I WANTED to note two closures in the US media as both provide many lessons for us to consider in Pakistan. One is Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan’s departure to begin teaching at Duke University. The other is CNN anchor Brian Stelter’s firing and the cancellation of his show Reliable Sources after a near 30-year run. Sullivan chose to leave while CNN’s new owners and leadership felt Stelter/the show was too partisan and they want the channel to be more centrist.

Sullivan and Stelter’s departure leaves a vacuum in the US which needs critics doing the critiquing. These media critics analysed the intersection of journalism, freedom of expression and politics. This allows for accountability and scrutiny of the media and creates a more informed audience. There are plenty of people using social media platforms and newsletters to offer their critiques just like there are scholars writing in media journals, but who is holding the media to account? As media scholar Jeff Jarvis wrote in Medium last week: “No one.”

Jarvis has long written about the need to analyse the media’s impact on the political process and public discourse. “If only media were open to criticism … But no, media use their power and privilege to turn spotlight on others, no longer themselves. That is wrong,” he wrote.

This lack of self-accountability has resulted in a growing mistrust of the news media — the world over — compounded by audiences staying in their news silos. Journalism becomes harder when you have demagogue leaders who show no signs of reforming. As we see in Pakistan, any media that calls out someone’s falsehoods is accused of batting for the other guys. Journalism becomes a game for prime time drama.

There’s more value in providing adequate context.

Press freedom cannot function in a democracy where non-state actors pull the plug on media outlets at will, rendering thousands unemployed. One can’t get a healthy democracy without press freedom so all stakeholders need to learn how to be held accountable. If done fairly, where audiences see themselves and their concerns represented in news coverage, perhaps a trust in media can be rebuilt.

This is especially critical as an election looms in Pakistan at a time of heightened polarisation. Sullivan’s prescription for US journalists is applicable here too: “less live campaign coverage, more context and though­tful framing, and more fearless straight talk from news leaders about what’s at stake… .”

Media’s incessant live coverage of Trump, Modi, Khan, etc was a great disservice to audiences who were none the wiser. Attempts like publishing live fact checks during speeches have done little to squash misinformation. I think there’s more value in providing adequate context to the speeches.

I do not support calling leaders liars because I do not think it is possible to know for certain if they willfully lied. However, I do think it is journalists’ responsibility to question the veracity of those statements. Properly, fairly framed context compared to the lame one we get on our screens, lacking in any meaningful context.

In his closing, Stelter said: “We must make sure we don’t give platforms to those who are lying to our faces.”

This seemed like a dig at CNN’s new bosses who are said to have axed his show because of Stelter’s perceived partisanship. Is their goal now to change CNN’s image to a more centrist one in a bid to win new audiences? Who stands to gain? Trump supporters, for example, are delighted at Stelter’s departure. One less person on the airwaves doing the call-outs.

I’m thinking of channels who batted for PTI and were taken off air — at huge cost. Will they be forced or willingly choose to switch gears, take a position favouring a party without becoming its megaphone? Since the banned channel is never going to appeal to non-PTI audiences should it bother trying? Should journalists protest channels’ closure, journalists’ arrests if they spread misinformation — which goes against the practice of journalism?

When someone is pulled off air, I think it’s important to follow the money and ask who it benefits.

Ostensibly, CNN’s new bosses don’t want to be perceived as taking any position but what is biased about standing up for the facts? “It’s not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues. It’s required. It’s patriotic,” Stelter said.

I think ‘patriotism’ has done enough damage in Pakistan where everyone has their own set of facts. Most of those facts are based on opinion, not on reporting. This is most worrying. All news outlets must practise fair, informed reporting without the shadow of the seth or ‘plug pullers’ looming over their heads.

It’s the media’s job to provide framing and context. And be ready to fight misinformation. I genuinely believe many of my colleagues are up for the challenge.

The writer teaches journalism.

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2022

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