Media’s ‘Myopic Zeal’ and Political Bias

Feb 23rd, 2011 | By | Category: Aaj TV, Express Tribune, The Nation

The political bias of certain journalists is well documented. Nor is this a problem unique to Pakistan Nobody questions the conservative leaning of FOX News (USA), the liberal leaning of The Guardian (UK), or the establishment credentials of The Nation (Pak). When one looks to these media groups, the perspective that will be used is already well known. But unlike most other countries, Pakistan’s media is infested with political operatives who work under the cover of journalism. While such blatant propaganda operations may exist on the fringes of the international media, they are routinely found in the heart of our own mainstream press. This raises the question of whether Pakistan’s media can truly be fair and neutral while it lacks basic ethical guidelines around political propaganda.

In America, TV anchor Keith Olbermann was suspended and ultimately fired by MSNBC News after it was revealed that he was giving large financial donations to political candidates in direct contradiction to ethics rules.

“Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest,” the NBC News policy reads. “Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee.”

Another prominent American TV network, CBS News, fired four employees including eminent anchor Dan Rather after it was discovered that they had run a false story attacking George W. Bush.

The action was prompted by the report of an independent panel that concluded that CBS News failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of the piece. The panel also said CBS News had compounded that failure with a “rigid and blind” defense of the 60 Minutes Wednesday report.

Asked to resign were Senior Vice President Betsy West, who supervised CBS News primetime programs; 60 Minutes Wednesday Executive Producer Josh Howard; and Howard’s deputy, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy. The producer of the piece, Mary Mapes, was terminated.

“We deeply regret the disservice this flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday report did to the American public, which has a right to count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy,” said CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves.

The panel said a “myopic zeal” to be the first news organization to broadcast a groundbreaking story about Mr. Bush’s National Guard service was a key factor in explaining why CBS News had produced a story that was neither fair nor accurate and did not meet the organization’s internal standards.

Obviously American media – home of FOX News – is no group of angels, and political bias exists there as well. But where in our own media can we point to high profile journalists and anchors being held to account for their political bias and inaccuracies?

The Nation is often blatantly partisan, on Sunday offering unqualified faith in PML(N).

One is certain that the Punjab government that is led by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, will do everything under the law to arrest the culprits.

Syed Ali Raza Abidi may masquerade as a journalist, but his true profession as political operative is quite obvious to anyone who cares to look. He maintains a profile on the website www.allaboutmqm.org, and photos of him as an MQM activist are spread across the internet. Yet when publishing his writing, Express Tribune describes him only as, “A businessman who writes on politics and civic issues”. Aaj TV describes him as “A businessman and a young politician.” Abidi’s MQM activism is never mentioned in his by line, yet the writing of this ‘businessman’ follows a trend that is invariably pro-MQM and anti-government.

When MQM introduces a de-weaponization bill, Syed Abidi is there to support it in the media. This same ‘businessman’ also offers backhanded praise to the PM for ‘bailing out a failing government’ while saying that “Hopefully the MQM and PML-N have reminded you of what your priorities should have been in the first place”.

Syed Ali Raza Abidi MQM operative

Of course, Abidi is not alone and today’s examples are not the first people to use the profession of journalism as a path to Islamabad. Let us not forget that PML(N) MNA Ayaz Amir and PPP MNA Sherry Rehman were also journalists prior to their careers in politics. Nor is this to say that journalists must be devoid of personal political beliefs, nor does it mean that journalists should never change careers to politics. Actually both Ayaz Amir and Sherry Rehman were excellent journalists and also excellent MNAs. But if a journalist decides to change careers and go into politics, it should be a mystery to the public which party they will choose, so well hidden were there own political beliefs from their reporting.

Some of this problem is likely the result of the growing number of newspapers and TV channels that require more and more content to attract their audience and advertisers. Pakistan does not have enough trained and qualified journalists to fill the necessary positions. As a result, anyone who can write well and produce content for these groups is accepted. Becoming an ‘analyst’ is even easier. There one often simply needs a phone.

One part of the solution is for media groups to adopt corrective systems that ensure accuracy and accountability. Zohra Yusuf, Creative Director, Spectrum Y&R, makes an excellent suggestion in a piece for Aurora Magazine.

The answer to instilling responsibility in the media does not lie in any form of government control or oversight. The days of censorship should be firmly behind us. There are many workable and proven structures and systems of media monitoring and complaints commission available. It is the will that is needed and the consensus among media organisations not only to acknowledge the issue of accountability but to work towards setting in place corrective systems. The Express Tribune has done well to announce the appointment of Justice (Retired) Farkruddin G. Ebrahim as an ombudsman for the newspaper. In fact, it published all his contact details as well, encouraging readers to send their complaints to him. However, a solo effort by a small newspaper will have little impact unless major news organisations make a similar joint commitment.

By developing internal systems to hold journalists accountable for the accuracy of reports, media groups would ensure their own independence and freedom as well as their long-term business model. The more newspapers and channels enter the media space, being the first with ‘breaking news’ is already having diminishing returns. People see a report early, but they don’t believe it. That creates an opportunity for media groups to compete for the title of ‘most accurate’.

But ombudsmans and internal controls must also deal with certain questions of journalistic ethics such as what it means to be a reporter and what it means to be a political operative. Pakistan has no shortage of drawing room politicians. What we are desperate for are qualified journalists.

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