Media and Middle Class

Nadeem Paracha’s latest opus points out the tension between middle class which often believes it knows what is best for the entire country, and democracy in which all people are given an equal voice. One recent example in Pakistan is Jamshed Dasti, who was elected despite the outrage of middle class and their media counterparts. But Nadeem Paracha lists several similar examples in other democracies also where media inaccurately predicted the outcome endorsed by the middle class, only to find themselves eating crow once the dust settled.

Democracy is an exciting animal: a loyal friend to those who both rationally and passionately believe in it; a constant headache and irritant to those who’d rather see themselves under the heavy paws of a dictatorship; and an enigma to the media.

Economic, social and political pundits who claim to have their fingers on the pulse of the people are most susceptible to the sobering manoeuvres of democracy. Though it gives them the space and the right to air their predictions and views about an election or a government, it is ultimately the faceless, nameless people who are the real deal in a democracy.

Recently, media across the world has been animatedly claiming to have been reflecting the core beliefs and thoughts of the ‘common people,’ especially their political orientations, so much so that major TV channels and newspapers internationally aren’t anymore averse to not only predicting the results of an election, but also to build up the image of the political parties and personalities that they choose to support.

However, on numerous occasions the pleasingly enigmatic nature of democracy has made smug media pundits eat humble pie, rendering as a farce their claim to know where the people stand. It is particularly gratifying to watch democracy with the help of the common voters simply slaughtering the arrogance (and sometimes malice), in this respect, of big media groups especially.

Very little it seems has been learnt from the first major case in which the voters completely dampened the mainstream media’s predictions. This took place in the US presidential election of 1948. In what was termed as the biggest upset ever in the history of American elections, Democratic Party candidate, Harry Truman, romped home to victory despite the media’s confident predictions that the voters would be carrying Republican Party opponent to a thumping victory. 

One of the newspapers (The Chicago Tribune) was so confident of Truman’s defeat that it actually published the anticipated news of Truman’s predicted rout! It had to face great embarrassment when it failed to rectify the screaming headline by the time the results were finally announced. 

A similar case is of the predictions the pro-establishment and pro-Jamat-i-Islami newspapers made during the 1970 general elections in Pakistan. They were sure that the people of Pakistan would vote for Islamic parties and reject the newly-found centre-of-left party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the PPP. A pro-JI newspaper in a special evening edition hastily announced the PPP’s defeat and the JI’s ‘many gains’ in the elections. To the horror of the newspaper, the PPP swept the polls in West Pakistan and the JI couldn’t gather more than four seats compared to the PPP’s 81.

Then there is the case of the Indian Congress party’s stunning victory in the 2004 general elections. The Indian media had been carried away by the assumed popularity of the ruling right-wing government of the BJP and had unanimously predicted a resounding victory for the party. But the voters had the final say when they voted for Congress and its allies, leaving the media shell-shocked.

In the US where one of that country’s most watched news channel, FOX News, had been pushing hard the Republican party’s image and agenda, actually believing that it was successfully navigating the people’s verdict towards another Republican victory, the 2008 US elections not only saw the Democratic Party coming to power, but also the spectacle of people voting in droves for the country’s first African-American president.

During the recent British elections in which almost all major media outlets in that country predicted a Labour Party rout at the hands of the Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats, media people were left scratching their heads when Labour came a close second compared to the distant third position that the Lib-Dems managed, despite the media predicting it would sprint past the ruling Labour. 

Another interesting episode in this context is the recent victory of the PPP’s controversial former minister, Jamshed Dasti, in a by-election in Muzzafargarh. The media had been running an aggressive campaign against what it termed Dasti’s controversial and confrontational style of politicking and his fake degree. But the voters thought otherwise, wilfully sending the politician back to parliament with an impressive 55,364 votes. 

The media in most countries (especially India and Pakistan) has become a vivid reflection of urban middle-class sentiments and aspirations. These sentiments have increasingly become a strange mixture of political conservatism, religious pretensions and economic liberalism. But as the media (especially electronic) in these two countries now squarely bases its policies and agendas, ‘analysis’ and predictions on such neo-conservative middle-class sentiments, it consequently misses out on recognising and understanding the core economic, political and cultural drivers behind the voting habits of people from semi-urban and rural areas. These two still constitute a majority of voters in both India and Pakistan. 

Thus, at least in the context of Pakistan, whereas the mainstream electronic media fails miserably to influence the figurative masses’ political orientation and voting habits, it is, however, successfully cultivating and catering to the already conservative and quasi-reactionary bearings of the Pakistani middle-class. It is pulling this class away even further from matters such as populist democracy and a healthy appreciation of the land’s traditional pluralistic polity based on sectarian and ethnic diversity that can only be maintained through democracy.

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