Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Osama is dead, long live print!

What we heard were the predictable voices, the concerted attempt to fix Pakistan’s complicity and the self-righteous tone of ‘security experts’ from India.  Indian news television still has some way to travel when dramatic developments such as Osama’s killing take place, says KALPANA SHARMA
Posted Wednesday, May 04 17:14:57, 2011

The last word on the Osama bin Laden killing has not been spoken or written yet.  Questions are flying all over the world; there is a deliberate opaqueness in the selective information released by the United States that is fueling speculation and scepticism.
In such a situation what is the role of the media? Should it try and glean as much information as it can and put it out in the public realm before it launches into airing opinions?
Indian news channels, given their past record, routinely fail to provide essential information on a development before they start bombarding viewers with opinion. The hours after President Obama announced the success of his country’s operation to kill Osama bin Laden were not very different. It is true that little information was available barring what the President had announced. It is true that Indian channels do not have reporters in Pakistan and had to depend on feeds from Pakistani channels to get the first images and information.
But surely, in this day of the Internet, it would have been possible for news desks in this country to put out cogent information about the site of the attack, Abbotabad, and piece together background that would help viewers make better sense of the story. But if you watched only television, you were left with dozens of questions unanswered. So when May 3 dawned, it was a relief to turn to the print media to fill in the gaps in information.
Of course, in the middle of all the grim business, we got a bit of entertainment. For some channels, it was not Osama who had been killed but Obama! NDTV India was the first off the mark killing off the American President and through the evening, talking heads on other channels kept slipping up on the two names, making them virtually interchangeable. The prize for doing this repeatedly should probably go to the irrepressible Arnab Goswami of Times Now who repeated his trademark command performance by inviting Pakistanis to the channel and not allowing them to speak.
But coming back to backgrounding ‘breaking stories’, most news channels fall short even though some make more of an effort than others. Here print scores and for those readers/viewers who want to go beyond the favourite talking heads on TV, the next day’s newspapers do fill in some of the gaps – which include simple facts such as who are ‘US Navy Seals’ (forces trained to operate on sea, air and land).
Thanks to Arshad Yusufzai, a freelance journalist based in Peshawar, we know from his story reproduced in Indian Express that Abbotabad is in the Hazara province of the former North West Frontier Province, now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That the majority of the population in the district is Hazara and not the Pakhtuns with kin across the border in Afghanistan. That Hazara province has not seen the violent terror attacks experienced elsewhere in Pakistan, particularly in Punjab. That the elite Pakistan Military Academy that everyone kept referring to on TV channels as being a “stone’s throw away” from the hideout where Osama was killed is actually on the outskirts of Abbotabad in a place called Kakul. And that the locals referred to the strange mansion where Osama hid out as the “Waziristan Haveli”.
You could argue that all of this is trivia that print media is forced to report because television now hogs all the breaking news. I suggest this is value addition. It gives a perspective. It erases the black and white nature of stories and introduces tones and shades of grey. It nuances events so that our understanding of what happens is backed by history and geography and not just high drama.
A good illustration of the best you can find in print on a day when television goes berserk with the breaking news is the lead from a story filed by veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, who has interviewed Osama bin Laden more than once, in The Independent, London (May 3):
“A middle-aged non-entity, a political failure outstripped by history – by the millions of Arabs demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East – died in Pakistan yesterday. And then the world went mad.”
In a couple of sentences, Fisk has placed the incident within the larger perspective of the Middle East, something hours of viewing television news in this country fails to provide. That perhaps is the magic of the printed word; it allows you to read again and to think.
The English language newspapers in India were on the whole full of information, based on reprints from foreign papers, and surprisingly restrained compared to the high-pitched debates on television the night before. So restrained in fact that Business Standard had the clearance of the Posco plant in Orissa as its first lead and a photograph of people gathered outside the White House as the second. In the caption to the photo Osama’s name was mentioned but nowhere in the headline.
In contrast, all the other non-business papers and the business papers carried the news as the first lead. The prize for the most original headline should probably go toDNA: Obama bins Laden.
Speaking of headlines, the American Press was a story of contrasts. The Poynter Institute, has put together the front pages of a number of American newspapers that graphically illustrate how a headline reflects the stance of a newspaper. Headlines ranging from “We got the bastard” (Philadelphia Daily News) to “Burn in Hell!” (Edmonton Sun) to “Rot in Hell” (New York Daily News) to “Got him! Vengeance at last! US nails the bastard” (New York Post), reflect the mood in the US on the night of May 2. But these are mostly tabloids; broadsheet newspapers like New York Times and others followed their traditional, low-key style even when there was such a big story. Not for them the screaming eight column headers.
Indian news television still has some way to travel when dramatic developments such as Osama’s killing take place. What we heard were the predictable voices, the concerted attempt to fix Pakistan’s complicity and the self-righteous tone of ‘security experts’ from India. What we needed at this time were some thoughtful voices from Pakistan about what these developments mean for a country that is beleaguered by the internal divisions in their society and a weak political system. Perhaps making such demands on our news channels is asking for too much. Fortunately, with a more restrained and informative print media, we do not face the danger of a convergence of the two media singing the same tune – of hysteria, of vengeance, of triumphalism. 
 (click on the link above to read the original)

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