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When evolution is painfully slow

March 09, 2012

TELEVISION is a strange animal. It can accurately mirror reality. Or strip it of its context to the extent that truth is stood on its head.

Yet in the end we tend to believe whatever we see.

That is why it is so powerful. By definition TV is a visual medium and captive to images. Why then does the spoken word often become so important here? If only images matter, why does everyone instantly recall BBC’s Martin Bell and Kate Adie whenever the horrors of the Balkans war are discussed?

Who would forget the celebrated CNN war correspondent Peter Arnett’s reporting from Iraq during the first Gulf War? We remember their reports as much for the power of their images as their words. Images alone wouldn’t have been enough, barring dramatic exceptions.

Of course images are paramount, but there are gaps in their story-telling ability. So much is left to the skill of the TV reporter who ‘writes these pictures’ to place them in their context and explain their background. It is this ‘package’ which then gives the audience a well-rounded view.

In Pakistan, like our nascent democratic order, we in the media are also on a steep learning curve. We are keen to play our role and quite often try to run before we are able to walk, with consequences not entirely inconsistent with our impatience whether we care or not.

Take the Waheeda Shah incident, for example. The Sindh Assembly candidate did not rely on a reserved seat. She was one among the very few women in the country to have contested and won an open election (since annulled by the Election Commission) by a huge margin.

All we saw was a powerful politician shoving the back of her hand into the cheek of a hapless election official. The incident was roundly condemnable. But as a TV viewer I felt a bit short-changed as I had neither the context nor the background to get the whole picture.

Wouldn’t you have liked to know a bit more? Was Ms Shah deranged that she assaulted an election official in full public view and the unforgiving eye of a TV camera or is she merely an arrogant feudal who believes she’s above the law? She could be both.

We saw her instantly as callous, criminal towards another woman. I would also have liked to know what a woman who contests an election, particularly in a rural constituency in a man’s world, goes through. Kudos, nevertheless, to the channel whose crew captured the outrage.

But shouldn’t we ask if what followed was helpful or skewed the truth and perhaps contributed to an amplified reaction? A single back-handed slap was edited and spliced together half a dozen times (digitally of course).

Thus, the Ms Shah we saw could slap someone six times in no more than a second or two. I am not a sports statistician but this must be faster than the jabbing rate of Mohammad Ali in his prime.

The issue of this somewhat distorted reality does not suggest the initial incident was contrived but does raise ethical questions.

Sadly, while the reporter’s words may have been far too few (whether due to lack of skill/awareness or poor training), the talk show hosts made up for this with a torrent.

Please correct me if I am wrong but I still haven’t heard Ms Shah’s version of events. I heard her son get cut off thrice on one channel as he tried to ask the news presenter to also get his or his mother’s point of view.

This isn’t an attempt to condemn the Fourth Estate, especially of the electronic variety, but just an effort to ascertain what makes it tick and ask why ‘eminent’ talk show hosts sometimes act as would members of a lynch mob.

The bulk of its content indicates to us that today the media is free. Free it is except for the manifestation of the biases purportedly ideological but mostly personal, prejudices and the lack of intellect, even intellectual integrity, of some of its purveyors and practitioners, myself included.

That we are like hounds on the scent of a good story is true as is the fact that when we sink our teeth into one we are reluctant to let go till there is a hint of life left in it. Then of course there is intense competition, the battle for the fabled and feared ratings.

Coupled with a dire economic slump that has eaten into the revenues and necessitated brutal cost cuts, this had to have an impact on standards and it has. On innumerable occasions, otherwise perfectly decent, key people in the media have looked the other way when their cash cow, the talk show host, has crossed all limits.

It is ironical that in our current media environment, best practice almost never takes root quickly but the most atrocious, odious ones spread like wildfire. The answer isn’t to place curbs on the media. It is patience. Let the discerning viewer see through the antics and decide.

The media itself needs what many of its top performers and practitioners aren’t willing to give to the democratic dispensation: time. Time to evolve, grow and mature. Left to its own and given time what do you think it’ll prioritise for coverage on the International Women’s Day?

Would it repeatedly show the pointless Shazia Marri-Marvi Rashdi spat for its perceived entertainment value or focus on the shocking disclosure of a senior functionary of the Edhi Trust, Anwar Kazmi.

Kazmi told accomplished journalist Zubeida Mustafa that of the several thousand dead infants (and foetuses) found quietly disposed of on garbage dumps each year across the country, 99 per cent are female. Yes, 99 per cent. Should we look further for an answer?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.