Dawn critics

March 15, 2018


DAWN often receives complaints, written and verbal, against perceived distortions in news coverage and display. While this is an all-season affair, the litany of complaints reaches paranoiac proportions as an election nears, as now. Expressed in its most vitriolic form on the telephone, the protests centre on a purported lack of adequate coverage of statements, speeches and press talk by a given party and leader and an allegedly over display of their rivals’ utterances.

What these angry partisans forget is that lengthy speeches and demagogic bouts do not necessarily make news, and that politically hollow tirades packed with twisted facts and exaggerated allegations of graft repeated ad nauseam can at best get some newspaper space out of courtesy. Recently I received a written complaint where a diehard supporter of a party was distressed by one of Dawn’s editorials and said the paper was acting as if it was the media wing of another party. If it is any consolation to him, his rivals, too, harbour such baseless notions.

While foreign media is no guide for us, it is pertinent to point out that prestigious newspapers the world over totally ignore speeches and pressers if they do not contain hard news. I have at least two examples to give:

In 1994, Indian prime minister Narasimha Rao went to Washington. All his activities received adequate coverage in the US media. His press conference at the White House was a jolt for him, because President Bill Clinton surprised his Indian guest by raising the Kashmir issue himself, and said it was among the issues he had discussed with his guest. However, when the Indian prime minister addressed Congress, I was surprised that the coverage in mainstream print media was virtually negligible, because Rao’s speech contained no policy declaration.

Lengthy speeches and demagogic bouts do not necessarily make news.

Disappointment awaited me when Benazir Bhutto came to Washington a year later for a second time as prime minister. Her first visit to the US in 1989 had taken the country by storm. The standing ovation given to her by congressmen, the repeated cheers for a persecuted woman who had defied a vile dictator and risen to become the first woman prime minister of a Muslim country, would live in memory. In March 1995, too, her press conference with President Clinton was historic because of what the US chief executive said about the F-16s held up in America. Clinton averred that not only was it unfair to hold back both the planes and the money, he said he was the first American president to have uttered the truth about what for Pakistanis was a highly emotive issue. This was obviously big news, and American media splashed it. The same day in the evening, on the lawns of the Mall, vice president Al Gore held a dinner for Pakistan’s charismatic prime minister and her party.

The two countries’ national anthems were played, speeches made, camera bulbs flashed, and businessmen got going, leading to the signing of MoUs worth millions of dollars that would flow into Pakistan as American investment. The next morning, however, there was not a line in the Washington Post and the Washington Times, the two papers I checked. I can’t say whether the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and other American papers carried the story. Obviously, the WP and WT didn’t consider the event worth reporting, because MoUs are MoUs, and are nothing more than an expression of intents.

Our politicians and their acolytes would do well to remember that an outpouring of venom to a frenzied, flag-waving crowd doesn’t translate into news; and while TV channels may give their time, and a committed party organ space, to an overexposed political thespian, a professional at a news desk would only go for it if he found an element of news in it.

Let me, however, venture into self-contradiction: even rhetoric cannot be glossed over simply because it is repetitive. For good or for bad, repetition indicates consistency in policy, even if the idea behind the consistency is obnoxious. It may not be obnoxious in every case. If India, for instance, steps up its atrocities on the Kashmiri people, should we ignore our Foreign Office’s trite reaction because it constitutes repetition? By offering talks to India to solve the Kashmir issue peacefully, the FO spokesperson was merely reaffirming consistency in Islamabad’s policy and, thus, deserved to be recorded for the world of diplomacy and history.

Dawn’s ethical standards stem from its founder’s unwavering commitment to justice and fair play. Besides, Dawn is run by a professional editor and not by the owners. That, perhaps, is the reason why Dawn has been able to stand its ground and face threats and mischief as much from ruthless authoritarian regimes as from non-state actors looking for the kill.

The writer is an author and Dawn readers’ editor.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2018