The perfect mediocrity of Pakistani journalism
Young men and women who aspire to be journalists in today’s Pakistan, do so for two reasons. One, they studied mass communication because they couldn’t make the merit for more structured disciplines at university, and have figured, honestly, they are not good enough at anything in particular. And two, they have an overwhelming urge to save and serve the world.
The former is a straight forward and understandable reason. You pick a newspaper or watch a news bulletin, and you see mediocrity reigning supreme. Senior reporters can’t fit their five Ws and an H in a feature-length news report; those who do, more often than not get their facts wrong and their figures fudged; hardly anyone knows the language they report in or edit; and when they become seasoned enough, they either start wheeling dealing as media managers or take to writing and talking complete nonsense, with a lot more panache, authority, and freedom than they could muster as reporters.
Surely, I can do better than these jokers, the young job seeker enthuses. Today’s ‘well known journalists’ took the same route, didn’t they? One day they were just a pretty face or a sexy figure, or the son/daughter of a showbiz person, or a misfit civil servant, or a rude and belligerent angry-old-man, or a smooth and slippery charlatan … and the next day they are presenting news, hosting a current affairs programme or analysing a complex event or situation. That makes me qualified too – I can talk the talk and walk the walk. In fact, if I don’t stand a chance in journalism, I don’t stand a chance anywhere.
This line of thinking smacks of opportunism but is in fact as realistic as it gets. And the proof of its being real is in the fact that young people who don’t know any better do keep joining the circus, becoming the jokers, and in turn, attracting more wannabes to follow them. It’s the natural circle of life in Pakistani journalism. Those who are lucky and crafty enough, get a fat salary and fringe benefits that are restricted only by their own imagination, while the rest slog off on pittance, or no salary at all, waiting for their chance to strike gold.
The latter reason is more devious and therefore should be alarming for media consumers and media managers alike. Those who enter journalism to ‘reform’ the society in the image of this philosophy or that, are like the young lad who joins the army so that he can become a general, take over the government, and fix all the ills of his beloved homeland. They have the sincerity of purpose of a 16-year-old’s, and an intelligence level to match. These juvenile do-gooders come in handy as fodder for various ideologies grazing the landscape of this nation.
There are right-wing ideologues who see God and Satan in every conflict, left-wing whiners who are always on the side of the oppressed but are never quite sure who the oppressed are, nationalists who insist on reinventing the wheel as a Pakistani invention for it to roll in Pakistan, and liberals who reject everything without putting forward anything new. These journalists too attract their own kind and form the other circle of journalistic life.
Between the intellectually challenged and ideologically motivated journalists – who together define the Pakistani brand of journalism – there exist a few meticulous reporters who write for people, write well, make fewer factual mistakes and are very cautious in their editorial judgment; brilliant copy editors who turn a rag tag compilation of information into a juicy story; creative photo journalists who tell a complicated story simply through the selection of their angle, and sharp editors who guide their teams into doing stories others can’t see. They are a part of every news media organisation but they are few and they remain faceless. Their names will not come up even once when you ask a thousand, or ten thousand newspaper readers and news TV viewers, who in their opinion are professionally competent journalists. And therefore, no one aspires to be them.
Pakistani journalism, as unleashed by a military ruler, repackaged by semi-literate media owners, and meekly accepted by senior editors, is no more about informing, educating and entertaining the audience. It’s all about acquiring and expanding a power base and selling a particular point of view, which incidentally, are the two defining traits of politicians as well. And it’s no coincidence. Media owners and senior editors have always been a part of partisan politics and senior journalists who speak and write non-stop on political developments have little or no understanding of the issues that really matter for all Pakistanis, clean drinking water for instance. Every senior journalist is by default a political analyst and the more ambitious of them do turn into full time politicians. Hussain Haqqani, Maleeha Lodhi, Mushahid Hussain, Ayaz Amir, Nafeesa Shah, Shafqat Mahmood … stand out in the present crop of journalists-turned-politicians.
So mixed up is journalism with politics, especially in the mind of old school vernacular journalists, that a senior, presidential award winning columnist recently counted his professional achievements in these words: ‘I was writing columns for (dailies) Shahab and Musawat. Bhutto sahib deputed me to the election campaign of PPP candidates in and around Lyalpur. I used to attend all the public meetings, and people from those days may remember that nature used me as a speaker (at election rallies) too’. Any student of journalism today will be stunned by the fact that the admission is made with pride, not shame. That’s how twisted things are.
Are they getting better? No chance, not at least in the near future because there is no economic incentive for media owners to purge journalism of unprofessional and unethical practices. And not even the senior most editors have the capacity to train and mentor juniors, if they were asked to. The top layer of our contemporary journalists spent their working life, alternately accommodating and fighting the draconian provisions of censorship laws. And when this generation did get the freedom – ironically at the hands of a serving army general – they did not know what to do with freedom. They’d only fought for principles and ethics; they never got to practice them.
That confusion and inaction on the part of senior editors at the turn of the millennium, spelled death for the powerful office of the editor – practically in electronic media and theoretically in print. It is this powerless, directionless editor who became the role model of my generation, and who is now passing on professional mediocrity to the next generation.
You still want to break into journalism? By all means. But do get your preferences right. If your motivation is one or both mentioned above, you know the drill. If you want to do for-people and ethical journalism, learn the ropes in a professional environment before sending your resume to a mainstream Pakistani media house, because you’ll get a job, a salary if you are lucky, but you won’t get any learning.
Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.