The new mass media seldom has time to verify and ample time to vilify
If you’re looking for a new career path, look no further than the pages of this newspaper. If you are talented, have the analytical skills necessary to tell the difference between your nose and a humming bird, and can follow orders, no matter how inane; a career in journalism is exactly what the doctor ordered. Being on prescription medication is an added qualification, but not a prerequisite.
Like the many over-the-top real estate ads that adorn 9PM bulletins on our ever abundant news channels – which would have you believe that there has never been a better time to invest in real estate in Dadu and Hyderabad – there can be no such illusions about the state of the media in Pakistan. While viewers are distracted by the high-sounding news and scandals breaking on TV screens day in and day out, media houses lay people off at least two days a week; cough up salaries for staff such as reporters, camerapersons, editors, technical, production and support staff every third month and buy themselves new talk show hosts almost every other fortnight.
Journalists too have become fickle creatures. With things getting tighter by the day, media professionals with more developed survival instincts have begun hopping from leaf to leaf, like veritable frogs in a pond full of pitfalls and crocodiles. One false step could land them in the drink, or worse. Horse-trading may have been banned from parliament, but it has reared its financially attractive head in the media sector and has taken everything by storm. This applies more to talk show hosts and their lackeys more than it does to seasoned professionals, but that is inconsequential. What matters is that the glorified mouthpieces of media magnates, spewing forth propaganda badly disguised as ‘public interest journalism’, take home a fat salary.
But spare a thought for the hardworking men and women who make these anchors and tycoons what they are: you can’t, can you? This is because you don’t know them, can’t empathise with them. On a recent trip to Karachi, I had the chance of visiting some of my old friends at their workplaces. At Geo News, I met with the old gang from the ill-fated channel Geo English. Despite all the bhal safai and bad blood, a good two dozen strong were still there, toiling away in an organisation that is a mere shadow of its former glory. While the toys and the new studio are quite impressive, behind all the glitter is the sad fact that it is not a blood-sweat-and-tears news organisation anymore, but a well-oiled machine. The chaos of the newsrooms of old was gone and replaced by an uneasy calm. There was no yelling over the phones, no last minute instructions to the anchor or any harried phone calls from the transmission department asking to cut to commercials. Everything was running smooth. A little too smooth.
SAMAA was no different. Everyone on the programming floor was quite pleased to still be there. I saw several familiar faces, seated in the exact same seats that I left them in all those years ago. I saw many new faces, met many old friends who had now migrated to the channel from other, less green pastures. The consensus here was that the news business is no longer about news anymore. Programming has gone from original, factual content to dramatised and exaggerated soap operas. There is now a great demand for gossip, hearsay and scandal. The new mass media seldom has time to verify and ample time to vilify.
I met with a lot of senior people as well, all of whom had the same, bleak story to tell. It is hard times for the industry. Newspapers and TV channels are spending (or losing) more money than they are making. This does not include political injections from satisfied parties that go into the pockets of those in power. Each organisation, as an organisation, is crumbling. And being seths, media tycoons are now opting to create their own workforce rather than hiring a skilled one. These fresh recruits are then burdened with responsibilities that range from camera work to hosting primetime talk shows.
In such dire circumstances, we can ill-afford skeletons in our closet. It would be best if media houses steered clear of controversy and not became a party to all that is going on in the country, lest they be dragged into the mud themselves. Wait, what?
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