Corporate greed, sensationalism and an irresponsible media

Published: October 22, 2010
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Our media suffered first from censorship and now from moneymaking ventures.

“Exaggeration is truth that has lost its temper.” Khalil Gibran.

We live in a world of exaggeration. A world blinded by megalomania. We are getting blinder every passing day. We are a case of collective schizophrenia. It is one of the most dangerous ailments of all, but are we the only ones that are blind. We are surely the damned ones.

A sensationalist press, not an adversarial one

Whenever something goes wrong in the world, we become the scapegoats. The international media paints Pakistanis as a people devoid of moral standards. The Pakistani media borrows this portrayal to strengthen the bias, giving testimony against their own people. It is true that “a good government with an adversary press becomes a great government.” But the adversarial role doesn’t mean borrowed spectacles. Adversary press is a press that confronts the powerful for the sake of the downtrodden, the wretched of the earth. Does the Pakistani media play this role? A media like that is nowhere in sight. It doesn’t own the audience, which is the most basic thing for effective mass communication.

From newspapers to 24/7 TV

Mass media in Pakistan mushroomed at the turn of the millennium. Idiot boxes multiplied, through the proliferation of private TV channels. 24/7 television is a beast that devours what exists and creates anew. The roots of Pakistani media are in the printed word, the newspaper. The newspaper industry first got its vigour from the anti-colonial movement and the struggle for independence. If we look back in history, we see that the stalwarts of solo journalism were all political activists. They were all using the only available media, the newspaper, to further their political ideologies. This made them the watchdogs of politics, a fitting role for the times they lived in.

It is also very natural to carry on this role after the establishment of a new democracy. The Pakistani media remained political in nature after it gained independence from the British. It had to face the wrath of its new rulers, the new custodians of faith and sovereignty. Muzzling the media remained the first priority of every government to date. Post-colonial Pakistan remained a pseudo-democratic structure, where the rich and the mighty entered the echelons of power through their might over the common man. The media had to toe the line or perish. This lesson was repeatedly pressed into the minds of the media, by democrats and dictators alike. From adding noise into the radio speeches of leaders, to nationalising vocal newspapers under the National Press Trust, to the Printing and Publication Ordinance, the government tried to quieten the media. These measures were all taken within the first 15 years of Pakistan’s birth.

Censorship and corporate greed: hindering good reporting

Most of the mainstream media got the message. The few defiant loners never mattered. State-controlled electronic media, a cautious press and a lot of journalists forced to self-censor are the products of this system.

The mushrooming of private electronic media brought a new power player into the game, namely Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Mainstream television as hailed as a larger than life phenomenon, capable of restoring the democratic pride of not only the media, but also the people. This has not happened. Big media is big business and big business is big money, needing more and more attention from viewers, who are baffled by the variety of audio-visual messages beamed into their bedrooms. Attention seeking behaviour turned much-lauded talk shows into cockfights. Every TV channel set the stage for at least one cockfight, marketing the hosts in a manner that awed the idle recipients of the new technology.

A long way to go

Exaggerated accounts of distant happenings are systematically being brought to the people, packaged as idea of the day. As Nietzsche prophetically said more than a century earlier, “Big lies are hung to small truths.” This is very true for Pakistani TV. Though every debate begins with the people, it progresses and ends in abstraction. The anchor-host has the last word. More often than not, this opportunity is used to give a personal message, which is either a summing-up of the fight that took place, or something completely irrelevant. No matter which way it goes, it is never the people’s way. True, it is packaged for the people, but the viewer is always lost after the demagogy has taken place.
The argument that “a new media is learning the art of the possible” is no more valid. I think it is high time for soul searching, if there is any soul left in the so-called marketplace of ideas. Like the Pakistani nation, its TV audience is the source of the all money going into the coffers of journalists and businessmen. The audience should have their day. Media and media men should learn to respect the truth. The only way to know the needs of the audience is to go through rigorous audience research, knowing what the people want to know. This is the first and most important step to avoid exaggerations.

There is a long way ahead before we can say we have a democratic, sensitive media. Playing the adversary to serve vested interests won’t last long. Then again, it might, but it won’t be worth it. Doing the right thing in this case is not patriotic, it is professional. Experiments with exaggerations should give way to telling the truth. This is the norm of credible communication.

This post was originally published here.

altafkhan

Dr. Altaf Ullah Khan

Chairman of Journalism department at the University of Peshawar, Khan is global adjunct faculty at the center for International Studies at Ohio University. He completed his doctorate in communication and media sciences from Germany. He lives in Peshawar with his wife and three sons.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.