THE current predicament of two TV personalities in the US underscores how the media as well as perceptions of it are changing among many viewers — even among the media’s own practitioners.
Prime time TV anchor Brian Williams is currently serving out a six-month suspension from NBC for wrongly claiming he was in a helicopter that was fired at during the Iraq war in 2003 and that had to make an emergency landing before returning safely to base.
His claim was challenged by one of the crew who said the famous US anchor was actually in another helicopter and came over to him and asked for details of the incident when the helicopter involved in the incident finally reached its destination. When the controversy became public, the anchor owned up to the mistake and accepted the suspension without pay from his employer which would cost the $10 million-a-year media personality half that amount.
Journalists in Pakistan are reticent about naming and shaming colleagues who have strayed from the path of ethical reporting.
Brian Williams’ case contrasts dramatically with that of Bill O’Reilly, 10 years his senior and reportedly on double his salary. O’Reilly if at all it needs reminding belongs to Fox News’s stable of right-wing ideological anchors.
He faces similar charges of having embellished the truth, if not of actually having created it. The reference pertains to his role as a reporter in the Malvinas (Falklands) war in 1982 between British and Argentine forces.
O’Reilly, the tireless right-wing campaigner, taunted the ‘left-leaning’ outlets and accused them of being irresponsible. Now that he himself is facing far more serious charges he is offering no reflection, displaying no contrition.
His claims that he saw action in the Falklands conflict while working for CBS were rubbished in the social media by a former colleague who says O’Reilly arrived in Buenos Aires some three days before the war ended. Falklands, called Malvinas by the Argentines, was 1,500km away and the media had no access.
O’Reilly made claims of seeing bullets flying and bodies falling about in angry demonstrations in Buenos Aires which led to the military junta’s resignation when the British Union Jack was once again raised on the disputed island with the defeat of the Argentine forces.
But his accounts have been rubbished as wrong and grossly exaggerated by other journalists reporting from the Argentine capital then. While that controversy was refusing to go away, new charges have emerged that O’Reilly was ‘creative’ with the truth when reporting about the 1992 riots in Los Angeles.
Despite facing so many allegations of ‘creative journalism’, liberal commentators have pointed out that given O’ Reilly’s influence over his dedicated right-wing audience he is likely to remain unaffected by the charges.
If anything, his audience may rally around him in the belief that all that is being said is some sinister liberal conspiracy to discredit a committed and powerful voice on the right.
These blemishes that blight US prime time news channel anchors do not mean that the country’s print media is immune from such scandals. The best among the best, The New York Times, has had its staff charged with fabrication and plagiarism more than once in recent years.
Even in Britain where apart from the glitzy tabloids much of the media is seen as committed to journalistic values and ethical conduct, there have been scandals involving output and media personalities overstepping their boundaries.
Therefore, it isn’t surprising that we in Pakistan too have more than our share of unsavoury characters in the media. The dodgy practices and spurious claims in the Western media have often been exposed by insiders.
But here there is still reticence among the ranks of journalists about naming and shaming those colleagues found to be cheating and those with an ideological axe to grind. I wonder what it will take to break this mould. Take my example. I detest many atrocious acts and dramas staged in the name of journalism, as well as lies passed off as the truth but will shy away from naming anyone.
We have had serious slander and defamation in the name of investigative journalism. We have had extremist agenda-pushing journalists in the mainstream media but have hardly identified them as such. I won’t even say who reminds me of Bill O’Reilly among our home-grown brand of anchors.
I won’t have the courage to call the journalist by name, who reported fragrance rising from the bodies of those who’d been killed, after a walkabout at the burnt-out site in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid siege.
Some of those discussed here are the ‘creative’ ones, who manufacture the truth with consummate ease to serve their agenda when there is nothing there in the first place to embellish. Then there are those who fall prey to various spin machines that are operating rather effectively in the country.
There are others whose ‘proximity’ to their beat and the subjects they are assigned to cover start getting influenced, often in good faith and possibly unwittingly. In extreme cases, they may start to consider themselves as players rather than mere reporters.
Whatever the case, truth becomes a casualty; dissemination of information becomes an exercise in agenda-pushing and journalists become no better than propagandists or PR executives. And we have so far not even mentioned how owners often have their own agenda, even if they don’t buckle under commercial pressures. That admittedly is a separate debate.
Should the ‘news consumer’ then doubt the veracity of every word presented to her/him? Not necessarily, because every unscrupulous person in the media is outnumbered by those who know and believe what is the right thing to do. Reinforcing such professionals is the watchdog that is emerging in the shape of the social media user.
It can be spun, embellished even denied but in this day and age of the social media-empowered, informed user, the truth cannot be suppressed indefinitely.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2015