several American cities to make the threat real.

Actually, when I read this, I looked out of the window of my apartment, in New York, where I presently live, to see if there were any troops on the streets. The only people I could see, in uniform, were the police and postal workers, doing their routine beats. And this is how it has been for as long as I can remember.

Since no one questioned the columnist’s claim, he repeated it a few days later, on a TV talk show. Surprisingly, neither the host of the show nor any of the participants in the program challenged the claim.

George Bush may not be widely known for intellect, but he understands this much that if threatened the Congress with martial law, Americans would simply laugh him out of the White House, even before the new president moves in.

I would have laughed off this comment, too, had I not known that the writer was not only a leading columnist and commentator but was once the speechwriter for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Vying for readership and audiences, and the consequent revenues, the media increasingly tends to sensationalize news; personal opinions and biases are presented as news; commentators state inferences and perceptions as facts, often peddle half-baked ideas and folklore as received truths. “Renowned” journalists quote rumors as evidence and think nothing of slander.

A talk show host of another leading channel, a doctor someone or the other, while discussing the history of American elections and past presidents, pulled this rabbit out of his hat. He said that the Jews in America had, under a well thought out plan, damaged the US economy in the late 1950’s until John F Kennedy got elected and turned the economy around. Hello! Jews working against the American economy? I wonder what books this doctor must have been reading, if he has been reading anything at all.

Another columnist of a Lahore-based Urdu daily, who also hosts a talk show on a news channel owned by the same paper, and who usually wears a look of certitude that can either come from arrogance or ignorance, employs a different technique to deliver his op-ed lectures. He usually starts with a story or a parable, then weaves the story into the political topic he wants to discuss, and reaches a conclusion of his choice – not infrequently, a slander.

It may be a good technique to hold the attention of the reader or the audience except that the stories of this columnist are almost always mythical. And so are his conclusions. One wouldn’t mind, though, reading or listening to mythical stories, but there is a limit to how far one can stretch his or her imagination – or how much slander one can stomach.

In a recent column, he tells what reads like a cock and bull story about “red chimpanzees,” who are supposed to have lived along with humans in some dreamland in the Middle East. According to the tale, the chimpanzees became friends with the king, eventually setting the king’s palace on fire, which spread and destroyed the whole city, and eventually the whole kingdom.

Having told the story, the columnist then launches a vicious attack on a prominent Lahore-based editor of an English newspaper, comparing him with the red chimpanzees of the story and suggesting that he and people like him would destroy Pakistan.

I don’t know what prompted this attack. Perhaps, business jealousy, a personal grudge, or perhaps contempt for opposing socio-political views? The viciousness of the attack and the nature of unsubstantiated accusations leaves one breathless. And, it certainly does not enhance the credibility of this particular newspaper. Here is what he wrote about the editor (translation and paraphrasing is mine):

“This man is a “mafia lord” (sic) of a Lahore NGO who had achieved fame, back in 1997, while touring India, by maligning Islam and denigrating the Ideology of Pakistan. He has been receiving funds from India and America for a long time. He has weird interests and hobbies, which include keeping dogs as pets, usually a dirty breed of dogs; makes fun of Islamic rituals such as prayer, fasting and beards; holds drink and dance parties; and receives heavy funds from America and India.”

Wow!!! One wonders why the journalist is not in a court of law.

With the current state of economy, and the investment in the country drying up, soon the advertising revenues for the media will start drying up, too. Maybe, it is an opportunity for the media to do a bit of introspection and try to regulate itself.

Otherwise it can go the same route as most of the unregulated businesses around the world have: Boom, bubble and bust!

Note: This article was published in The News of November 10, 2008.

40 responses to “Who Will Keep Our Media Honest?”

  1. ??? says:

    MEDIA SEEMS TO BE HONEST ENOUGH
    AS COMPARED TO REST OF THE DEPARTMENTS AND PEOPLE. SPECIALLY OUR GOVT. AND POLITICIANS + ARMY + …

  2. Zainub Razvi says:

    The number of professionals with formalized journalistic training currently within the Pakistani Television News sector is nowhere near proportionate with the rate at which new TV channels have sprung up. This vacuum has invariably been filled with pseudo analysts or half baked reporters. This problem of a shortage of genuine journalists has been compounded by the fact that the media conglomerate it self that supports these journalists is in a nascent stage. It has precious little past experience at handling the information overload that Pakistan’s constantly deteriorating social and political conditions present. Resultantly, you have a hyperactive media that is all too ready to broadcast or publish any and every event and observances as news and opinion. Basic journalistic ethics are often compromised for enhanced ratings, commercial or even political vested interests, lowering the bar of journalistic integrity.

    Solutions for this are needed at multiple levels (greater content regulation and quality control at the editorial level, combined with an independent non-governmental media watch) but a first, and most necessary step, without which all the other steps will not achieve their desired results, is the training of those folks in the field who entered it merely because of the “media boom” and because they thought getting a job in some big media house was cool. Their English speaking skills might have secured them a job then, but their ignorance about the trade of journalism is making a mockery of the institution in Pakistan. They could all do with taking an elementary news writing or journalistic ethics course.

  3. Sana Javed Qureshi says:

    Although a cherished right of the people, freedom of the press is different from other liberties of the people in that it is both individual and institutional. It applies not just to a single person’s right to publish ideas, but also to the right of print and broadcast media to express political views and to cover and publish news. A free press is, therefore, one of the foundations of a democratic society.
    As society has grown increasingly complex, people rely more and more on newspapers, radio, and television to keep abreast with world news, opinion, and political ideas. One sign of the importance of a free press is that when antidemocratic forces take over a country, their first act is often to muzzle the press.
    Most of the tv channels in Pakistan does not understand that how the news should be presented on air, there are many false news dileverd on air like in the case of MUSTAFA KAMAL APPOINTED AS A 2ND BEST MAYOR OF THE WORLD which was an incorrect news launced by geo and ary. a news must be objective, true and not angled. fairness and impartiality are essential. a reporter also shall report both sides of an issue. hence, the news must be presented as it is, not as journalist wants.

  4. Anum says:

    Babar:

    With kind of childish acts and dishonesty going around between these media people..do you think there’s any quality control? I think they themselves are in charge of that as well and are definitely taking advantage!

  5. Babar says:

    What I do not understand is that why every tom, dick and harry columnist has to be expert of every field in the world. Specificaly, why every body is giving expert advice on economics? Especialy the people who do not even know the definiton of basic terminology in economics nor do they care to open a secondary high school economics book to find out. Why bother to write about something you so clearly dont understand. What forces them to do this is beyong my imagination. They tell anecdotes qoute shakspere’s exposition of interest and jewish bigotry and based on such analysis offer solutions to Pakistan’s economy with certitude. Why the fuss?

    They just pick the hottest topic in the news and jump unto it for the fear of losing it to the other coloumnists. One good example is the LHC experiment at CERN. Everybody wanted to write about it and one scholar even suggested that it should be banned. They should be reminded the difference between an coloumn and personal blog.

    And its not just the dishonesty or lack of understanding. Its also pure incompetence to write a coherent paragraph or even pretend to be analytical and follow a theme. For example someone will start a certain topic and right in the middle of paragraph he will be reminded of some enemy of pakistan and he will devote a few lines in thrashing it (not just a passing comment, but whole arguments), or he will restate for the readers well known stories from our glorious past ( again not a hint, but whole episodes) beore coming back to the topic. I wonder is there no quality control in the editorial sections of these leading urdu newspapers.

    This makes my heart bleed for urdu. Certainly a century ago, the people writing in urdu much much more masterful of the art of argumentation and articulation.

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