TV talk shows: good, bad or just inane — by Dr Syed Mansoor Hussain

Being a strong supporter of freedom of the media I believe that every television channel and all the hosts have the right to say whatever they wish as long as it is within accepted societal norms of decency

Every so often I decide to watch some of the Pakistani TV talk shows. After my most recent foray into the world of incessant shouting and entirely illogical arguments I was forced to coin two neologisms for the talking heads on TV. For the smoother ones, it is ‘the Gliberati’ and for most of the rest it is ‘the Gibberati’.

Media in Pakistan, especially the electronic media, is going through its ‘growing pains’. In an interconnected world it seems that Pakistani TV anchors and talk show hosts are copying the loudest and at times the most incendiary styles of American TV. Chris Mathews of ‘Hardball with Chris Mathews’ is evidently the favourite talk show host to copy.

However, our own pundits quite forget that Mathews has a solid political background having worked with many powerful elected politicians, including a former speaker of the House of Representatives, has written a few books and has even contested an election himself. So, when he talks of politics he often just might know more about it than some of his guests. Yes, he is pugnacious and loud but he is also extremely well informed and experienced in the ways of politics and politicians.

I do not know of a single Pakistani TV talk show host that copies Mathew’s style but has even a fraction of his political experience. This does not mean that there are no serious hosts on Pakistani television; indeed some come to their programmes with considerable research and thought having gone into their questions and observations. But these are definitely an exception.

As far as the guests on these programmes are concerned, it is the same bunch of retired bureaucrats and generals that keep turning up in different shows. What is so amusing about them is that almost each one of them supported and worked for autocrats and dictators when in service but now seem to have become democrats with a vengeance.

As far as the politicians that turn up on these programmes, it seems that they are there for the sole purpose of exposing their ignorance about the issues. Now I have nothing against politicians that toe the party line — that is what they are supposed to do — but it seems that all of them are devoid of any political finesse.

TV news, whether we like it or not, is essentially entertainment now. The purpose it seems is not to inform or educate the viewing public but rather to amuse them. Even in the US, it is not the news shows that most young people get their information about politics from but rather from shows like Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’ on Comedy Central, or else from the internet and different blogs.

Being a strong supporter of freedom of the media I believe that every television channel and all the hosts have the right to say whatever they wish as long as it is within accepted societal norms of decency. When TV hosts and guests accuse politicians of corruption they are unfortunately often correct. Since very few politicians in Pakistan are known for financial probity, therefore almost every politician can be called corrupt. But the same is true of most politicians in the world.

Eventually, Pakistani media will evolve. At present there are no people in the electronic media that have established expertise in the political, judicial, economic or social spheres. For instance there is nobody on TV that can talk of environmental or health issues with any level of expertise. There is nobody that covers the superior courts regularly or for that matter has any demonstrated expertise in economic matters.

The media serves many important functions. It acts as a watchdog that keeps government honest, it informs the public about what is going on and it educates viewers about issues. As far as politics and politicians are concerned, they are often interesting and easy to talk about but without any meaningful polling data it is virtually impossible to discuss public perception of any government or political party.

What is badly needed is some serious discussion about the problems that confront Pakistan today. Healthcare, environmental issues, unemployment, the bad state of education, the ever present financial crisis, the energy crisis and so many other things. But even when some of these issues are discussed, the discussion predictably deteriorates into a shouting match between people with competing points of views with accusations of corruption flying around.

And it seems that a significant section of the media is obsessed with President Zardari. Indeed the US media is also obsessed with President Obama but the TV discussions are not about the man but rather about his policies concerning the war in Afghanistan, the economic stimulus package, the healthcare initiative, job creation and other policy initiatives that he is pushing forward.

On Pakistani TV, most discussions about President Zardari revolve around his past, his personal weaknesses and the expected date of his departure. Rarely, if ever, have I heard anybody discuss policy matters that he might have been involved in and what effect have they had on our present state of affairs.

Democracy is a messy business and politicians, like the rest of us, are neither angels nor superior human beings capable of getting things done that are impossible to accomplish even in the best of times. Things that have gone wrong over the last 60 years cannot be put right in a couple of years.

Pakistan is surviving and perhaps things will get better, but it will take time and effort on the part of all of us. All of us means not just the politicians, the judiciary, the army, the bureaucracy or the media but also we the people.

For the first time in our history a democratic system is in place that does not seem to be under perpetual threat from the army. So, let us give it a chance and see where it takes us.

Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times



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