Objectivity and the Media
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
Editor, Pakistan Link
“In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people of diverse ethnic groups developed an increasingly intense devotion not only to their locality or their region, or their family, or their ethnic group, but to a huge tract of territory which they began to think as the nation. This has been the chief consequence of the revolution in mass communications since the nineteenth century. Songs, dances, poems and religions fanned the flames. Wars were not only caused by, but stimulated the process, further.”
So says Professor Hugh Thomas in his scholarly work entitled 'A History of the World.' Making a departure from the established practice of recording events in a chronological order, the Reading University scholar chooses to make a thematic review of major world developments. His account of the growth in the field of mass communications, which manifestly impacts the world today, is particularly absorbing. The paragraph above says it all and appears relevant vis-à-vis the present global scene.
But the media has to be honest and objective if it has to succeed in fulfilling its role of defining a healthy set of values for society, to draw the inseparable line between right and wrong, to be the upholder of liberty and freedom. Tocqueville was wholly right when he declared in 1835 that “a nation that is determined to remain free is right in demanding at any price the exercise of this independence” (of the media). It was the recognition of this noble role that led to the acceptance of the media as the ‘fourth estate’ in the UK as early as 1789. Three decades earlier, in the year 1753 to be precise, seven million newspapers were sold in the UK annually; 20,000 a day, more than any other country at that time.
Yet, truthfulness and objectivity have been an elusive hallmark of the fourth estate - today and earlier. About seventy years back, the American media found itself precariously perched. It was helplessly dependent for news flow on the British press. Kent Cooper, a former Executive Manager of the Associated Press (AP), complained about American dependence thus: “Reuter decided what news was to be sent from America. It told the world about Indians on the warpath in the west, lynching in the south, and bizarre crimes in the north. The charge for decades was that nothing creditable to America was sent…. Figuratively speaking, in the United States, it wasn’t safe to travel on account of the Indians.”
Stressing the same point more incisively and in the context of the present times, William James Stover ( 'Information Technology in the Third World,' Colorado, US, 1984) observes. “The concentration of telecommunication facilities, news agencies, mass media outlets, data resources, and manufacturers of communication equipment in a small group of advanced countries precludes a full, two-way flow of information among equals. As a result, the flow of messages, data, media programs, culture and other information is directed predominantly from bigger to smaller countries, from those with power and technology to those less advanced, from the developed to the less developed world…” Not surprisingly, UPS’ monthly output of 150 filmed stories from N. America and Europe sharply contrasted with 20 from Asia!
Today, the media wields a formidable clout. It can demolish states, institutions, and even presidents of the most powerful country of the world. Instructive excerpts from 'Modern Times' (Paul Johnson, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1992):
“The men and the movement that broke Lyndon Johnson’s authority in 1968 are out to break Richard Nixon in 1969 …breaking presidentship is, like most feats, easier to accomplish the second time round…” (p. 647)
“Remember”, he (Nixon) told his staff, “the press is the enemy. When news is concerned nobody in the press is a friend. They are all enemies.” (p. 647)
“Nixon never put his side of the case since, rather than risk the prolonged national convulsion of an impeachment, which might have lasted years, he resigned in August 1974. Thus, the electoral verdict of 1972 was overturned by what might be described as a media putsch. The ‘imperial presidency’ was replaced by the ‘imperial press.’ “ (p. 653)
If the powerful American president was so helpless before the more powerful media, what could be the lot of the have-nots, the developing countries, or the Third World known for the ‘thirdness’ of its strivings? More Rosenblu, former editor of the International Herald Tribune, furnishes an insightful answer: “The Western monopoly on the distribution of news, whereby even stories written about one Third World country for distribution in another are reported and transmitted by international agencies based in New York, London, and Paris amounts to neo-colonialism and cultural domination.”
The quotations from various sources in this piece may sound excessive yet they have been mentioned to lend credence to this write-up.
A flurry of insinuations against Islam, and more recently, against Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), have almost become a norm of daily life in the West. Day in and day out, misguided commentators and right-wing observers provide fresh proof of unfeigned disdain for Islam with remarks that are caustic and biting and have a telling effect - both on the naïve non-Muslim viewers as well as followers of the faith.
The name of Islam has been sullied with unpardonable lapses as newscasters pause to lay undue stress on a select group of words - Islam, Qur’an, Muslims, Islamists, and Muhammad - in a singular display of contempt. For months, Williams, the last name of the villainous-Washington sniper, was conveniently abandoned and the reprehensible character was identified as Muhammad! Stress was laid on the three syllables making up the name by wily newscaster. The rising phantom of hatred seemed to assume alarming proportions. That the insinuations were fraught with dangerous overtones nobody seemed to realize.
Given the fact that Muslims venerate Jesus Christ (Peace Be Upon Him) and Moses (Peace Be Upon Him) as prophets of God and Holy Mary, the disrespect shown to Islam and Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) marks an unbecoming show of levity on the part of the media that hurts and hurts profoundly. Islam, one of the three Abrahamic religions, lays profound emphasis on peace and tolerance. True, a few fringe religious groups have engaged in censurable acts of terrorism but their folly can in no way be attributed to the teachings of the faith.
Then there is Pakistan, a state in the vanguard of the war on terrorism. The country has acted sincerely in fulfilling its obligation, yet it has been singled out time and again to be mercilessly clobbered for crimes it has not committed. A sampling: Headlined ‘The Evil Behind the Axis’, a story in a leading American newspaper claimed: “If one man sits at the nuclear fulcrum of the three countries President Bush calls the ‘axis of evil’, it may well be Abdul Qadeer Khan… the extent of his ties to all three ‘axis’ nations became public only recently as North Korea admitted resuming its nuclear weapons effort, satellite photos showed that Iran may be conducting nuclear work and Khan’s name appeared in a letter offering to ‘manufacture a nuclear weapon’ for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.” Preposterous claims. More recently, the ABC in its Nightline program described Pakistan as 'the most dangerous country in the world!' Such outrageous comments are a norm rather than an exception while the western media conveniently ignores state-sponsored terrorism in India and other parts of the world.
A Los Angeles Times editorial comment in this context is a timely observation and one hopes that the media heeds it: “As a member of the industry we hesitate to offer unsolicited advise to the ubiquitous media… Each news outlet should reexamine its decisions. Were they true to a mission of delivering news not speculations of reporting facts, not hyped promotional opportunities?”
In the land of the free, in the land of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln where Mormons and Amish live in peace with a plethora of religious groups to pride on the concept of ‘unity in diversity’ there is little need to stifle the rational streak that makes the US so great and its people even greater. Indisputably, the country derives its strength from the secular character of its multi-faith society. Do we stand to gain if we renounce the shining principles of the founding fathers or ignore the inspirational edicts of Thomas Jefferson. A relevant sampling: “We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.” Mustn't the Western press act with a greater degree of responsibility?
- email@example.com (The author, an ex-Assistant Editor of DAWN, is currently the Editor of Pakistan Link, largest circulated Pakistani newspaper in the U.S.)