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By Khurram Husain
July 14, 2010
I’d like to add my voice to the growing number of people who are fed up with prime time talk shows on Pakistani television.
It’s bad enough when the shows feature ignorant anchors asking asinine questions from clueless guests who are invited as experts in their respective fields. It’s also ridiculous when the anchors try to create a ruckus between their guests, usually politicians, to generate some entertainment for the viewers.
So what? Just change the channel, say some. If only it was that simple. I could change the channel – and very often I do – but the problem is not just an aesthetic one of viewers making informed choices from a menu of options. The problem is the poison that many of these exalted fools who run these shows are spreading in our society. Primetime television is a powerful medium for shaping public perceptions of important national issues, and far too important a space to be left to the whims of blowhards whose only priorities are ratings and paycheques.
Remember the story about the rickshaw driver who committed suicide with his family? The outpouring of righteous indignation by these anchors over the incident? One anchor had the gall to do an entire show with a sleeping child from a poor family in her lap, shamelessly exploiting their grief for her ratings. Now think how many of them have gone back to follow up on the story.
Another character had three maulanas from bloodthirsty outfits as guests on his show to discuss the terrorist attacks on the Ahmadi community. Why on earth would one turn to a group like the Majlis Khatm-i-Nabuwat to ask them their opinion of these attacks? Their poisonous ideology is already well known, what useful contribution did the anchor believe these people would make to people’s understanding of the attacks? Yet this anchor not only invited them on air, but repeatedly pandered to their bloodlust by declaring that members of this oppressed group are indeed “wajibul qatl.”
The same fellow had Zaid Hamid (remember him?) on his show a few days back. He began by trying to establish the veracity of the stories about Zaid Hamid’s links with a man who had claimed prophethood. The anchor’s way of doing so was to ask his guest whether he believes in the finality of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), to declare his faith in this finality, and then ask him to cast a curse on all those who profess divine inspiration after him.
This may have made gripping viewing for some but is the lowest form of inquisition-style questioning that I have seen on television anywhere and sets a dangerous precedent. Is it now going to be prime-time viewing fodder to grill people on aspects of their faith? There can be shows which bring on people, strap them into a chair, subject their faith to a barrage of questions, and declare some as infidels and others as true believers. Do we really want to go there?
There’s also a new trend developing where anchors bring other anchors from other channels onto their shows as guests and discuss the role of the media or some other such inanity. Never mind that they are all of the same opinion and mostly affirm what each other is saying. I just saw one such show that featured three anchors as guests, all discussing the difference between an ‘anchor’ and a ‘moderator’. Must we wallow in inanities when we are not baying for another’s blood?
What the channels have created is not a marketplace of ideas, but a bazaar of opinion. The bazaar opens every night at eight pm. Whose playing with what issue? Who has what guests? Each shopkeeper presides over that days wares, and employs a now familiar set of gimmicks to compete for prime time eyeballs. Non-issues are magnified out of all proportion — as in the ruckus around the Punjab Assembly resolution drowning out coverage of the Mohmand bomb blast — and the quickest tongue carries the day. I could change the channel on this reality every time, but what worries and saddens me is that the television channels are slowly changing the reality around me.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2010.