While we rightly celebrate freedom of media and general freedoms in Pakistan, it is time that we look back and see how some in media conduct themselves, and how the media in general relates to society. Watching coverage of daily incidents, I cannot hesitate to make some frank comments on the commentators. First, I don’t see a balance between the freedom to ask a question, which contains an answer in itself, and the responsibility that comes with that freedom. It seems that the anchors before the cameras — and the scriptwriters feeding them lines, words and expressions —are riding a wild horse, and that too for the first time. Some of the anchors appear to be riding high on the power that they think they wield over society, but without realising two important points. First, the power of the media is institutional, not individualistic, in a mature environment. Egoism, self-exaltation and a false sense of importance and superiority, as if these anchors are the chosen ones, with a mission to confront, humiliate and question the integrity of anyone they face, are all things not found in established media.
The second point is that they don’t realise that the more they play a mixed game of egotism and raw power, the more they undermine their own ability as well as that of the media in general, to remain credible and relevant to the democratic needs of society. Many serious viewers find political talk shows empty of substance, superficial and polemical. The discussions leave intelligent men and women offended and viewers with partisan affiliations, outraged. The role of the free media in Pakistan is opposite to what it presents itself; it must steer the debate among contending political groups to create clarity for the common man in order for him to form an informed opinion.
Political talk shows have already damaged their power and influence to a great degree, and the more they do the same, the more they will diminish their capacity to do some good for society. My own observation and informal discussions suggest that people at large are turning away from political talk shows, which are not entertaining, analytical or honest enough to keep the viewership loyal to them. The growing habit of channel surfing is not due to boredom but due to the search for some substance.
Another point relates to the selection of issues for each hour of the day. From the looks of it, it seems the proprietors don’t seem to be interested in quality shows like documentaries, investigative reports or discussion with knowledgeable experts on the challenges that we confront. This would require a different quality of producers, anchorpersons and managers and more investment, better vision and a commitment to quality rather than to filling time space. Resultantly, the media becomes focused on non-issues, debating for hours the statements of party leaders and trying to get some meanings out of them when they have none.
Even when issues of some importance are debated and discussed, they are done to death with the same questions being asked over and over again. I find a clear lack of understanding of the political, social and cultural world of Pakistan, and of the history of the region in discos on television shows; and this forces the media to trivialise the most significant issues.
Amidst all the pains of growing up is the issue of populism. What this means is that the media provokes public emotions and feeds itself on these emotions. The end result is a conspiratorial mindset, emotionalism and negativity.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2011.