A talk show host is supposed to be a lot like a newspaper columnist; his words are full of sound and fury but they signify nothing. It is the news reportage that sells newspaper copies, not the op-ed writers. So you can imagine the irony when talk show hosts take over primetime news broadcasts and become more relevant to the pursuit of “facts” than their colleagues in the newsroom or out in the field. This is pretty much what has happened here in Al-Bakistan. Talk show hosts and TV anchors are the stars of the media revolution, unlike lowly op-ed columnists, who still have to ask their friends to read their articles once in a while.
Of course, this is not a blanket generalization; there are good op-ed columnists and sane talk show hosts who make sense more often than not. But these individuals are not showstoppers, they lack the oomph to make it to the main event at 8:00PM, or 10:00PM, depending on what timeslot best suits their bedtime. When was the last time you heard anything, good or bad, about poor old Dr Moeed Pirzada’s show? When did Fahad Hussain last have a catfight on his show? Has Ejaz Haider ever, on live TV, told his audience to go and hunt down Taliban ruffians with an M-16 assault rifle? The answer to these questions is, believe it or not, in the negative.
Not that they can’t, but they won’t. You see, journalists are a strange breed of homo sapiens. The good ones have a code of ethics, but even the dodgy ones operate within a journalistic framework, where certain, outrageous things are just not done. For example, a real journalist would never go into a public park and ask sunbathing couples for their wedding registration documents. Someone who has been through the grind of journalistic training would never utter the phrase “they deserve to be shot” and really mean it. No actual sahafi would question the lineage of one of his guests or call into question the paternity of a politician or military man, no matter what their alleged crimes are. Also, an experienced journo knows how to use and spell the word ‘allegedly’, something most talk show hosts can’t do quite proficiently.
But as Stephen Colbert proves time and again, there is nothing holding the showman back. The master of the three-ring circus, our average contemporary TV show has a gargantuan ego and, to top it off, little to no editorial control. They are also the ones that indulge most in grandstanding and rhetorical outbursts. The power and the limelight of primetime often gets to their heads and they think they’re a bigger deal than the news itself. The same anchor who was offering expert analysis on the day’s top story in the 7:00PM bulletin will be doing their own show at 8:00PM, then be called in for further analysis in the 9:00PM bulletin, head go off to another channel’s studio to participate in a discussion about the same story at 10:00PM. The next day, then, the same anchor’s column and/or front-page news analysis will appear in his media group’s flagship Urdu newspaper. The next day’s Fixed Point Chart (FPC) will feature at least two repeats of last night’s primetime talk show, and before you know it, the Caliph of the 8:00PM timeslot is back to his pontificating. Rinse and repeat. Ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
Then there is their choice of guest. At first, hosts tried to find some semblance of balance in their shows by inviting one person each from the Left, Right and Center of Pakistan’s political spectrum. This limited their choice of TV-worthy guests to a handful of suspects, with the Hoodbhoys, Sirmeds and Baris on the Left, the Oryas, Abbassis, Parachas and Rashids on the Right and the talk show host themselves in the Center. Obviously, our dyed-in-the-wool journos are hardly Centerists, so the see-saw of primetime tilts heavily in the favour of those who are “in the Right”. What happens next is, as they say, histrionics.
But now, TV in Pakistan introduced drive-thru journalism, where anything from out-of-context Facebook status updates to joking references to terrible things can became grounds for vilification and persecution. Heresy is turned into evidence and conjecture becomes analysis. Everything the global media has been doing in the aftermath of MH370 has been standard fare on our TV screens for quite some time, be it in the diminutive yet fiery form of Mubasher Lucman, the foul-mouthed flatulences of Amir Liaquat, the conspiracy-coated catchphrases of Dr Shahid Masood, the indignant protestations of Meher Bukhari or, most recently, the curare-tipped darts of Arshad Sharif.
One senior journalist, who has been at the helm of several Pakistani news channels in the past decade or so, calls Lucman “a misguided missile on TV” that can cause great harm even if he has no agenda (although we can safely assume that Herr Mubasher is an attack-dog-for-hire). His services have been employed, at different points in time, by Business Plus, Express News and Dunya TV. Currently, the mayhem-meister peddles his wares on ARY News where he has set his sights on the empire of one Mir Shakeel ur Rahman, the man at the head of the Jang media empire. While any human being can understand obsessive behavior, Lucman’s unhealthy fascination with all things MSR was painfully obvious during a recent show where he sat for 45 minutes talking at the elusive tycoon. Only, the man he was talking to wasn’t present in the room, or even in the same time zone. Lucman spent the entirety of the show talking to a photo of MSR, taped to an empty chair. The term ‘serious psychological issues’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.
But while Lucman leads the pack of wolves, Arshad Sharif is the latest entrant to this cadre of faux grandstanders. Formerly a well-respected reporter with Dawn News (in the old days when they understood the difference quite well), Sharif recently took centerstage when he began a moral crusade against all the things that are sapping the land of the pure of its bodily fluids and eating away at our national security. A noble cause, except that his target was an unassuming New-Age yoga center, located in the fashionably rural Islamabad suburb of Bani Gala. Art of Living is a global phenomenon, frequented by those who have more money than sense, marketing mostly hocus pocus and stretching exercises to the unsuspecting masses. But Sharif’s contention, if I understand it correctly, was that because bureaucrats and servicemen’s wives and children frequent the yoga center, where conniving conversational con-artists get them to blab all the state secrets they are privy to, this impure straw and bamboo settlement in the middle of sleepy hollow must be removed from Pakistani soil.
Of course, this was dismissed as so much mumbo jumbo by all those present during the show in question. Grand inquisitor Ansar Abbasi even confessed to being ignorant of the evil designs of RAW and refused to comment on the inner machinations of Art of Living. But Sharif persisted in his venomous tirade and eventually, the yoga center and the attached residence were burnt down in the middle of the night by goons armed with kerosene, Zippo lighters and a Snake Pliskin eye-patch.
That’s not all. After this incitement to arson, Sharif openly boasted of his success on TV and Twitter. He even shared with this writer university thesis debunking yogism and the Art of Living phenomenon as proof of the international conspiracy. The headless chickens of our country, affectionately known as The Common Man, immediately applauded Sharif for his heroic patriotism in the face of foreign interventionism, and went on to laud his next venture, #NGO accountability. Now, while there is nothing wrong with asking for greater transparency, accountability and an audit of the wasteful workings of non-governmental organizations working in our fair backwater, what surprised most observers was Sharif’s missionary zeal and radical fervor in pursuing his targets. Indeed, McCarthyism pales in comparison to the demonization Sharif indulged in and he continues to make life very uncomfortable for the thousands of dedicated NGO workers who toil thanklessly in places such as FATA, KPK and Interior Sindh, working to make a difference in this land of cynics, critics and methadone clinics.
The fact of the matter is that these champions of truth, justice and the Pakistani way are afflicted with a little known disease, known as Anchoritis. This affliction manifests itself in the minds and titanic egos of persons who spend too much time in front of a teleprompter or use mascara more often than most women. It cements their faith in their own infallibility, seals their role as guardians of The Greater Good, champions of The Common Man and immune to all protestations of accountability. At first, it was just non-journalistic performance artists who were affected; but now the disease is spreading rapidly. Ere long, it may permeate the domain of news anchoring and convince glorified teleprompter junkies that they are God’s greatest gift to Gonzo journalism since Geoffrey Chaucer. There is no known cure for anchoritis. Only a slow, painful brain death to look forward to. For the audience, that is.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad. He tweets @mightyobvious_