Marshall McLuhan’s claim that the medium is the message is as phoney as his parallel assertion that it is the massage. If the media had been the message, there would be no need for those running it to chalk out strategies for manipulating news and views, and debates on television would not so often turn out to be noisily inconclusive. What the new electronic media has done is to increase vastly the possibilities of mixing news with entertainment and turning politics into a spectacle or a theatre. The market economy, moreover, has forced it to cater to the needs of a public with a fast-shrinking attention span, and all-too-easily bored by complexity or depth, to jazz up or trivialize, both news and comment.
Hi-tech societies which boast of having the freest press can also take credit for evolving more sophisticated ways of news-and-views management through selective briefings and leaks and planted stories to sell the establishment’s strategy in a given situation to further national interests, real or imaginary. There are, of course, moments when things slip out of control and the media takes full advantage of the situation to entertain the public with the resulting spectacle.
It is only rarely that someone in Richard Nixon’s position is hauled over the coals and has to come before the public and plead, with a lump in his throat, that he is not a crook, or that a leader like Bill Clinton, at the height of his popularity, has to answer for hours one sleazy question after another on his kinky affair with Monica Lewinsky. Despite the elements of hubris and nemesis, there is no tragic element in these television theatricals. These are pure political extravaganzas. Even the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York in a terrorist operation on the grandest scale on September 11 last year, seen by millions throughout the world on the telescreen, loses some of its horror when watched by people from the comfort of their living rooms.
Some people complain about the fast-changing complexion of the media. They forget that present-day mediamen have to contend with a new pattern of demand which puts a premium on personalized news and sharp angling of views to serve the cause of a party or a faction, or even provides an incentive to a person like Praveen Togadia, secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, to say something outrageous like the phrase, “Italian ki kutti”, while referring to Sonia Gandhi, to capture headlines.
In a free society like the United States of America even the more serious sections of the print media are generally supportive of the US establishment which does not find it too difficult to sell them its perception of what constitutes the country’s strategic interests or priorities in a ticklish situation. The latest instance of this contrived unity or homogeneity is the way they have played down the dread implications of the Pakistan election results for the US-led war on global terrorism.
It is not that leading newspapers have not voiced their anxiety over the way the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of virulently anti-US religious groups, has won control of the provincial assemblies in the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan, both bordering Afghanistan and widely believed to be hosts to the al Qaida and taliban leaders in hiding. It has also secured a sizeable presence of 49 members in the national assembly. Indeed some US correspondents are frank enough to admit that this development could make the joint search operations by US and Pakistan troops for the most wanted men on the American list far more difficult than before.
It is only when it comes to asking the most pertinent questions about the rigging of the Constitution to perpetuate military rule and reducing the national assembly to the level of a debating society, which can be dissolved any time by a national security council packed with top military men, that the media’s courage leaks away. Don’t the well-informed American columnists ask themselves why a general who can debar the leaders of the two mainstream parties from taking part in the elections could not ban a coalition of pro-al Qaida and pro-taliban groups from doing so'
It was apparently a calculated move on Pervez Musharraf’s part since he issued an ordinance giving those who pass out of madrasahs the status of graduates. One Pakistani paper has gone so far as to argue that the gains made by the MMA should enable Musharraf to drive a harder bargain with the US.
The US policy-makers undoubtedly feel greatly troubled at heart. They are not quite sure what game Musharraf is playing. Are the conditions in Pakistan as difficult as he makes them out to be or is the predicament in which the US finds itself there largely of his making' They know that even the army, with the vast powers vested in it, needs a support-base among the wider public. Having antagonized the mainstream political parties, Musharraf could not afford to alienate the religious groups as well.
Whatever his new promises to tame the anti-US groups, he can always tell the Americans whenever things go awry: “Look here, buddies, you know the odds against which I am fighting. You know how hard it was for me to persuade some of my fellow generals to wage a war against the taliban all of whom they had nursed for long. The Northwest Frontier Province is full of Pashtuns who are also genuinely cross with me. I am doing my best to keep the situation under control. Nevertheless, there are limits to how far I can go. I can do without tea and sympathy. What I need is a lot of dough as well as plenty of arms.”
As it happens, management of the media in the US has been never so thorough as not to leave enough room for voices of dissent to make themselves heard. Only this month a critic reviewing two books on Pakistan in The New York Review of Books has thrown new light on some stark facts about this half-failed state. These disclosures will be no revelation to the US establishment, which has preferred to keep quiet about them so far because it does not want to embarrass Musharraf. After all, of the 600 or so al Qaida suspects held at the Guantanamo base, more than half have been delivered to it by the general.
Even so, there is no excuse for the US administration for drawing a hard and fast line between al Qaida and the terrorist organizations operating in Kashmir from bases in Pakistan since all of them share the same jihadi mindset. The US knows that most of the religious leaders Musharraf took into custody under its pressure were kept under house-arrest in great comfort and that the Inter-Services Intelligence started releasing them four months ago to mobilize their support for Musharraf in the October elections. How can the US feel comfortable with religious parties which have patronized Lashkar-e-toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and the like for years ruling the roost in two Pakistani provinces adjacent to Afghanistan'
The military regime’s misgovernance and its queering the pitch for restoration of democratic rule, which in effect means civilian supremacy in policy-making, feed popular discontent which in turn creates a fertile soil for the growth of religious zealotry. The country’s economy has been seldom in such poor shape, having added 15 million to those living below the poverty line during the last three years. What is worse, Pakistan is a- wash with arms. Going by a count three years ago, there are a million weapons in Karachi alone. Even if the US somehow manages to prop up the Musharraf regime, it cannot possibly stabilize a society in such dire straits and at war with itself.
Since fundamentalist terrorism is a global problem affecting many societies, it must be addressed at the international level. No US strategy can succeed unless it has the support of the world community. With an insecure regime in Kabul permanently under threat, all the main al Qaida and taliban leaders in hiding, their supporters poised to take charge of two tribal provinces and all the jihadi terrorist outfits in Pakistan celebrating the victory of their religious mentors, even the first phase of the war against international terrorism is far from complete. The US administration should be completing this unfinished business, rather than hatching plans to displace Saddam Hussein who, for all his sins, has never sponsored a jihadi terrorist group.