Looking at Cyril Almeida’s story through the lens of press-state relations

Editions: since I first published this essay here, I have made some minor editions which the reader will come across in line brackets.

These days a story Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military written by a Pakistani journalist and Dawn newspaper staffer, Cyril Almeida, has created quite a buzz in the Pakistani media sphere. Naturally when stories any where on critical policy matters of national interest enter the public sphere they are usually met with considerable scrutiny, analysis and some form of controversy. What makes the Pakistani case so compelling in my opinion are firstly the actors involved; a sitting government, a military establishment and a well reputed news organisation, and secondly; a highly speculative buzz most of which ignores journalism practice as a basis to ground analysis. In this essay I attempt to examine the controversy through the lens of a theory of press-state relations in the United States. Resulting analysis won’t be a precise or the only explanation of the incident. But by using established knowledge it may offer some viable explanation on the veracity of the story and what that implies.

 

It is widely established that journalist look mostly to government officials as the source of most of their daily reporting. There are many explanations for this but Lance W. Bennett (1990) classical hypothesis neatly summarises its major consequence, that:

Mass media professionals, from the boardroom to the beat, tend to ‘’index’’ the range of voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials according to the range of views expressed in mainstream government debate about a given topic. (p.106) 

Now Mr. Almeida’s story is controversial for two major reasons; first due to sensitive timing the story seems fabricated, as from a theoretical view its assertions fall outside present debates within government and policy circles. Relatedly, second, the government believes the story to be ‘speculative’, ‘misleading and factually incorrect’ because it has no source. And to my knowledge no public statement has been released by the ISPR to dispel these notions.

Lets start with the issue of the elusive source.

Indexing applies to ‘behaviour of prestige news organisation that set professional standards and influence news agenda’ and exclude those that can have an ideological sway due to small audiences and/or specific tastes. So for instance it can more credibly be applied to Daily Dawn a newspaper well regarded internationally and locally. Notwithstanding its vehement defence of information that was “verified, cross-checked and fact-checked”, indexing and every day journalism norms leads us to conclude with some confidence that Mr Almedia’s story indeed came from government and/or state officials. [Which raises doubts and questions about the governments claim that the story is fabricated and why the military has chosen to remain silent.]

Next,

It’s not enough to simply hold the norm as true if theory says so. The context matters. Political unity over Kashmir in these troubled times matter. Mr. Almeida’s story perhaps does not represent opinion within policy circles? It’s a fabrication that hints of mischief. The theory’s assumptions can shed some light here.

In setting the range of acceptable voices and opinions such a newspaper will allow on an issue, it will select official sources likely to influence outcome of events rather than isolated and extreme voices. The assertions in the story, such as disagreement over state policy on militants, could have only made it to print because they came from powerful sources. Not that powerful voices are credible by default. Source selection is based on a newspaper’s understanding of the current political calculus and a stable majority opinion within government and other policy circles. It stands to reason that matters of vital national interest would only warrant relevant powerful voices through the news gate and exclude deviants.

And had the official policy on militants – including disagreements – as reported in the newspaper actually included deviant views, or fabrications, the ‘circumstances surrounding such inclusions usually involve civil disobedience, protests, or lawless acts that establish negative interpretative contexts for those voices’ (p. 107). So had the report not represented mainstream opinions in policy circles, the story would have proceeded or preceded by a volatile situation. So far this has not happened publicly, at least in how we Pakistanis understand volatile situations. Other than Mr. Almeida being intimidated through the Exit Control List.

So, is the ‘potentially ground-shifting exchange between the ISI DG and several civilian officials’ as portrayed, accurate? Theoretically they are insofar as, a) the newspaper indeed carried professional norms of reporting it is regarded for, b) the story reflected present tensions in official policy circles that the newspaper was able to exploit and c) when the story landed there was no serious law and order situation surrounding it. [Not yet any way.]

[Unfortunately we don’t have more information to make an accurate judgement here. My hunch is that a meeting on those issues did happen but the ‘ground shifting exchange’ as depicted, among the most senior leaders of our country, seems a bit unreasonable.]

There are limitations however to these explanations and indexing to some extent accounts for them. For instance, the kind of issue determines applicability; ‘everyday events, crises, and policies (are more applicable) than…“special coverage” of things like elections that may have a normative-ritual order of their own’. [So unless we are going through unusually special political times this limitation is invalid. Although, considering the PTI rallies just around the corner one could think otherwise. Which would imply that we are in for those nazuk times yet again.]

 

In concluding I would simply add that all actors involved in the story including Daily Dawn may claim to act in the public interest. But if that requires bringing the voice of ordinary Pakistani’s on militancy to print, it would hardly happen. Indexing implies that professional news reporting operates independent of expressed public opinion.

Reference

Bennett, W. L., (1990) ‘Towards a theory of press-state relations in the United States’, International Journal of Communication, 40: 103–127.

‘Changing the world’ as a goal is as narcissistic a view as ‘becoming famous’

It is a claim that you alone are special, you alone care and you alone have the right. The image is not intended as an attack on any religious belief. It has a symbolic and satirical purpose.

A few days ago I was forwarded an article written by Manal A. Khan on how our ambitious career plans in college appear on hindsight upon touching 30. I found it comforting that people my age share the paradox of going through education systems that hammer down the notion of zealous personal ambitions and save-the-world attitude while, upon hitting some semblance of career stability, realise that it’s the ‘process’ that really matters. In this piece I will establish a thread from her general message in to pursuing PhD studies.

PhD studies or work in the knowledge economy in general is like work in any other industry. I chose this for my commentary because the eccentric admission process, the high self-motivation and work flexibility are supposedly the hallmarks of independent research work, similar to some values mentioned by Khan. However one year down, I have emphatically realised how political research work really is. By political I don’t just mean ideological but many outside factors that shape knowledge creation.

Take research area as an example. I was very selective about choosing literature for my work on the Pakistani media industry. As an emerging academic of the global south, it is imperative that I borrow extensively from theoretical frameworks that are grounded on developing countries. This means working under supervisors with similar focus or at least expertise on developing countries. However, rarely do new PhD students get supervisors of their choice in this increasingly saturated and bureaucratised industry. As a result their frameworks and indeed research area may be directed by their supervisors.

Timeliness and location plays another important role. As a resource constrained actor, how do you study a community thousands of miles away? There are limitations to my data collection on Pakistan; the personal/guanxi culture, elite research paradigm and the expense of traveling to and fro from Hong Kong for instance. This effects what meaningful questions I can ask and expect to answer. In the beginning I was envious of my Chinese colleagues for whom it is much easier to collect data on China. I do realise now how incorporating Chinese literature adds value to my work even though it comes at the expense of foregoing data on some communities in Karachi. Lack of access much?

Finally, and this is my favourite; our personal lives do not stop while we are embarking on ambitious plans to ‘save the world’. Many PhD students are in the middle of their careers thus juggling a balance between social security (immigration), marriage and/or proposals, kids, parents, jobs and their research is a truism. This effects the choices mentioned above besides adding another dimension to how a researchers decision making is influenced.

A PhD graduate told me once that when he first started the program he had big plans ‘to move mountains’ and creating vital knowledge that would change lives of ‘ordinary people’. In reality the program simply trains you to carry out independent research work. That is it. It takes decades for scholars to refine their methods, develop a following and master an area to make some meaningful contribution. And, since research work usually is far ahead of its time it takes years for its practical impact to trickle down. The only thing within your control is perseverance for your work and strategic decision making to interact with outside influences. That is all you can reasonably expect from yourself. Setting a goal like ‘changing the world’ is as narcissistic a view as ‘becoming famous’. It is a claim that you alone are special, you alone care and you alone have the right. I agree with Khan that great people didn’t set ‘changing the world’ in their bucket lists. They just continued to make good use of their strengths.