the Editor: Akhtar
December 26 , 2008
Dear Mr. Ambassador and Members of the Community
The need for a vibrant, dynamic media to project the Pakistani point of view in North America has never been so pressing as it is today. The anti-Pakistan groups and biased newsmen spare no opportunity to batter Pakistan. A train of unfortunate events in South Asia, like the attacks on the Marriott in Islamabad and the Taj in Mumbai, only makes their task easier.
What is the strength of the Pakistani-American media to meet this mounting challenge?
The Urdu press can hardly play a role in refuting trumped-up charges. Language is an insurmountable barrier. The Americans can’t be persuaded to learn Urdu to understand our point of view.
The fledgling English press too is handicapped in many ways and presently is hardly up to the task.
Its problems are of a multifarious nature: lack of finances - inadequate advertising revenues – put serious constraints on any well-meaning initiative to dispel misperceptions about Pakistan.
The printed copies are far too few. The contents suffer in terms of number of articles, color, layout, illustrations, pictures, etc. Serious constraints on bringing about a qualitative, wholesome improvement are formidable: Many bright and promising young men and women educated in American universities are passing by the profession as they find the job market hopelessly unrewarding.
In the highly competitive American media one cannot make his mark if his arguments lack scholarship or are devoid of in-depth analysis. How do we succeed in projecting the truth and advancing our national point of view if our rivals are better poised – educationally, professionally, and financially – to distort the truth?
The present situation is quite disturbing, nay, alarming: falsehood triumphs and truth is conveniently ignored. As we pay a heavy price for our neglect, the community appears hardly seized of its role in strengthening the media. The situation is compounded with the government in Islamabad, wittingly or unwittingly, contributing to the disturbing situation. The External Publicity Division of the Ministry of Information has no rapport with the Pakistani-America media. One expects it to work hand in hand with responsible newspapers in North America to present the national point of view on various issues but the needed linkages are sadly missing.
The story of the growth of the media serves us with many instructive lessons. Tocqueville was wholly right when he declared in 1835 that “a nation that is determined to remain free is right in demanding at any price the exercise of this independence” (of the media). It was the recognition of this noble role that led to the acceptance of the media as the ‘fourth estate’ in the UK as early as 1789. Three decades earlier, in the year 1753 to be precise, seven million newspapers were sold in the UK annually; 20,000 a day, more than any other country at that time.
Yet, truthfulness and objectivity have been an elusive hallmark of the fourth estate - today and earlier. About seventy years back, the American media found itself precariously perched. It was helplessly dependent for news flow on the British press. Kent Cooper, a former Executive Manager of the Associated Press (AP), complained about American dependence thus: “Reuter decided what news was to be sent from America. It told the world about Indians on the warpath in the west, lynching in the south, and bizarre crimes in the north. The charge for decades was that nothing creditable to America was sent…. Figuratively speaking, in the United States, it wasn’t safe to travel on account of the Indians.”
Stressing the same point more incisively and in the context of the present times, William James Stover (Information Technology in the Third World, Colorado, US, 1984) observes. “The concentration of telecommunication facilities, news agencies, mass media outlets, data resources, and manufacturers of communication equipment in a small group of advanced countries precludes a full, two-way flow of information among equals. As a result, the flow of messages, data, media programs, culture and other information is directed predominantly from bigger to smaller countries, from those with power and technology to those less advanced, from the developed to the less developed world…” Not surprisingly, UPS’ monthly output of 150 filmed stories from N. America and Europe sharply contrasted with 20 from Asia!
Today, the media wields a formidable clout. It can demolish states, institutions, and even presidents of the most powerful country of the world. Instructive excerpts from Modern Times (Paul Johnson, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1992):
“The men and the movement that broke Lyndon Johnson’s authority in 1968 are out to break Richard Nixon in 1969 …breaking presidentship is, like most feats, easier to accomplish the second time round…” (p. 647)
“Remember”, he (Nixon) told his staff, “the press is the enemy. When news is concerned nobody in the press is a friend. They are all enemies.” (p. 647)
“Nixon never put his side of the case since, rather than risk the prolonged national convulsion of an impeachment, which might have lasted years, he resigned in August 1974. Thus, the electoral verdict of 1972 was overturned by what might be described as a media putsch. The ‘imperial presidency’ was replaced by the ‘imperial press.’ ” (p. 653)
If the powerful American president was so helpless before the more powerful media, what could be the lot of the have-nots, the developing countries, or the Third World known for the ‘third-ness’ of its strivings? More Rosenblu, former editor of the International Herald Tribune, furnishes an insightful answer: “The Western monopoly on the distribution of news, whereby even stories written about one Third World country for distribution in another are reported and transmitted by international agencies based in New York, London, and Paris amounts to neo-colonialism and cultural domination.”
The one-sided reporting on the tragic Mumbai happenings recently amply prove this point.
The need to strengthen the Pakistani-American media was never so pressing and paramount as it is today. Would Islamabad and the community play their long outstanding role and do the needful with promptitude?