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VIEW: Spin Cycle (A look at Media’s responsibility) - 2007

BY: Afrah Jamal & JH
Published in Pakistan Observer 2007

“People understand that democracy depends on a free press, but just as importantly, real democracy depends on a fair press."
Roger Ailes, Chairman & CEO, FOX News.”

The shift in power has been perceptible in the dominance of ‘real news’ over ‘selective views’ and a government that is no longer dogging the footsteps of journalism. A free press is powerful. With power comes responsibility and this new found freedom brings a far greater obligation, to advocate truth with as much ‘good sense’ as with accuracy and impartiality to sustain a liberated press.

This could be when potential harm from complete disclosure vs. publics’ right to information is given due consideration to avoid an infringement upon raison d’état. But this very premise raises some serious questions like ‘will a bowdlerized version of truth be acceptable when national/security interest is at stake?’ ‘And granted that the Media’s role is to further our national/security interest but then who ensures that self interest does not encroach upon it or which facts are invasive to security?’

Sensationalism aside, the sensitivity of the nuclear issue necessitates keeping media apart from a well known public figure; his cult worthy status and achievements may have been newsworthy but the need to know about intricacies of his outfit overrides the right if a mix of media and disclosure activate a chain reaction of devastating proportions to the state.

Facts become stories only after they go through the traditional spin cycle. Every media outlet has one. While some form of sensationalism (“form of bias said to over emphasize, distort or fabricate the exceptional over the ordinary ””) or yellow journalism (“Inflammatory, irresponsible reporting by newspapers. ”) may be evident in all publications/broadcast mediums, they nevertheless maintain a detachment from any visible signs of bias.

A relic of our past still exists in the form of the controlled media but the influencing force of private channels (mainstream) is far greater than the allegedly slanted alternative and for this very reason the impressionable majority takes mainstream media as gospel. The problem with breaking stories is that they are seldom in context. Consequently, the spectacle of judiciary or media under attack by police, seen out of context carries an implicit message of government sponsored anarchy. Only a balanced debate on what sparked the violence empowers citizens to condemn or acquit without succumbing to a prepared verdict.

The narrow focus on negative by mainstream and positive by state is only good for one thing, distorting the picture. Moreover, the persistent replay of such imagery and subsequent innuendos is likely to cause the mood to gravitate towards mass hysteria and paranoia especially where proportionate response is not forthcoming. While the negative aspect is always more newsworthy, the truth can be equally compelling. Drama in stories, however, makes better television.

The highly publicized and widely condemned attack on lawyers protest march of 12 March 2007 could just as easily have been a mob triggered offensive instead of an unprovoked aggression. Premature speculation with selective representation and lack of proper investigation imprisons the public’s decision making capability. “Responsible Journalism seeks to accurately reflect important and interesting information in a timely fashion doing no harm unless the social good achieved out balances the harm." (Jack Fuller, President, Tribune publishing)

The recent front page headline "US Govt. expects Musharraf to quit army post" was hard to miss. It is neither false nor entirely true, just with a spin, that a noted U.S. scholar believed to be a simplification of truth which ‘seemed to reflect more of the editors’ personal interpretation of what the state department spokesman meant, unsubstantiated by the actual quotes’.

That the press in Pakistan is freer today than ever before is a fact. The present government claims credit for providing this freedom and to an extent they are right. While their initial decision to permit establishment of private TV channel and tolerate dissent from existing print media may have been made in good faith, their efforts now to rein them in now is proving fruitless because the global environment has made it impossible for them to do so.

The private TV channels and the print media still complain of government’s efforts to curb their liberty. They too are right to an extent. No press in the world is totally free from pressure, be they from government, big business conglomerates or even the vested interests of media tycoons themselves.

Freedom of press is therefore a relative term and the nation at this point in time is fortunate that its press has greater freedom than most developing nations.
Notwithstanding the ‘trade in’ of yore’s heavy handed influence for the highly prized liberty of today, ghosts of that era do resurface on days like 12 or 16 March 2007 to cast reasonable doubt on the freedom of our press.

Nevertheless, the media remains a decisive player in the pursuit of empowerment through enlightenment so more power to them. Given that “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind”(Jim Morrison), it is all the more important that ill judgment of media managers does not fashion a new breed of captive audience.

Am I glad that our press today is vocal, bold and fairly free? An unequivocal yes. Do I fear that this new found freedom may generate a new set of power players and manipulators? Sadly yes again. Do I want to revert to the old times? Definitely not. I can only hope that those entrusted with this powerful tool use it wisely.

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