All about Citizen Mati

Posted in democracy, economics, Islamists, media, micro, people, political economy, politics by jrahman on January 7, 2013

All About Eve Poster

All About Eve, the Oscar-winner in 1950, is a drama set in the black-and-white era Broadway.  It shows how the seemingly innocent Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) connives, deceives and manipulates people and event to eclipse the ageing star Margo Channing (Bette Davis).  In her quest, Eve is initially assisted by the theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders).  But before long, DeWitt makes it clear who calls the shot.  Let me outsource to wiki to describe how the movie ends:

After the awards ceremony, Eve hands her award to Addison, skips a party in her honor, and returns home alone, where she encounters a young fan—a high-school girl—who has slipped into her apartment and fallen asleep. The young girl professes her adoration and begins at once to insinuate herself into Eve’s life, offering to pack Eve’s trunk for Hollywood and being accepted. “Phoebe” (Barbara Bates), as she calls herself, answers the door to find Addison returning with Eve’s award. In a revealing moment, the young girl flirts daringly with the older man. Addison hands over the award to Phoebe and leaves without entering. Phoebe then lies to Eve, telling her it was only a cab driver who dropped off the award. While Eve rests in the other room, Phoebe dons Eve’s elegant costume robe and poses in front of a multi-paned mirror, holding the award as if it were a crown. The mirrors transform Phoebe into multiple images of herself, and she bows regally, as if accepting the award to thunderous applause, while triumphant music plays.

You see, whether it is Margo or Eve or Phoebe — it’s Addison who makes or breaks the star.  The question is, what makes Addison tick? 

And more generally, what motivates the media?

Truth, justice, and the American way…  wait, that’s the dorky guy who wears his underpants outside.  Media, at least the privately owned commercial media, is likely to motivated by the same thing that most other privately owned commercial ventures are motivated by — profit.  So, how does the profit motive affect media’s coverage of, oh-I-don’t-know, politics?  Let’s ask the question slightly differently.  Anyone following the recent American election would have known that some media outlets — anything owned by Rupert Murdoch for example — had a rather different take on things when compared with, say, the New York Times.  Why does the market place allow such inherent bias?  And given the bias, can we trust the media?

Let me outsource to Tim Harford, who cites some formal study of these things:

The economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro have studied this question in the US. ….

They found something fascinating: the biases of newspapers closely reflected those of their potential readership, neither pushing to the extremes nor pulling to the centre. The identity of a newspaper’s owner, in contrast, explained very little of the paper’s content. This is exactly what one would expect from a newspaper which cared more about profitability than election results.

This is not to say that newspapers have no influence on readers. It’s just that the influence runs both ways. Readers of The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph are offered news which reinforces the way they look at the world, but such newspapers are careful to listen to their readers, too. Commercial survival depends on it.

Translate that to the Bangladeshi context, and as long as the profit motive holds, we should expect Kaler Kantha and Amar Desh to reflect the 71-er chetona / secularism and nationalism / Islami mullobodh respectively.  If you regularly read Kaler Kantha, you are not likely to think of India as permanent threat to our sovereignty.  Similarly, regular readers of Amar Desh are not likely to be saddened by the fact that Ghulam Azam hasn’t been executed yet. 

That’s fine as far as it goes.  And it may not go that far in Bangladesh, because ‘the profit motive holds’ is a strong assumption.  According to industry insiders, except for Prothom Alo, no media outlet (including Daily Star) in Bangladesh makes a profit, and it’s quite likely that their owners have motives other than profit.

What might such motives be? 

It’s straightforward to deduce motives of some.  Bashundhara Group’s Abdus Sobhan really has the profit motive, it’s just that he isn’t concerned about making the newspapers profitable.  He is allied with the Awami League at present, so his broadsheet — Kaler Kantha — plays to that market.  But his tabloid — Bangladesh Pratidin — is a different matter.  It is pretty much about hitting whoever stands in Mr Sobhan’s way.  And it is practically given away at a taka.  Salman F Rahman does something similar through BDnews24, which seems to have done much better than the 2010-relaunched Independent.  When the current government wants to villify someone — like, say, Dr Yunus — both the tycoons make sure that their respective editors oblige.

With others, it’s not profit motive as such, but the motive may still be discernable.  Mahmudur Rahman, for example, could easily have done a dozen other things to make money.  It seems that he genuinely believes in the politics he peddles in Amar Desh.  And if one were to be cynical, one could say that he wants to be the kingmaker (if not the king) of Bangladeshi right.  One could also say similar things about Mir Quasim Ali and the Diganta media.

In fact, the not-profit-but-politics motive of media outlets in Bangladeshi right has a pretty long and interesting history.  It may be hard to remember now, but the first ‘modern’ newspaper in Bangladesh was right wing Inqilab.  Its founder, Maolana Mannan, was a major collaborator in 1971, but utilising better personal rapport with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, got a headstart in pushing ‘anti-1971’ politics in independent Bangladesh, becoming a minister in the Ershad regime.  He founded Inqilab in the 1980s, which became the dominant right wing voice very quickly.  They continued to be a dominant anti-Awami voice until the early 2000s, when things changed dramatically.  By then, Jamaat was firmly in alliance with BNP, and had established itself as the dominant Islamist party.  So Mannan switched tack and started criticising BNP.  After Mannan’s death, his heirs have taken the newspaper to the Awami side —it’s now as strongly pro-AL as Kaler Kantha.  Meanwhile, about a decade ago, BNP high command came to the view that the ‘nationalist’ voice was not being represented in the media.  Mosaddek Ali Falu was instrumental in founding Amar Desh and NTV, while Shafiq Rehman’s Jai Jai Din played for the same territory.  None of these ventures were primarily motivated by profit. 

Right.  So much for everyone else, what about the media outlet that actually makes a profit?  What motivates Mr Matiur Rahman of Prothom Alo (and its sister concern, Mahfuz Anam’s Daily Star)? 

Are they just about maximising the wealth of their owner, Mr Latifur Rahman of Transcom Group?  If that’s the case, then following the logic of the market, they would basically reflect their readers.  And since Prothom Alo is the most widely read newspaper in the country, we may well surmise that they actually reflect mainstream Bangladeshi opinion.

Hmm.  I can see some of my readers shaking their head suspiciously.  How can anyone, six years after 1/11, say that Prothom Alo reflects mainstream Bangladeshi opinion.  Don’t we already know that Messrs Mati-Mahfuz are evil conspirators trying to subvert our democracy to all sorts of nefarious end? 

Well, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find that Prothom Alo is not quite straightforward in its reporting (never mind editorialising).  Its annual opinion poll came out yesterday (more about the polls later).  If you read the report carefully, you’ll learn that 44% of those surveyed support BNP against AL’s 35%, JP’s 12% and Jamaat’s 3%.  That is, without JP’s support, according to the poll, AL is heading for electoral disaster, while BNP’s popularity is at an all time high (matching the 44% of votes it received in the 1979 election).   That’s what the survey shows.  But this what the headline says:

শেখ হাসিনার প্রতি মানুষের আস্থা বেড়েছে, কমেছে খালেদা জিয়ার

সরকারের জনপ্রিয়তা কমেছে

So Mr Matiur Rahman may well have some ulterior motive.  But what is it exactly.  Why, of course he is a Pakistani agent who tried to kill Hasina Wajed in 2004, except he is also the second line of Indian aggression. Wait, it’s not India or Pakistan, Prothom Alo is really a Zionist conspiracy.  At this point, I half expect Matiur Rahman to slip his mask off and look like this guy.

Okay, snarky sarcasm aside, if we are not willing to accept the pure profit motive, can we think of another motivation for the esteemed editor (and his pal, Mr Anam)?

I started the post with a classic Hollywood movie.  Let me end with another. 

Poster showing two women in the bottom left of the picture looking up towards a man in a white suit in the top right of the picture. "Everybody's talking about it. It's terrific!" appears in the top right of the picture. "Orson Welles" appears in block letters between the women and the man in the white suit. "Citizen Kane" appears in red and yellow block letters tipped 60° to the right. The remaining credits are listed in fine print in the bottom right.

The Orson Welles classic is meant to be at least partly based on American media man William Randolph Hearst.  And the Economist has recently published a fascinating story on the Japanese Citizen Kane.

I have no idea what Matiur Rahman’s personal life is like.  I don’t know what Rosebud he hankers after.  But could it be that he isn’t anyone’s agent but his own?  That he is our Citizen Mati?


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