Anchor's dilemma -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Anchor’s dilemma

Fahd Husain

For the average viewer, the blast in Defence Karachi is just another blast. The average viewer has seen many more Karachiites die as a result of target killings in a single day. No shock here, so limited viewer interest in the topic.

Sometimes news is too serious a business to be left to journalists.

Or anchors.

Take me, for instance. I get paid to judge the newsworthiness of news. This makes me – for want of a better term – a news judge. The difference between me and a judge who sits in court is two-fold: he can rely on a body of written words, or judicial precedents, to arrive at a judgement. I cannot. Second, he does not have to make judgements in real time. I do. When it comes to speed, the news cycle beats the judicial cycle hands down.

Does this make me happy? Ha! I shed tears of blood because the news cycle is running circles around me. Judging news is not what it used to be. And judging news (or subject matter) for a talk show is like killing traditional journalism with a thousand cuts. Let me explain by taking you inside the mind of a media anchor.

The show has to hit the airwaves tonight, and the anchor surveys the topic options. Dengue is still munching on Lahore. Hospitals continue to swell with patients and wailing attendants. There is panic and fear, both of which get a shot in the arm every time another dengue victim ends up dead. Every channel has covered the story from most angles that deserved to be covered, and some that did not. Doctors, hospital administrators, patients, their relatives, assorted politicians and government functionaries, all have had their due screen time. So what is left for a talk show since talk shows for the past week have been relentlessly discussing dengue? What freshness will the anchor bring in now? More deaths? They are mere statistics now. Accusations about government incompetence? No shock value there anymore. More PML-N vs PPP debate on whether dengue is part of a larger political conspiracy? Tempting, but that is a stretch. A discussion on dengue being a divine curse on us for our wicked and sinful ways? One show has actually done that already. Now if dengue was biting Karachi, that would be a sure-shot topic. See, the bulk of rating metres are in Karachi. That is a hard logic to beat when it comes to news judgement. Anchor’s conclusion: weak topic for today and prone to viewer fatigue.

Moving on, the deluge in Sindh is drowning out many other news events. It has already killed the Karachi story, and swallowed the good Dr Zulfiqar Mirza like he never existed. The MQM’s histrionics have also been doused, and the Supreme Court is not making waves either. It figures then that the disaster in Sindh could be a possible topic for the show. But wait. What is the angle? Misery? No breaking news there. Mismanagement? Pretty routine. Devastation of the crops and impact on the economy? Yawn. Spread of disease and thousands of lives in danger? Statistics do not shock the viewer any more. Anchor’s conclusion: space for debate is limited unless he/she invites the usual gang of loudmouth pinch-hitters who love to take a swing at anybody and everybody as long as the cameras are rolling. But the topic may not arouse passions and the tempo of the show may deflate. Selling misery to the viewer is a workable proposition, but only if the anchor is in the field, knee-deep in water even though there is no real need for him/her to be actually standing inside the water. This ain’t a studio story anymore.

There is, of course, the devastating suicide attack in the posh Defence area of Karachi. But individual bombings ceased to be topics of talk shows a long time ago, unless the casualty numbers cross a hundred. There is little more to discuss than condemnation and bemoaning the government’s inability to provide security to the citizens (non-citizens can fend for themselves). The real shocker in today’s blast was its location: posh areas are where reside those who think in their hearts of hearts: “This can never happen to us.” Well it just did. But here is the problem – the posh residents constitute a tiny sliver of the viewership pie for an Urdu channel. For the average viewer, the blast in Defence Karachi is just another blast. The average viewer has seen many more Karachiites die as a result of target killings in a single day. No shock here, so limited viewer interest in the topic. Anchor’s conclusion: not enough misery to pawn here.

Speaking of misery, there is the Mullen-Kayani meeting in Spain and the ensuing hiccups over the Haqqani network. US-Pakistan shadow boxing peaked after the Osama killing, but since then it has waned significantly. Plus, foreign policy stuff is best avoided on talk shows because it sucks the oxygen out of ratings. That said, it is a major story given its impact today and tomorrow on Pakistan. Will the American pressure become unbearable on Pakistan? Will Leon Panetta’s veiled threat come to haunt us in the coming days? Is the US slowly building up a legal case against us to be used to justify some future actions? Pertinent questions these, but on a talk show they may not engage too many people except foreign policy wonks and professional conspiracy theorists. Anchor’s conclusion: a great story, but not for a talk show today.

What about Pakistan bidding the IMF adieu? This raises a host of questions. How will we balance our books if we do not get IMF dollars? How will we service our debt? How will we…? Stop. Critical topic. Too dense. End of discussion.

There is always the Mohammad Amir story. Yes the cricketing Boy Wonder who has just owned up to spot-fixing after a year of denial. That leaves Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt holding the baby. Cricket, corruption, conspiracy, conmen, confessions and celebrity guests could make for an engaging talkfest. The story may appeal to a wide viewer demographic.

But on a day when interior Sindh is flooded, Punjab is dengue-ed, and Karachi is bombed?

Sometimes news is too serious a business to be left to journalists. Get it now?
Source: Daily Times
Date:9/20/2011