Government Bashing: All About Ratings?

Published: June 30, 2010

The article takes a swipe at local news anchors, accusing them of using anti-government rhetoric to gain ratings

Is the Pakistani media too critical of its government? The Wall Street Journal shed light on the issue in a recently published article on the controversial content on our news channels. And with a title like “In Pakistan, Criticism of the President is Good for TV Ratings,” its not hard to see whose side the WSJ is taking.

The article takes a swipe at local news anchors, accusing them of using anti-government rhetoric to raise their ratings, and spreading “rumors that  Washington and India are acting secretly to take over Pakistan and are fighting Islam”, using the example of Jihadist Has-been Zaid Hamid. A certain leading media organization receives the majority of the blame for its needlessly persistent stand against President Asif Zardari and the government, in a shameless attempt to collect more ad revenue.

I certainly don’t dispute the fact that anti-government coverage is directly related to higher viewership and readership. It just seems funny to me that this comes as a shock to the Wall Street Journal, whose sister media organization Fox News has capitalized on this very factor to become the most watched news channel in the US. Its also quite whimsical of the WSJ to use Zaid Hamid as a representative of Pakistani news anchors, considering that Zaid Hamid is nowhere close to representing the views of mainstream anchors. Yes, they may be biased, but how many of them harbor fantasies of conquering India?

But let’s not split hairs. Rather than writing a point-by-point critique, its more pertinent to answer the fundamental question raised by the journal: Why does condemnation of the government lead to higher ratings? After all, there must be some reason why the public is so interested in hearing talk show hosts disparage our leadership.

One possible reason, which is cited by certain government officials ad nauseum, is that such rhetoric appeals to the anti-state sentiments of the public, hence becoming an attempt to undermine democracy and destabilize the state. But this argument doesn’t hold water, since being anti-state is entirely different from being anti-government. I have not seen a single program where any host has shown his apathy towards Pakistan as a state. Nor have I seen public perception tuned towards anti-state behavior. On the other hand I have seen plenty of political catharsis dished out against the ruling parties. Governments may come and go, but the state is here to stay, so to equate them as one is pure folly.

Could it perhaps be because secretly, in our heart of hearts, we want the government to fail? Is it because we find the failures of our leaders more appealing than their successes? This would point to a rather sadistic perception of our public, which the Germans call “schadenfreude”: Finding pleasure in the misery of others. We revel in our rulers doing something wrong, and news channels rely on this instinct to lure us by appealing to our desire to watch our leaders squirm in the face of opposition. 

But this argument would be valid only if our rulers engaged in actions which had no direct effect on us. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Every action of our leaders has tremendous repercussions on us all, and most of them are far from positive. I don’t think we receive pleasure every time the petrol prices rise, or the electricity bills go up, or food supplies run short. And I refuse to believe that if a nation is capable of being sadistic, it can simultaneously switch to masochism as well.

The only possible conclusion in my opinion, is linked to the sudden explosive advent of broadcast news in Pakistan, which brought the views of people from the secrecy of their homes to a nationwide stage. It’s no secret that the public has expressed dissatisfaction with nearly every ruling regime since independence, but what has changed is the ability of the people to express their view. The citizens happily went to the polls to elect their representatives, but the elected officials failed to represent the citizens. Seeing the failure of their supposed ‘representatives’, the public began looking elsewhere for an advocate, someone that could project their thoughts, understand their concerns, and do more than just listen on deaf ears. This inevitably put the Pakistani media is in the incredibly important position to voice the concerns of the people, a privilege that was not granted to state-run television networks. In an era when government officials are nicknamed on the basis of corruption percentages, and political counter-weights are mockingly referred to as ‘friendly opposition’, the media has emerged as the lone ranger straddling across the political landscape, bringing the views of the common man in front of the entire nation.

Having said that, I am not saying that the media is devoid of any flaws. Yes there are rogue elements within it, there are conspiracy theorists, and it is still far from perfect. It has still a long way to go. But looking at the big picture, I would say that it is not criticism of the government, but rather the representation of the Pakistani public, that leads to higher TV ratings. The Wall Street Journal could use a revision.


Usman Zafar

A content producer for current affairs program Witness with Quatrina on Express 24/7, Usman writes on domestic politics, international relations, and social issues. He occasionally writes at Instablogs on

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