The good, the bad and the ugly – by Zarrar Khuhro

The writer is Associate News Editor, The Express Tribune

Pakistanis are used to carnage. We’re used to bomb blasts, assassinations and industrial accidents. We know that when the tickers turn red, more often than not, something terrible has happened. That’s what happened on the night of April 15, only the blast wasn’t in Battagram, but in Boston. After the first ticker, on a local TV channel, telling us of an explosion in Boston, the next ticker was that President Barack Obama had taken notice of the blast. That prompted quite a few cynical laughs, leading some to say that our channels are far too used to covering local acts of terror, the reporting of which follows a predictable pattern. First, a blast is heard, then confirmed, then the casualties are reported and then the government takes “notice”.

Inevitably, a “search and rescue operation” is conducted and so on and so forth. We wondered, black humour being a national survival trait, if the next ticker would say that Obama had called for a report within 24 hours and whether any officials would be suspended — following a suo motu of course. At this point, we switched onto CNN to see how the US media, relatively less experienced in reporting acts of terror, was handling it. What I saw was less impactful than what I didn’t see. Sure, there was the crowd running in terror, the plume of smoke from the blast and so on, and the odd scene, quickly edited out, of wounded people.

Then, the footage stopped altogether and we were shown still images of the scene. They were quiet and poignant. Not bad, considering the last act of terror on US soil was 9/11 itself. Missing were the crying people, the torn bodies and the hysterical reporters heaping blame on the authorities and trying to trample all over the scene in the name of the freedom of the press. No one stuck a mic in the face of the parents of the eight-year-old boy who had died and asked them how they felt. No one used a wailing woman or a wounded person being wheeled into the hospital in their headline footage.

There were no montages of misery masquerading as opening titles. By contrast, look at how our TV channels covered the April 16 attack in Peshawar. One zoomed in on a critically injured man as he lay dying. Another actually showed a charred body, half melted into the driver’s seat of the car that had been attacked. It wasn’t the first time that images that should never be shown on TV made it to prime time, and it won’t be the last. After covering hundreds of such attacks, our media has yet to evolve a code of conduct, has yet to go beyond mealy-mouthed expressions of regret. And the viewers have yet to demand that they do.

Soon came another marked difference in approach, not from the media but from the government. The US president appeared before the cameras to share his peoples’ pain and comfort them. It was a short address, over as quickly as it had begun, but I can only imagine that it would have given a confused nation a feeling that someone was on the job. I say I can only imagine it because I’ve never actually experienced it. No matter the scale of the disaster, the extent of the carnage, I’ve never seen one of our leaders — a prime minister or a president — actually reach out and try to comfort the people. Whether it’s Baldia, Alamdaar Road or Abbas Town, they’ve never bothered to actually try and lead. It’s almost enough to make you long for a meray aziz humwatno moment.

There was, of course, the bad and the ugly as well. The New York Post, in particular, stands out for being a fear-mongering rag. Not only did it inflate the casualties, it also reported that a “Saudi man who smelled of gunpowder” was a suspect, even when the Boston police denied any such thing. There are consequences to this sort of misreporting, and a group of men wielding baseball bats showed up at the hospital where this man was said to be held while he was being treated.

The Post’s next front page ran a picture of two men, who the Post claims were being sought, with the title “Bag Men”. Except, of course, they weren’t being sought and were guilty only of watching the marathon while looking somewhat Middle-Eastern. One of them, 17-year-old Salah Barhoun, had to turn to the police to clear his name. The Post, of course, is the same toilet-paper tabloid that turned Pakistani-American Salman Hamdani, a hero of 9/11, into a suspect, adding to the miseries of his family, who spent months thinking he was in an American jail while he had, in fact, died trying to rescue people from the twin towers. Till now, the Post has not issued a clarification, either on Salman or Salah.

Then, of course, it gets worse. US tv analyst Erik Rush, who has appeared on Fox and CNN, tweeted immediately after the bombing, “Let’s bring more Saudis in without screening them! C’mon!” When asked if he was blaming Muslims, he said, “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.” Later, he claimed he was being “sarcastic”. And, of course, resident Islamophobe Pam Gellar also ran with it, calling it “Jihad in America”.

It’s not completely clear who the suspects are. They may turn out to be Muslim, but to jump the gun like this is more a case of exploiting tragedy than anything else. It is “in fact” the moral equivalent of our “no Muslim can commit such an act” crowd that swings into action whenever there is a blast in Pakistan. Predictably, thus, the first Boston-related hate crime took place. And then there are the equivalents of our yeh sab drama hai crowd who claimed this was a false flag operation; an inside job by a government bent on creating a defacto police state. So yes, the yanks also have their screaming tabloids, their nutjobs and hate-mongers.

But by and large, they get slapped down by a much more savvy public. For the most part, misreporting is challenged and maniacs are mocked. Unfortunately, on this side of the world, the more hysterical your coverage, the higher your ratings, and if you’re crazy enough, you won’t get shunned, you’ll get called a senior analyst.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2013.

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