US Media Representations of Pakistan

During discussions with Pakistani friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook, a few subjects invariably arise. The most common is the CIA’s use of drones, but another regular topic is the way Pakistan is represented in the US media. There seems to be a common misperception that CNN is an official government media channel, and that American media more generally is a dominated by anti-Pakistan propaganda. As many of the Pakistanis that I engage with online seem to share these misunderstandings about American media, I wanted to offer some insights into American news media and how Pakistan is portrayed.

First, we should do away with the misperception that CNN is an official government channel like PTV, or that CNN is representative of American media more broadly. Just because something is reported by CNN, it doesn’t mean that it is the position of the US government. It doesn’t even mean that it’s true. Recently, CNN found itself in a rather embarrassing situation after it reported that the US Supreme Court had struck down President Obama’s health care law. This was certainly not the position of the US government, and neither was it true. CNN is a private cable channel like Geo TV, only with lower ratings. In fact, CNN’s ratings have been declining for decades, and it currently rates third below both FOX News and MSNBC.

There are about 27 news channels in the US. Much more prominent are entertainment channels, of which there are hundreds.¬†News channels including broadcasts produced overseas such as RT, which is funded by the Russian government, and, yes, even Al Jazeera. While it’s true that Al Jazeera is only broadcast in a few media markets, one of those is Washington, DC. If you’re looking to get a message in the halls of power, that’s the media market you want to be in. Several other news channels serve specific communities such as Spanish language Mundovision, or report on specific issues such as the weather.

As in many countries, different news channels are often perceived to provide a slightly different political perspective on the issues they are reporting. FOX News is widely considered a conservative news network, and MNBC is widely viewed as more liberal. Each channel reports on a wide variety of topics, from local human interest stories, to sports, to international news and events and everything in between. Reports on international stories cover every corner of the globe, and though Pakistan is an important US ally, it only makes up a portion of the reporting on international issues. It is not unusual for the media to go for days without reporting a single story about Pakistan.

While it’s true that security issues are the subject of many news reports about Pakistan, they are by no means one-sided. Prominent Pakistani figures are often invited to present to the American audience different Pakistani perspectives. These include Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman:

As well as opposition politicians like Imran Khan:

And even private individuals like former Director General of the ISI, Gen. Hamid Gul:

But issues of national security are not the only frame through which American media consumers see Pakistan. Cable news channels, including CNN, have and continue to produce positive stories about the people and culture of Pakistan. These include programs that describe Pakistan not as the leading exporter of terror, but of footballs.

And not just footballs, but bagpipes!

And not just footballs, and bagpipes, but fashion!

And not just footballs, bagpipes, and fasion…but beer!

Pakistan’s military is also shown in a positive light, such as this report on Pakistan Air Force fighter pilots:

Even the lighter side of Pakistani politics is shown in America, such as this report on a popular Pakistani political satire show:

American media also seeks to better understand Pakistan through exploring Pakistani film and journalism.

And the beauty of traditional Pakistani art is also reported by American media.

American media reports also look at more domestic issues in foreign countries, such as efforts to improve access to education for the poorest children in Pakistan

As you can see, American media is not a mouthpiece for anti-Pakistan propaganda. Though far from perfect, American new channels do try to find a balanced and representative view of international issues, including reaching out to a variety of voices to represent the diversity of opinions both in the US and in the countries on which they are reporting. Likewise, Americans have access to different channels, including those produced abroad. On the whole, Americans probably know very little about Pakistan. Some of the positive things they do know may come from friendships with the more than 700,000 Pakistani-Americans who live in the US, and some, believe it or not, may come from the media.


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