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Newspapers are manuscripts of history

Syed Badrul Ahsan | November 23, 2022 00:00:00

Newspapers: The literature in a hurry

As has been said so often, journalism is the first draft of history. That being so, newspapers are the manuscripts that go into print, to re-emerge as full-fledged accounts of history.

It is a truth I have increasingly encountered, and embraced, in all the decades I have spent reading or poring over newspapers. With the Financial Express celebrating its founding anniversary, the occasion is here to journey back to the long trail of my interest in newspapers not merely because I have been associated with journalism for close to four decades but also because newspapers have been part of my experience from childhood to these late sixties of my life.

Newspapers are important. That is the reality for me and for millions of others around the world in today's world of apps, mobiles, online media and quick-to-skim headlines on the phone. Just as I am not very comfortable reading books on Kindle (though some of my friends keep recommending that I do) because I need to feel and smell the pages of a book as I hold it in my hand, I am never fully satisfied with newspaper reading until I have the whole broadsheet before me, spread out on the table.

It takes the better part of a few hours before one can go through an entire, or almost, newspaper. The cheering bit about such reading is that one emerges a little wiser than one was yesterday, given that today's issue of the newspaper is a modified version of yesterday's first draft of history. If yesterday you spent time reading up on the results of the mid-term elections in America, today your focus is on the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh.

And history here is once again rekindled by the newspaper in your hand. Even as you focus on what might or could happen at the Phnom Penh summit, you cannot but let the mind throw up old images of the terrible happenings Phnom Penh and indeed Cambodia went through in the days of the Khmer Rouge. A newspaper, then, links your present to your past. It is that historical text that has been shaped in the mind over the years. Newspapers, let it be said here, plant the seeds of history in the human consciousness.

Newspapers shape opinions, or begin to when one first comes in touch with them. In my schooldays, as an avid newspaper reader, I devoured nearly every item -- and that included advertisements for movies that had been released or were about to be released --- in the day's newspaper. Curious things happened on the road to my graduation to being a proper newspaper reader. In my reading at the time, when I was barely six years old, I spotted an item in the Pakistan Observer relating to an exhibition in Dhaka. My father pronounced 'exhibition' as it is supposed to be pronounced. Considering myself rather smart, however, I thought he should be pronouncing the word in the way it was written, 'ex-hibi-tion' and told my mother so. She passed on the message to my father, who then gently informed me that often in English 'ti' was pronounced as 'sh'. Thus 'exhibition' was 'exhibishun'.

It was education for me. Indeed, newspapers have continued to be classes in political, social, economic and all other sorts of academic exercise for me. If I began dabbling in and fiddling with newspapers at a very early age, by the age of nine my fascination for newspapers took a decidedly new turn.

It was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 that led me into serious newspaper reading. I would read the details of the murder and its aftermath as they appeared in Dawn and then recount them to my mother. Of course, weeks before the assassination I had become familiar with such terms as the nuclear test ban negotiations, though my education in such geopolitical terms was yet to be meaningful.

Yes, books on various genres are what we read as we grow older. But it is newspapers that prepare us, give us a grounding in the subjects we are keen about. A colleague of my father's, noticing my interest in newspaper reading, came forth with advice that I have never forgotten. "Read all the news reports by all means, but do not neglect the editorials", he said. "It is editorials which express the opinions of a newspaper on contemporary issues and as a reader you ought to keep yourself updated with the newspaper's position on the issues. Read the editorials and then decide if you agree with them or if you have your own opinion on the issue at hand."

It was advice which in subsequent years would be enriched by the eminently respectable Waheedul Haque. In his position as Joint Editor of the New Nation in the 1980s, Waheed Bhai advised me to read The Economist weekly, especially its leaders. In brevity, in compactness as it were, the journal dealt with critical global issues in a way that turned out to be comprehensive in linguistic brevity. One did not have to agree with The Economist, he said. But reading its reports and editorials always enlarged the spaces of the imagination.

I recall that it was of particular interest for me to garner information, through newspapers, on such happenings as coups taking place anywhere in Asia, Africa or Latin America. I noted down the names of the fallen leaders and the men who had overthrown them along with the names of the capitals of their countries. All that information came in handy when my uncle and his friend decided to join the army and needed that information for their appearance at the ISSB. For my part, I recall telling my classmates --- and we were all in Class Three --- of George W. Ball, the US under secretary of state then on a visit to Pakistan.

It was through newspapers that I came to know of the politics of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In February 1969, as reports of a projected round table conference began to appear in the newspapers, Bangabandhu's picture appeared along with those of other opposition political leaders in the Pakistan Times. It was my first glimpse of the man who would a couple of years down the line become Father of a free Bengali nation.

In the later part of 1968, I skimmed the pages of Dawn for news of the entry into politics by Justice S.M. Murshed and Air Marshal Asghar Khan. Not until I turned to the back page did I come across that news, in the form of a small report. I knew then, thanks to an explanation by my father, how undemocratic societies often have little or no space for the politics of the opposition.

My comprehension of history has thus been a process of education based on my reading of newspapers. The race to land a man on the moon between the Soviet Union and the United States was a long story I followed in the newspapers. I came in touch with the poetry of TS Eliot when the newspapers carried reports of his death in 1965; and not until some years had gone by, when I studied English literature at Dhaka University, did Igo into researching on the man and his place in literary history.

The many advertisements in the newspapers, ranging from movies to household products to airline promotion --- in those days mercifully free of the gadgets we hold in our hands these days --- were for me added attractions. I recall, having taken up art in school, coming back home and, chancing upon a PIA advertisement with the image of a pretty stewardess, sitting down to draw a sketch of that image. The sketch ended up being rather good. The stewardess simply became prettier.

Newspapers give us images which stay with us for as long as we live. They instruct us on men, women and events in a way that nothing else does. In January 1963, the image of a dead Mohammad Ali Bogra, his nostrils stuffed with cotton, on the front pages of newspapers haunted me for months. Jacqueline Kennedy, her clothes stained with her husband's blood, standing grief-stricken as Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as America's new President on Air Force One, the eight-column headline relating to Bangabandhu's arrival in London from incarceration in Pakistan ('I am alive and well'), Ayub Khan and Alexei Kosygin carrying Lal Bahadur Shastri's coffin at Tashkent airport have all been contributory to my education in history.

Newspapers do a most useful thing, apart from bringing one in touch with the world. They teach one the beauty of language, the sophistication and grace of expression, the brevity so necessary in an articulation of thought. They enrich one's vocabulary. They help in a shaping of ideas but never seek to dominate the thoughts of a reader. A newspaper is an offering to readers; and it is for readers to make of it what they will.

For the young in school and college and at university, newspapers through their reports, editorials and analyses are a powerful means for one to master the art of good writing. Additionally, newspapers give the young a perspective on happenings in the wider world, which in truth is the initial step in their understanding and grasp of history.

For the family, reading newspapers is a potent way of abjuring the banal. Nothing can be more impressive or more enlightening than a family reflecting on local, national and global events at the breakfast table. A reading of newspapers engenders healthy debate at home and outside. It spurs intellectual discussion and stimulates arguments that project different sides of the coin for those exercised by the issues of the day.

Newspapers hold the powerful to account. A purposeful newspaper does not flinch from throwing tough questions at the mighty, but a purposeful newspaper remembers too that in its questioning of the powerful -- and the less than powerful -- it must not exceed the bounds of decency. Newspapers must stand firm but not be insulting to those they interrogate. A fawning newspaper is not a newspaper. When newspapers commit mistakes or blunders, they must promptly apologise to readers.

Newspapers owe it to their readers to be bold in their dissemination of information. A newspaper which means to uphold the principles of journalism will not kowtow before the powers that be but will only go into digging for truth in the larger interest of society.

The importance of a newspaper, indeed its appeal, depends on the quality of the work of its senior management, reporters, news editors, analysts and columnists. Newspapers must plant questions in readers' minds and arouse their curiosity on the issues. These questions and this curiosity, in an enlightened readership, comes reflected through the letters' columns of newspapers.

A newspaper is daily interaction between journalism and citizens. It is that space which has public intellectuals draw public attention to the bread-and-butter issues confronting them, to the state of the world as it was, as it is and as it may well be.

In their obituary pages, the world's reputed newspapers give readers huge dollops of the history of men and women who have made a difference to the planet. A good obituary is often as good as reading a work on the one who has departed. Obituary-writing is an art and good newspapers improve on that art every day.

I stepped into the world of newspapers on a December day nearly four decades ago. Every day and in every way the newspapers I have worked for and these days write for and newspapers I read have been an endless learning curve for me. Newspapers have helped me curb my emotions on the issues and have sustained my passion about the principles I have believed in.

Newspapers have been my textbooks of history. I hold on to them, firmly, and go on reading them.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer.

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