NOTES FROM A SOCIAL SCIENTIST
By Dr. Haider Mehdi
As a student and Professor of Mass Communication, Media and Politics, a fundamental factor that has been resilient in my philosophical and intellectual discovery has been the importance of human behavior and organizational conduct in media outfits in relation to larger societal development and political progress in our time. Needless to say, media, most specifically electronic media, TV, has assumed a central stage in the making of public opinion and casting a defining role in determining and engineering public attitudes in nearly all spheres of human life – may those be in social views, political beliefs, national or internal perspectives. 21st century humanity is the silent captive of television broadcasting and its broadcasters – making these broadcasters a powerful fifth pillar of the modern nation-state system.
Indeed, modern media outfits are dichotomized and polarized organizations in the strict sense of the concept. Quite obviously these self-important establishments are run by individuals. And as we are all well-aware, all individuals are more or less confined by their personal belief-systems, figments of imagination, pretenses and commitments to different schools of thought – most specifically in terms of political alignments and views. In concurrence, media organizations select only those persons as broadcasters who tow the organization’s line. In present day capitalistic media culture, the broadcasters are driven by a basic theory of success – in common terminology known as program “ratings” – a lure for increased commercial advertisements, inflated revenues and massive profits.
What I have described above are the operational fundamentals of modern day media organizations, including Pakistan’s nascent entry in the all-powerful era of public opinion- making. State of the art media power has instant effects on the human psyche and belief system. Hence, important questions are bound to be raised in respect to political and social TV programs. Even more important are the personal political-ideological views and social-cultural orientations of the broadcasters in terms of judging their impact vis-à-vis national interests and whether their perspectives are in conflict with the national agenda at a certain point in time. As is this case in present day Pakistan.
This aspect of the modern media age is even more important in a country like Pakistan, which is going through an intense period of chaotic political-social upheavals in an attempt to redefine and reinvent itself. Today’s Pakistan is marred in political conflicts, internal and external threats to its stability and existence, socio-economic disparities, constitutional disputes, defining the nature of its political-system, demarcating the nation’s institutional structures and setting the limits of their legitimate roles in national decision-making and policy management. Since the electronic media, TV, is in the forefront of public opinion-making in contemporary Pakistan, it assumes unprecedented power to impact national politics as well as play an enormously important role in the development of the nation’s political consciousness. Electronic media, no doubt, can be in the drivers seat of a national renaissance, political reform and the socio-political transformation of the country.
Hence, the important question: Are we in safe hands? Are the broadcasters (situationally forced into public-opinion making) fair, balanced, logical, rational, uncompromising, educated, enlightened, sensitive to the diversity of issues and people, knowledgeable and well-trained to do the job in which fate has pushed them? Do they possess personal integrity and dignity to walk through the thin line to differentiate between personal vested interests and core national priorities? Can they manage their own egos in such powerful roles of public opinion making? Can they be non-partisan when personal rewards in being partisan are so compelling and attractive? Can they manage unbiased opinion honorably when management’s pressures for “program ratings” and profits are mounting for a compromised position on a vital national issue?
It seems that there have been several lapses in TV talk show hosts’ fundamental code of ethical conduct in recent days when controversial debates about possible trials of some army generals and the COAS’s speech were held on different Pakistani TV channels. It is obvious (at least to me) that such intense and continuous discussions on the said issues have been conducted primarily by some anchors to improve their “program ratings”. Some of the anchors have been biased and judgmental in their opinions while on the air (anchors are not supposed to give their own judgments). For example, in a recent TV Talk Show, General Durrani said something to the effect of “General Baig was aware of what President Ishaq Khan was doing” (it is not verbatim). The female anchor responded: “So you are saying that General Baig is responsible for what happened? He is guilty by association – is he not?” (not exact words but the context is exact). I have no idea how this female interviewer could infer or deduce such a conclusive judgment on what Durrani said. I have noticed many such outlandish remarks and comments of some anchors recently while discussing the possible trials of some army generals. This also includes the media’s strong reactions towards General Kayani’s November 5th speech and its interpretations towards Pakistan’s superior judiciary and assumed warning to the media, specifically the TV talk shows. Some anchors and their guests went so far as to have opined that Gen. Kayani has overstepped his constitutional limitations and ought to resign.
The point is that an anchor cannot be a judge, jurist, prosecutor, public-opinion maker, analyst, researcher and TV host and guest simultaneously on each and every issue, discussion, debate and discourse pursued on his/her TV Talk Show. The anchor’s role is to facilitate discussion professionally (without assuming a judgmental role) in order to give the viewers the benefit of the diverse opinions of the invited guests.
This brings us to another problematic: a handful of anchors (4 or 5 all together) cannot hold the entire nation hostage to their public-opinion making. It is amusing and strange that some anchors invite other fellow anchors as guests on their talk shows. Even more ironic is the fact that the same persons from different political parties continuously appear in different talk shows and repeat themselves endlessly in useless, boring, awkward and meaningless rhetoric. My question is: Can’t anchors find anyone else in a population of several million to give his/her opinion on national issues? Or is this purely a matter of “Program Ratings” – and passive profit making for the media managements?
It would be instructive for the TV opinion-makers to appreciate that the vigor, integrity and defense capabilities of the Pakistan Armed Forces will continue to be vital for Pakistan’s immediate survival and future existence as a united nation.
Let it be said that TV anchors should not undermine or mangle the Armed Forces national institutional image, as some of the anchors have mistakenly seemed to have done in recent days.
You will be seen as collaborating with the enemies of this nation!