Posts Tagged ‘Mosharraf Zaidi’

Funhouse Mirrors

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

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.

Ansar Abbasi's Bizarre Performance on Dunya Today

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Ansar Abbasi on Dunya TodayAnsar Abbasi appeared on yesterday’s episode of Dunya Today to discuss Wikileaks. What could have been an informative and productive discussion of an important event in both national and foreign policy turned into something of a circus, though, as Ansar Abbasi began reciting conspiracy theories instead of actual facts. And from there, his performance only got more bizarre. But where this episode was unfortunately not as informative as it could have been about the topic of Wikileaks, it was quite informative about the guest Ansar Abbasi.

About 5 seconds into the second video clip, Dr Moeed Pirzada asks Abbasi, “You said in our last program that Wikileaks is a conspiracy against Pakistan and the Muslims of the world.” Ansar Abbasi replies, “I am still saying the same thing, the exact same thing.”

This claim that Wikileaks is a conspiracy against Pakistan and Muslim countries is being passed around the media by the usual cabal of factless conspiracy theorists. It should be noted also that this line is being spread mostly Urdu media, not English-language, though it was published by The Nation last week also. Like most conspiracy theories, it seems that people believe that it is sufficient evidence to keep saying it.

Pressed by Mosharraf Zaidi to explain how this is a conspiracy, Abbasi simply says that “they use people, not just journalists; they use entire governments for their conspiracies.” Again, he makes this claim by simply stating it, presenting no actual evidence or proofs to back up his claim.

To his credit, Mosharraf Zaidi presents an important counter weight of reasonableness to Ansar Abbasi, terming it a “poison that we have in our nation that we look at everything as a conspiracy theory.” Zaidi goes on to explain:

All I am saying is that we don’t need to start scratching on every surface just to say there is a conspiracy brewing. There are so many other things that have come up here which can promote freedom, democracy and the truth. We should concentrate on those things instead of painting everything as a conspiracy theory so that we don’t ignore the guilty (as well as the innocent) involved here.

Mr Zaidi’s statement should be printed and hung on the wall of every Editor’s office in the country. Editing in journalism is about more than looking for minor grammatical or spelling mistakes. It is supposed to be about ensuring that the media is providing what The New York Times famously calls, “all the news that’s fit to print”. The operative word here being “fit” not “all”.

But I want to mention something else that may have been overlooked by casual viewers. A few minutes after Zaidi states his comments about how conspiracy theories are a distraction from real problems, the conversation took a turn for the bizarre as Abbasi began rambling about religion, saying:

Allah says the enemies of Islam do a lot of planning but Allah is the biggest planner of all. Americans can think of plan whatever My Allah has a plan for them.

This was so bizarre that even Dr Pirzada asked what he is talking about. However, I was immediately reminded of Ansar Abbasi’s recent fatwa against Fashion Week (again published in the Urdu-language Jang as if to perhaps hide it from his English-language audience) in which Mullah Abbasi wrote:

But the real sadness is over how, despite the clear instructions of Allah and His Prophet (PBUH), and despite the promise of the Constitution of Pakistan that an environment based on religious values and Islamic teachings will be created in Pakistan so that Muslims can live their lives according to the Quran and Sunnah, there is no one to stop those making fun of Islamic values. I don’t know who allowed such a fashion show to be held. This trend of fashion shows and catwalks began in Pakistan a few years ago and because of a lack of any controls, has gone, as in the West and India, towards obscenity.

Ansar Abbasi is clearly speaking to a particular audience here. He is repeating conspiracy theories about Wikileaks being an anti-Muslim plot without providing any proofs or facts to support his claim. He is making religious judgments about punishments for acts that he determines to be un-Islamic. This is all fine for Ansar Abbasi the Mullah or Ansar Abbasi the entertainer – but Ansar Abbasi is supposed to be Investigative Editor for one of the largest news organizations in the country. Ansar Abbasi can believe whatever he wants, but it does not make it news just because Ansar Abbasi thinks it.

Ahsan Butt writes an excellent question about the exchange on his blog Five Rupees:

The thing is, I completely agree with being reasonable and tolerant of other people’s opinions, and I am pretty tolerant for the most part — being at grad school sort of forces this upon you, even if you are not personally inclined that way. However, there is a big difference between respecting other people’s opinions (which I think I do) and respecting other people’s facts (which I do not and will not).

Mosharraf Zaidi and Ahsan Butt are correct. Each person is entitled to his own opinions. Nobody is entitled to his own facts. Ansar Abbasi is supposed to be an investigative journalist. He is supposed to ‘investigate’ – to find facts and report them. Perhaps he thinks he can hide from the rest of the world by behaving this way behind a veil of Urdu, but the world is not so divided as he might like to think. By spreading unfounded conspiracy theories and playing on the religious sentiments of the people, Ansar Abbasi is doing a disservice to his readers, his reputation, and his profession.