Let me state at the outset: given a choice between a state-controlled media and a media that is free but may lack sophistication and, at times, even act irresponsibly, I would opt for the latter: the free media. Because one can expect and hope that a free media may, through experience, training, feedback, and competition, evolve into a sophisticated and responsible institution. A state-controlled media, on the other hand, offers no such hope.
Having said that, I must also say that the Pakistani media, particularly the TV talk shows, have a steep learning curve to climb. Specifically, the hosts are openly partisan, often divisive and sometime insensitive and thoughtless. They talk too much and listen very little. They ask leading questions to elicit answers that are consistent with their own views. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are few.
The other day, I did a little exercise. I timed a talk show with a stopwatch to see how much everyone talks. The show was hosted by one of the several doctors-turned-talk show personalities. Not the one that you might be thinking of. This one wears an educated look. There were three panelists, two men and a woman, all professionals who came across as well informed and articulate. The subject of the discussion, although not put in these words, boiled down to: how to boot out the current government?
Here is the result of my exercise: The total duration of the show, excluding the commercial breaks, was a little over 37 minutes. Out of that, 17 minutes, or 46 per cent, were taken by the host, the remaining 20 minutes, or 54 per cent, were roughly divided between the three panelists. The host interrupted the panelists 13 times, often not letting them finish their answers and diverting the discussion to a new question.
It is legitimate for a talk show host to interrupt when a panelist digresses, or is being long-winded, or indulges in empty rhetoric, or to seek clarification of a point, but the interruptions in this particular case were mostly because the panelist had different points of view.
Those in the media often forget that the source of wisdom or education, if any, in a talk show is supposed to be the panelists, not the host. A skilful host draws out that information and knowledge by asking intelligent, incisive and open-ended questions.
Then there is the dangerously divisive media, which was on display during the current floods. There was a clear attempt by a section of the media to show the army’s rescue and relief efforts as parallel to and independent of the civilian government. One Urdu columnist went to the extent of asking his readers to donate money only to the army in a bank account created for this purpose, and even gave the bank's name and the account number. By the same token, would the army collect donations independently for fighting a war, too? (Strangely, though, the army did not seem to be uncomfortable with the impression created by the media.)
Then we have examples of insensitive media. A well-known talk show host, wearing a green T-shirt (it was August 14) and armed with a microphone and middle-class morality descended upon a group of villagers, marooned on a high ground somewhere in Sindh. Trapped by floodwater for several days and living under the open sky, they had hardly anything to eat or drink. But the first question they are asked is: “Are you fasting?” Sindhis happen to be polite by nature. The man didn’t answer yes or no. He simply said, “Saeen, we don’t have even a glassful of water to drink”.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 1st, 2010.