Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Response to Mary Bowers' Response

Hmmmm. My first thought when I read The Times' Mary Bowers' response to my earlier post on the Dawn blog was, 'now you're really asking for it, aren't you.' Especially because she had chosen to write a response (in an unconnected space) that ignored the more substantive parts of my critique of her piece - her distortion of facts and context - and focused on presenting a defence for Western journalists' preoccupation with issues of terror in Pakistan (as if we don't understand journalism or the mindset of the Western media). That and because she called me a "faceless cackler."

But I mulled over whether to write a response initially because I didn't want to get into a pointless war of words with someone who is obviously very defensive about her errors of omission and commission. Secondly, I did a Google search on her and discovered she is still a very young journalist who is not only a couple of years at most out of journalism school but also fancies herself as a photographer and a musician, in other words an interesting person still trying to find their true calling. So, even though she also boasts about opening a dominatrix shop in Paris (or was it because of it?), I felt sorry for being a bit harsh with her.

Mary Bowers of The Times

Eventually, however, I decided I did need to write some sort of response, if only so that those readers over at the Dawn blog who are taken by Ms Bowers' writing style (it is certainly a well-written piece) but clueless about the real points of contention between us, can understand the issue. If you are reading this, Mary, please understand that it is nothing personal. So here goes.

Dear Mary Bowers:

1. The basic assumption in your response is that Pakistanis like us (or at least us on this blog) do not understand the pressures foreign journalists work under and the world view of their editors / readers back home, and that this is what needs to be explained. This is simply untrue. Many of us have worked for the international media and all of us know foreign colleagues who do a commendable job reporting for the international press. Even with all their pressures and the skewed expectations of stories-that-sell, they continue to fight against stereotypes and bring nuance to their reporting. Our issue is simply with the lazy pandering to stereotypes that characterizes "parachute journalism" - a term you acknowledge yourself.

2. You have not addressed the two or three instances where I pointed out that you got your information / characterizations terribly wrong. Among them: that fashion has been repressed by governments before the Lahore Fashion Week, that the LFW was some sort of liberal aberration in a highly controlled Islamic society, that television in Pakistan consists entirely of hijab or niqab clad faces. Surely, the "most unforgiving of masters: the truth" - as you term it - requires you to get your facts correct.

3. At least two out of the three people whose quotes you used to illustrate your piece have claimed in our blog that they were misquoted or quoted out of context. One claimed her quote about death threats before the LFW actually referred to death threats before another event the previous year. Would you say that is justified by your defence of the pressures Western journalists work under?

4. You write:

"But some – often the acronymed and unaccountable world of the blogosphere – like to suggest that journalists are at best automatons, “led up the garden path” by their sources,  as my critic suggested. At worst, they are guilty of that most overused of phrases, “lazy journalism.”"

I just want to point out that I never suggested (nor would I ever suggest) that journalists in general are automatons (though some may certainly be imbecilic). The reference to being "led up the garden path" referred, in the post's context, to the incorrect information provided by someone most journalists would trust to provide a correct perspective but which they probably should have double-checked. Oh, and by the way, isn't the "unaccountable world of the blogosphere" really the most overused of phrases these days?

5. I agree with you that Pakistani designers choosing "canary yellow taffeta over last season's cornflower blue satin" may not be a story Londoners are interested in. But as someone commented on the Dawn blog, there is no compulsion for the Western media to cover Pakistani fashion, if they do not think it merits attention. I mean, (apologies for the sort-of pun) no one is holding a gun to their heads to do it, are they? So, does it all boil down to freelancers trying to sell their stories? You write:

"I couched fashion week in terms of a defiant action in the face of radicalism and conservatism – a tack taken, I noticed, by most of the other international media present."

Yeah, we know, we know. But following the herd does not make it good journalism.

6. Finally, let me just reiterate that it is not that we don't think that Pakistan has no problems of terrorism or that there are no other problems here (God knows there are huge ones!). Neither is it my contention, at all, that foreign journalists should ignore them and paint only a rosy picture of the country. All I am arguing for is some balance and a toning down of the sensationalism that may sell stories but really paints an equally inaccurate picture for readers who already understand too little, as you yourself admit. I completely agree with you when you say hopefully:

"...only the slow chipping away of decades of cemented perceptions can counter that greatest and most ignorant of faceless beasts: fear."

I would only submit that "slow chipping away" still needs someone to do it. Sensational stereotypes and inaccurate context only help add more cement.




Anonymous said...

lol she was right, you are a 'faceless cackler.' Get over it XYZ. I think Mary gave her side of the story in a very well written piece. Why don't you leave it at that instead of crying out loud here, trying to justify again how you were supposedly right and she's wrong. Yours is a very childish response XYZ. Sorry, I'm disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Eh? Her side of the story is rubbish, and as someone who works for international media, I'm glad XYZ has taken the trouble to answer her cretinous takedown of all western media as if somehow she represents us. XYZ is too conciliatory if anything. If she'd written such a trite piece of sensational and erroneous reportage for my publication you can be sure she would have found herself taking flak from more than just the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

thankyou XYZ for writing this blog. Reading your blogs makes me less frustrated about this senseless (and cruel) campaign of western media against all-things-pakistan. They twist facts and present pictures to their people that forward their foreign policy and put a distorted picture of our people in front of their people. I work in an engineers-and-artists community in LA and they have no idea about bunch of lies they have been constantly fed by their own media. I am fortunate that I have never faced racism in my life here. But these gods of biased and agenda-driven channels such as cnn/fox/NYtimes makes me sick. They are the biggest hypocrites in this society if you ask me. Watching pakistan through their eyes is like a metaphorical slow poisoning.
thank god for likes of you out there.

Asif said...
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Asif said...
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Asif said...

I am living in Canada for 3 years and I have neither seen on T.V nor read any piece of article anywhere here that described Pakistan in any positive way. I am not taking Pakistan's side but come on... It's not that bad! I have lived all my life there and its not like what media portrays here. People in West no doubt have such scary/bad image about our country. People often ask me about Pakistan and get astonished to learn things they've never heard before. They don't even know that evil McDonalds has conquered Pakistan, lol. I keep bringing the balance in their knowledge about Pakistan, informing them about both, good and bad things. I think I am doing the real journalism here, though I am a Marketing student... lol.

If we all stopped this: 'My country, your country, my religion, your religion... - this Earth would be a better place to live in.

wyseguy said...

My contention is, why did Mary Bowers decide to even respond to XYZ's writing on a blogspot page. Congratulations XYZ and all of Cafe Pyala (and it's readers), You've all got Free Publicity!

Mohsin said...

More importantly, can we focus for a moment on the fact that Mary Bowers seems to think that one can get a "good plate of sushi in Lahore". If that's not a case of sloppy research, I don't know what is.

(I'm being facetious, for those who will inevitably defend Lahori sashimi. It's a Karachi thing.)

bt said...

cheers for this post. i appreciate the fact that XYZ has stayed away from a verbal spat and kept to the issues (hell, even put them in pointers for those who missed it, including, well, Mary Bowers.)

also--it's not just fashion, even the political reportage from pakistan is centered around the failed state paradigm. see this fantastic piece by madiha tahir:

it's been said before, but since i am abundant in adulation right now, let me say this: cafe pyala has got to be one of the best pakistani blogs out there: substance and style. (err.. that almost sounds like the perfect beast to take on fashion and taliban and ah, bare navels.)

also-- it surprises me that the quality of writing such as on this blog is not far above what gets printed on the op-ed pages of our papers. where the hell do you guys write, if at all?

all right, i am not getting an answer to that one. keep up the good work.

Mariam Shah said...

Mohsin, I love your comment! I felt the same way. Research, Bowers, research!! said...

LFW, LFW LFW !!!!!! Its all that nut could see especially with the KFW ending not a fortnight preceding LFW and the second such week in six months and just days after another blast on a religious procession in the city????

What about the Rafi Peer Theater festival that continued last year despite a bomb blast on its opening night??? Where the heck was she then???!!!!!!

Pretentious reporting indeed. Am glad we as a journalistic community can stand up to these so called heavy weights of international media and turn the mirror on them!!!!

Having said that, quality of media in our country needs to go up considerably still!!!

Omar R Quraishi said...

heavyweights -- where?

sana said...

hey why do you delete comments??

XYZ said...

@sana: We haven't deleted any comments here. The two deleted comments I assume you are referring to were deleted by the person who posted them (Asif) because he'd posted the same comments three times by mistake.

We do delete comments sometimes but only if they are spam, completely off-topic or vindictive personal attacks without any proof or other redeeming value. And when we do, you will see a note that says that the 'comment has been deleted by a blog administrator'.

Ammar - Ed said...

Good stuff, XYZ. Very nicely articulated. Ms. Bower's defence was quite puerile and selective to say the least.

I have a question though. Why the anonymity? Given the fact that you're being widely-read now, don't you think your opinions would have more credibility if they were attributable to a visible person?

Surely it isn't for reasons of safety or security? Just curious..

Observer said...

Can I just say that in all of this - if Lahore Fashion Week wanted to be a serious enterprise then the PFDC and Lotus (PRs) should have invited seasoned fashion journalists from the West especially since all the foreign media from key publications were flown over gratis and wined and dined by the Lahori socialite begums. All the PFDC and PR wanted was a bit of gora glamour to say yes, we postcolonials still garner interest from the West. Publicity maybe not for the hemlines but for the entire enterprise.

Anonymous said...

Guys, the fact that her piece sparked so much conversation is a good thing - she has at the very least entertained us all with her positive article. I for one was interested in a piece that wasn't about how dangerous Pakistan is.

Peace out, chill out.