Media and politics
By Mushtaq Gaadi
WE live in times when political events and conflicts are not simply reported but also enacted and performed in the media. The mass media, especially television journalism, is now intricately implicated in structures of dominance and political conflicts.
The latest example of such ‘mediatised’ conflicts was the clash between the government and the judiciary over the unsubstantiated news that the former had plans to reverse the restoration of the Supreme Court judges. In the wake of the ‘breaking news’ most television news channels held lengthy live broadcasts on the issue thus further exacerbating the conflict.
What has made television news channels and a segment of their print media counterparts powerful enough to affect the relationships between state institutions? What does the prevalent media-saturated environment of politics imply for the democratic transition in Pakistan? A critical public debate on these and other related questions is urgently required at the present conjuncture.
Media research scholarship advances the view that the political power of television journalism and related media is mainly embedded in their intertwined functions of news framing and political-agenda setting. Framing in particular is crucial in influencing public opinion and political communication.
Framing is an alternative way of presenting political events and issues, endogenous to the given social and political environment. In the case of electricity loadshedding, for example, audiences may be presented with frames of reference such as power pricing, bad governance and corruption, adverse impacts on industries, lack of domestic energy resources, etc,.
The frames employed by the media reflect a privileging of certain aspects of an issue and the concurrent neglect of other aspects. Unlike conventional reporting, media frames inevitably entail an inherent bias. They are also templates for the content that decides the story line. It is now almost an empirical fact that the particular frame repeatedly imposed on an issue or event can influence public opinion and political processes. Media researchers have reached a broad consensus that framing is an extension of, or second-level, agenda setting.
In Pakistan, the emergence and growth of private television news industry occurred under the military-led regime of Gen Pervez Musharraf. Most of the frames now being used in television journalism were in fact formed under that dictatorial political environment. They revolve around certain conflicts and set the agenda in a way that promotes an anti-politics bias.
The play of politics is depicted as a dishonest and dishonourable business. Politicians are assumed to act out of self-interest rather than on the basis of political convictions. It is repeatedly claimed that politicians are not to be trusted because they make false promises. Reporters and anchorpersons pit political opponents against one another as a means of undermining all political claims. Whenever a politician makes a statement, media persons turn to his adversaries to challenge and attack it. In this way, anchorpersons and reporters become direct participants/actors in politics.
What we see in the news coverage of politics in some major Pakistani television channels is actually a sort of attack journalism that has its roots in the history of the American press. Attack journalism is a mindset and involves practices that go beyond ordinary partisanship, criticism, debate and investigation. It is aimed at prejudicing the public against their targets and thereby destroying them politically.
The nature of investigation under attack journalism remains selective and inquisitional and aims to convict and punish the target. Robert Samuelson, a contributing editor of Newsweek and the Washington Post, writes that all democracies need to examine their elected officials; the enduring dilemma, he says, is how to prevent legitimate enquiry from sliding into sanctioned tyranny.
Since the election of February 2008, the majority of news media has been at loggerheads with the democratic government on several issues. The government alleges that certain television channels are involved in muckraking and attack journalism. The ruling party has recently decided to boycott one of the main media groups as a protest against its press abuses. On the other hand, the media group in question depicts itself as the champion of press freedom and claims to be performing the role of watchdog in the larger public interest. Pakistan is currently undertaking its latest democratic experiment. Without press freedom, a smooth transition to democracy will remain merely a pipedream. However, without democracy, the existence of a free media is inconceivable. While the democratic government will have to bear the free press for the sake of democracy, the news media must also demonstrate responsibility and refrain from agenda setting.
Thomas E. Patterson, a professor of government and media studies, says that the news media has little justification for its arrogant portrayal of politics and hijacking the role of politicians. It ought to be more humble, for it fails to meet fully the standards of accountability and representation in democratic systems.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.