The media and polarisation
I have yet to hear a strong voice in the media saying the allegations should be probed and the principle of innocent till proved guilty should be held paramount till the final verdict is out
I feel a little odd writing this for the op-ed pages of a newspaper but then I believe it has to be written. On these pages is discussed the role of anyone and everyone and so it is befitting that here we discuss the role of the media as well. What role is it playing and why is it acting the way it is? What makes me write this is the sheer lack of objectivity on the part of the media. That the media has started acting as a power player is troubling but tolerable. That this act of the media is polarising and dividing society and stifling objective debate is not only troubling but also potentially disastrous.
It will be easier to highlight the polarisation by giving examples from the current political crisis. In this crisis, the media has broadly gotten divided into three camps. First, there is a camp that became pro-Nawaz. Second, there is a camp that became anti-Nawaz. And, third, there became fence sitters. While the same division holds in the print media as well, it will be easier to highlight how the three camps acted by giving analogies from the television media.
The pro-Nawaz camp totally dismissed the entire episode as a conspiracy against democracy. For it, looking into its message, the issue of police brutality in Model Town and D-Chowk should be overlooked because it somehow will act as a pretence to derail democracy. It does not make any difference whether the elections were rigged; they believe that Nawaz should continue no matter how fraudulent the mandate may be for otherwise it will undermine democracy.
For the anti-Nawaz camp, every absurdity in the stance of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri needs to be overlooked because the end justifies the means. They will overlook the fact that the throwing away of a government through a crowd’s onslaught on the capital eventually leads us to anarchy. They do not even see the rationality of the argument that without proving substantial rigging in the elections, one cannot ask a prime minister to just pack up.
And then come the fence sitters. The most striking feature is the wide swings they take from day to day. It is not my place to mention which anchors and opinion makers say diametrically opposite things from one day to another without even thinking about contradicting themselves. One analyst on a new private television channel one day said that Imran Khan had revolutionised Pakistan by bringing out women and children for a political cause and that it was great to open up society through an atmosphere of festivity in his dharna (sit-in). The very next day, the same channel, same slot and same analyst, said that the coming out and dancing of people in Imran Khan’s dharna was a challenge to our cultural ethos, that he could not approve of it and that he strongly condemned it. Someone had a real eureka moment in 24 hours.
According to the opinion makers in both the print and electronic media, Aitzaz Ahsan and Chaudhry Nisar will either be magnanimous enough to let go of their differences in the larger interest of democracy or will both be ‘proved’ crooks joining hands to defeat a common foe. I have yet to hear a strong voice in the media saying the allegations should be probed and the principle of innocent till proved guilty should be held paramount till the final verdict is out. Whether media houses do this for personal bias, material objectives, conviction or for ratings, the jury is still out.
The tendency to hold the extreme positions described above is perfectly suitable for political parties but for the media one feels a little uncomfortable and surprised while observing such tendencies. Or should one? Well, to be honest, I am not. And here is the reason: such tendencies in both media persons and media houses can be traced to factors obvious.
For media persons, the roots can be traced to the lack of rationality and lack of tolerance in our society. We are a society with very little appetite for a counter-narrative. We are a society that wants to see things in black and white and see people as either saints or sinners. When we feel aligned with someone, there can be nothing wrong with them and when we feel aligned against someone, there can be nothing right about them. When we change our opinion about someone, the opinion changes but steadfastness holds.
For media houses, when all is said and done, are corporate entities. From ratings to corporate pressures and to corporate interests in some cases, their objectivity becomes compromised. More importantly, a corporate entity always addresses a particular market segment. For instance, in the US, if a media entity targets Republicans like Fox News does, it systematically filters any anti-Republican, pro-Democrat material so as not to risk alienating its viewership. Of course, an entity like MSNBC that is pro-Democrat does the same to anti-Democrat and pro-Republican content for the same reason.
Media houses, rather than giving news objectively, tailor content to cater to the choices of their respective audiences and, in turn, make their audiences more steadfast and radical in their choices. This is making social and political compromises close to impossible in today’s world from the US to Asia. Our world is stuck in this catch-22. To break this impasse, someone needs to come up with a viable business case for educating the masses about lack of objectivity in the media through the media.