Janet Cooke is a name that is probably not as familiar among the general public as it is among professional journalists. Ms Cooke was an American reporter for The Washington Post newspaper who won a Pulitzer Prize for a story she wrote about a small child addicted to heroin. The article was obviously considered excellent to win such a prestigious award. It was also fiction.
Janet Cooke had conned one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world. The Washington Post‘s immediate reaction was to go on the defensive. How could it be that their star reporter was lying? Still, though, the newspaper investigated the claims and discovered that they were true. The newspaper publicly apologized and returned the award.
Geo is having a similar moment today. Perhaps their star reporter Hamid Mir is innocent, but there have been serious charges made and evidence is piling up. Like The Washington Post, Geo appears to be very defensive. At least outwardly, there is little sign that the news agency is investigating what are very serious charges. This is understandable, to a degree – Hamid Mir is not someone who just walked in off the street. He is a veteran reporter that has many accomplishments.
But Hamid Mir is also a person. And people make mistakes sometimes. Everyone does. In fact, it’s not unusual for respected news organizations to have these problems from time to time. Like Janet Cooke at The Washington Post, there was Jayson Blair at The New York Times also and there was Stephen Glass at The New Republic also. A movie was even made about the story of Stephen Glass:
All of these reporters were well liked. They were nice, intelligent people who got caught up in a web of mistakes that grew from out-of-control egos combined with the fact that they were working for some of the most respected news organizations in the world. They became Media Baboos in their own minds. They believed that whatever they said was true simply because they said it.
Jang and its various news agencies demand transparency and accountability from the government. This is a proper function of media in a democracy, and Jang has many excellent reporters who do their job very well. But in order to be a legitimate and respected check on government, a successful news organization must provide the same transparency and accountability itself. This is why it is so important for Jang’s news agencies to be seen as acting in pursuit of the truth, whatever that may be.
So far, Hamid Mir’s response to the allegations has been rather silly. First he told The Guardian that it was a conspiracy by a blog controlled by the Ambassador Husain Haqqani. Perhaps he later found out that the blog in question – Let Us Build Pakistan – has posted materials critical of Haqqani, as well as many other PPP officials, from time to time. He has not mentioned this claim since.
Actually, this is not the first time that Hamid Mir has attacked the blog as being part of some big conspiracy. As we have defended them in the past, Hamid Mir did not provide any facts or evidence at that time either. It seems that these bloggers are simply an easy target for Hamid Mir when he gets upset. I don’t know why he has such a vendatta against them.
This accusation against the blog highlights an important part of Hamid Mir’s problem. In order to find out that they had published some articles critical of Husain Haqqani, all I had to do was use Google. If bloggers can use Google to check and verify facts, surely someone like Hamid Mir should be able to do the same.
This is a deep problem that we have in the media – reporters who do not seem to feel that they are responsible for checking their facts. Many of our most famous journalists seem to believe that simply wishing for something to be true is enough. Jang is not the only organization with some journalists affected by this problem – far from it – but they have been under the microscope since the Hamid Mir case has come to light. This actually gives Jang a great opportunity to take a leadership role and speak out against the problem, setting an example for other news agencies.
The other major part of the response has been for some of Hamid Mir’s colleagues to cast some wide accusations about a conspiracy to silence Jang for criticizing the government. But many news organizations besides Jang are critical of the government. Journalists look at the government with a critical eye every day in Dawn, Daily Times, The Nation and on all the TV shows. This is part of their job. Some reporters do it very well, and are able to critically analyse any government without having a political agenda guide their work.
It is interesting to note that the reporters who are so loudly crying out about a conspiracy to silence them, are really only the very small number of reporters who seem to have such a hard time checking their facts and providing evidence for their claims. Everyone else – the reporters who do their work and write excellent articles for their agencies – seem to know that they have nothing to fear from an investigation into the Hamid Mir tapes.
Jang Group is in an unfortunate situation, and I feel quite a bit of sympathy for all of their publishers, editors, and reporters who do good, honest work. Accusations against a member of their staff hurt. But we do not have Media Baboos in this country. Jang Group is bigger than Hamid Mir. If he did nothing wrong, it will come out and everyone will move on. On the other hand, if it turns out that Hamid Mir made some mistakes – if he was caught up in a moment and got carried away – Jang will be doing the best for itself and the media industry as a whole if it shows that it did a full and complete investigation.