Funhouse Mirrors

Feb 10th, 2011 | By | Category: Uncategorized

Media is ofter termed a ‘watch dog’ and indeed this is one important role of the media. Personally, I think this is a poor metaphor. For one thing, ‘watch dog’ assumes that there is an outside threat and that its master must be protected and never questioned. In the case of media it is too often the government which is seen as a threat only and the civil society never questioned. But government is not inherently a threat, and civil society is not without its own faults also.

Funhouse mirrorAnother view is that media’s role is a mirror held up to society reflecting what is good and bad both so that people can see the good and know where there are some improvements needed. In this case, media would show both the problems in government that need to be fixed and the good things that government does also. Media would do the same for civil society, showing the good of the people but also reflecting the blemishes in popular beliefs so that they can be mended and society improved.

But what happens when the mirror becomes warped?

In an interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News on Sunday night, American President Barack Obama described the American media as a ‘funhouse mirror’ that gives people a mistaken impression.

While questioning Mr Obama on domestic issues; Mr O’Reilly, a strong opponent, abruptly asked him: “Does it disturb you that so many people hate you?” Mr Obama laughed a little and then responded. “You know, the truth is that the people — and I’m sure previous Presidents would say the same thing, whether it was Bush or Clinton or Reagan or anybody — the people who dislike you don’t know you. “But they hate you,” Mr O’Reilly stressed.

“The folks who hate you, they don’t know you,” said Mr Obama. “What they hate is whatever funhouse mirror image of you that’s out there and they don’t know you. And so, you don’t take it personally.” “You don’t ever?” prodded Mr O’Reilly one final time. “Doesn’t it annoy you sometimes? “I think that by the time you get here you have to have had a pretty thick skin. If you didn’t, then you wouldn’t have got here,” said Mr Obama.

For a variety of reasons, the media mirror has become warped not only in America but in Pakistan also. Mosharraf Zaidi brilliantly describes the state of things in his column, Drowning in our delusions:

The starkest revelation in the post-Taseer scenario is that the quality of journalism in Pakistan is in grave danger of becoming entirely hostage to ratings, profits and fear. For staunch defenders of the Pakistani media, this is not a pleasant reality to come face to face with. There is very little, however, to mitigate the cold hard facts.

Taseer’s position was pretty simple. He believed and stated that the Pakistan Penal Code provisions on blasphemy cause procedural lapses that endanger the lives of innocent Pakistanis. He believed and stated that there are skewed incentives, built into the provisions, for people to misuse them. Finally, he believed and stated that procedural change is required to give greater functional fidelity to the legal regime dealing with blasphemy.

This is not a particularly sophisticated position. It has long been shared by reasonable Pakistanis on all sides of the faux ideological divides we create in this country. It is a position that human rights advocates, political leaders and others have long taken.

Yet not only was this position rarely represented in the news media, it was repeatedly misrepresented. Watching young talk show hosts in their twenties make careers out of aggression is not unique. But when that aggression helps fuel paranoia and lies about someone that can then threaten their safety, we must draw a line. One such talk show host recently won the equivalent of the TV talk-show host lottery – a new job after a bidding war broke out for the host’s services. The new job is a reward for having repeatedly insinuating Salmaan Taseer’s blasphemous intent on a talk show. While one channel fired the host, it hardly matters. The new show will be even more bombastic. It will not fear facts, because facts often get in the way of ratings.

It is not only the facts that become distorted in the media funhouse mirror, though. It also makes it distorts the conversations about the problems the country is facing. And when we can’t see clearly what is wrong, how are we supposed to fix it?

Hyper-nationalist propagandists might believe that it’s better for us to lie to ourselves about the nation’s problems, but this is actually keeping us from making progress. That is also the conclusion reached by Mosharraf Zaidi.

Pakistan is being poisoned by false pride, self-pity and moral asymmetry. If we want Raymond Davis to burn, we should demand the same for Mumtaz Qadri. If the murder of three Lahori boys is unacceptable, we should be even more outraged by the untold death and destruction in Tirah Valley, in Bajaaur, in Orakzai, and across FATA that has been showered upon it by the Pakistani military. If we don’t like drones (and we shouldn’t), we must ask questions about what our helicopters and F-16s are doing in the north. If we don’t like targeted killings in Karachi, we should raise our voice against them in Balochistan too.

Pakistanis are too resilient, too beautiful and too good to drown in a sea of delusions. Now more than ever is a time for Pakistanis to be optimistic. The degree of responsibility in our optimism will make all the difference between perpetuating fantasies, or stemming the rot by promoting facts and reason.

Pakistan has the intellect and the resources to solve its own problems and clean up its own messes. We don’t need ‘patriotic generals’ or anyone else to do it for us. But before we can begin to improve things, we have to know what we’re looking at. For this, we rely on the media to be a mirror that reflects our nation clearly and accurately.

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