If speech is free, why can’t China get a word in edgewise?

By David Bandurski — International news coverage just isn’t fair. And that, CCP theorists say, is because the entire field is stacked against the developing world. The answer, according to a recent piece in Qiushi, the leading theoretical journal of the CCP, is “the creation of a free and fair international news and information order.” [Frontpage image by Pierre Pouliquin available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

The Qiushi article, “Freedom of Speech and the Media’s Responsibility,” was posted at the journal’s website on August 16, and essentially offers a supporting grand narrative for Hu Jintao’s new media policy of action and influence, what we have called “Control 2.0.”



qiushi-frontpage.jpg

[ABOVE: Screenshot of the homepage of Qiushi's online site, August 24, 2009.]

In a nutshell, decades of media market pressure in the West and the resulting emergence of media conglomerates (and loss of media diversity) have created “giants” who monopolize not just the market but the message. Slavishly bending to audience demand for the seamy and puerile, these Western media have fanned prejudices about developing nations, principally China, which is one of the favorite targets of Western media “demonization.” This must end. The answer?

We propose the creation of a free and fair international news and information order. We know this will not be easy. But we are confident that in step with economic globalization and a multi-polar world, in step with a developing rational consensus about the common fate of humanity, the international order in the areas of the economy, politics, culture and information must continue to develop in a more just and reasonable direction.

China, as we have said before at CMP, wants to grab what it sees as its fair share of “global public opinion.” And this is why we’ve seen glimpses of an ambitious program to develop the international influence of central CCP media.

The Qiushi piece is an interesting mix of facts, perplexing suggestions and outright fictions.

There is a basically sound summary of the demise of the local newspaper in the U.S. market, and the dominance of the media landscape by conglomerates — something Western communications scholars have voiced concern about for years and years. [Click HERE for some interesting data points on the "death" of newspapers in the U.S.]

Then there are the points where the logic fails and the hypocrisy creeps in. At one point, the author decries the fact that “today it is ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN, five major networks, that decide what Americans see and hear about the world around them.” Now, I won’t sit here and argue the strengths of the American media system, which irks me in so many ways. But when push comes to shove, shouldn’t I prefer that my view of the world be mediated by five competing networks rather than one true monopoly, China Central Television, listening to one Central Propaganda Department?

No one is going to argue that the West has worked out a formula for how we can have the best and most diverse media possible. And it is undoubtedly true that voices from developing nations, including China, should be better heard.

But the Qiushi article, with its overly simplistic assessment of the situation and the nature of Western journalism, fails to make a compelling argument for how more aggressive propaganda from national governments — now a “matter of necessity,” the article says — is going to make for fairer and more credible news.

For those who wish to understand the thinking that underpins Hu Jintao’s new media policy, this piece is an important one nonetheless. So here goes:

Freedom of Speech and the Media’s Responsibility
Qiushi
August 16, 2009
By Guo Ji (郭纪)

To keep to the road of peace and development, this is the grand promise China has made to the world. To this end, China has raised high the flags of peace, development and cooperation. It has pursued an independent foreign policy of peace and an open strategy of mutual benefit. It has earnestly practiced what it advocates, with the goal of building a harmonious world of lasting peace and common prosperity. In recent years, China’s path of opening and reform, its unity and initiative, its fairness and friendliness, its honesty and sense of responsibility, have won greater and greater respect in the international community, and led to a more objective, rational and friendly disposition [toward China]. However, China’s efforts and earnestness have met with an international public opinion environment (国际舆论环境) stacked unfairly against it. A small number of Western media have managed to dominate the international news and information order (国际新闻传播秩序), masking the truth, disseminating prejudices, creating through human effort one after another “iron curtain” and “vast divide,” seriously impeding interaction, conversation and mutual understanding between peoples.

The time has come to reflect on the current international news and information order

Monopoly is the Natural Enemy of Freedom

Monopoly is the most salient characteristic of the current international news and information order.

Freedom of speech and of the press have long been a platform and slogan of the bourgeoisie in opposing feudalism, and they were an important victory of the bourgeois revolution, a sign of social progress. But under the laws of capitalism, it is market mechanisms that are primarily entrusted to spur the development of news institutions (新闻事业), [or journalism], and the monopolization of news environment has been the inevitable consequence of market competition. This has become the most salient characteristic of media systems (新闻体制) under capitalism. The logic of competition, of the “big fish swallowing the little fish,” has resulted in monopolies by large-scale media corporations in the media markets of developed Western nations, and this trend has worked at cross purposes with the values of freedom of speech and of the press. Let us take the United States as an example. In the decades following the Second World War, the process of monopolization in the U.S. newspaper market went unabated, and influential newspapers were progressively concentrated in the hands of a few major financial groups. More than 90 percent of American cities found themselves with just one newspaper, a clear sign of monopolization in the American newspaper industry. Today it is ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN, five major networks, that decide what Americans see and hear about the world around them.

The news giants of the West, using the vast resources they have accumulated, send out reporters around the world to gather the kind of international news that they “like” and “need,” and the vast majority of media, who do not have the resources to send reporters, must purchase syndicated international news products [from these giants]. In this way, these Western media giants not only monopolize news at home, but also monopolize international news around the world. The result is that the bulk of small media around the world become channels for their own information. Right now, the Associated Press, Reuters and AFP account for four-fifths of the international news reports filed around the world. More than 90 percent of the international news disseminated around the world is provided by Western media, and of this 70 percent is monopolized by the news giants.

The attention of the world, therefore, is drawn to wherever these Western media giants wish. So a small number of powerful Western media set the tone for global public opinion. The voices of developing nations are annihilated, suppressed and disregarded.

Everyone knows that monopoly is the enemy of freedom. The highly monopolized state of the current international news and information order impedes access by people of all nations to objective and impartial news and information . . . When the eyes and ears, and even the minds, of peoples of all nations are controlled by the “gate keepers” of just a few major Western media groups, what freedom of speech is there to speak of in the world . . .

Prejudice is More Terrible than Ignorance

Prejudice is the most patent outcome of the control of the international news and information order by Western media giants.

If the Western media that monopolize international information resources could abide by the values of “objectivity and impartiality” that they trumpet so loudly, and if they could report and comment on events in the world with a sense of responsibility, then the situation would be better.

This is not how they behave, however. To the contrary, Western media evince a kind of “West above all” superiority and prejudice in their reporting of international affairs. They tireless propagate Western ideologies, and use Western standards to pass judgment on all things that happen in the world. They see as correct anything that accords with Western ideology, and anything that does not they demonize . . . In recent years, people have seen far too many examples of this prejudice on the part of Western media.

Chinese people have perhaps felt this more deeply than most. After last years 3.14 Incident in Tibet, some media whipped up an anti-China storm, seriously misleading the international community. After serious violence in Xinjiang on July 5 this year, the government of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region responded to the international community in a considerate manner, quickly permitting the entry of journalists from inside and outside China with the hope that this openness would contribute to a lessening of prejudiced reports from Western media.

But while China is changing, the prejudices of some Western media are not changing. The vileness of the July 5 incident, the violent criminal actions, were again portrayed [in the Western media] as “peaceful demonstrations,” as the “Urumqi uprising,” and the actions of the police to restore order were again described as “a bloody crackdown,” as “Beijing’s suppression of China’s minority Muslim population.” How can one not be furious at such a distortion of the truth, at such an obscuring of the issue, at such a blatant effort to mislead the public! . . .

[More here on the Dalai Lama and Rabeer, as figures reviled by all 1.3 billion Chinese. Other alleged distortions carried out by Western media, who "turn demons into angels."]

Truth is the lifeblood of journalism. And by necessity, the intrusion of prejudice does damage to the truth of the news. If a news and information order is guided by prejudice, how then can this news and information system be said to be fair and impartial?

An Extreme Market Orientation Harms the Media’s Social Role [Responsibility]

An extreme market orientation is the disease suffered by value standards in the Western media.

News media in the West have often been called “public instruments” (社会公器). But in all actuality, the majority of Western media are held in private hands, and capital related controls on the media are present at every turn. Media are treated as profit-making mechanisms. Under the priorities of capital, when making a profit is the first objective, market “selling points” come before all else (市场“卖点”压倒一切). Circulation and ratings, and the advertising dollars that come with them, are the top priorities. All that is required is “reader demand” and “audience approval” and a newspaper can stay mum on something that should be reported, or take something that shouldn’t be reported and whip it up into a froth.

In an extreme market environment, “only bad news is good for the news” has become the value standard for Western media. The more abnormal it is, the more negative it is, the more sudden and shocking it is, the more it is built up into a sensation, the more news value something has. Violence, sex, crime, scandal and other manner of negative news fills up the screen. In reports on developing nations, wars, political coups, chaos, disaster and other dark aspects are played up . . .

According to the Western view of journalism, the profession is duty-bound to monitor and criticize. “We are free to criticize our own government, and of course we are also free to criticize the governments of other nations — this is only fair,” [they say]. But they overlook a most basic fact: in their own country, when they criticize the government, this cannot and will not stand in the way of the public’s understanding of that country. This is because they live their daily lives in their own nation, and they are equipped to make their own judgments about whether the criticisms of the media are accurate. When the media report on the outside world, however, if they only “seek out the ugly” and “scoop up excrement,” reporting superficially on the seamy side, this cannot help the public better understand the truth about the outside world. Quite the opposite, misunderstandings will accumulate and prejudices become entrenched.

The Western media complain constantly about how China doesn’t open up enough to them. They criticize China, saying there is no freedom of speech here. But the fact is: since economic reforms, Chinese media have carried out objective, comprehensive, broad and deep reporting on the West. In contrast, Western media reporting on China not only lacks objectivity and comprehensiveness, but in fact is generally filled with serious prejudices. China today increasingly enjoys looking out on the world, and Chinese understanding of the outside world has reached a level unprecedented in China’s history. This is because China has been able to study the lessons of foreign cultures since economic reforms began. But in developed nations like the United States, some people now voice surprise at seeing that Chinese have mobile phones just as they do, and they ask ridiculous questions like, “You Chinese use mobile phones too?” Their understanding of China is trapped in the 1970s. The public’s poor understanding of the outside world owes in large part to reporting by the media . . .

Toward a New International News and Information Order

In the modern world, as economic globalization deepens and nations are increasingly interconnected, the mutual interests and challenges of humankind have increasingly come to the fore. Global financial security, the stability of the global economy, climate change, food security, energy and resource security, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, large-scale natural disasters, major epidemic threats and other global problems are on the rise. They present a serious challenge to world peace and development. No single nation can face all of these problems on its own. Countries must work together in a spirit of unity and cooperation . . .

The world is rich and diverse . . . and it is the coexistence of different cultures, and interaction and contact between them, that promotes the development and progress of humankind. Different cultures should not discriminate against one another, exclude the other or treat them with hostility. They should act with mutual respect, study one another for mutual benefit, learn from one another’s strengths, thereby advancing the harmonious development of human culture.

The inequality of the international news and information order, its lack of freedom and fairness, is now impelling a number of victimized nations to strengthen their capacity for projecting information internationally (国际传播能力). This has become a matter of necessity. Another result of this has been a loss of credibility and influence among some Western media. Respect for facts and the truth is the basis of all dialogue. If even the facts can be twisted in order to blacken, distort and demonize a nation, and the most basic honesty and sincerity is lost, then the only way we can deal with them is to say: “Ignore them!”

Modern China’s relationship with the world has undergone historic changes. And China’s fate and future are closely tied to the fate of the world. We propose the creation of a free and fair international news and information order. We know this will not be easy. But we are confident that in step with economic globalization and a multi-polar world, in step with a developing rational consensus about the common fate of humanity, the international order in the areas of the economy, politics, culture and information must continue to develop in a more just and reasonable direction.

[Posted by David Bandurski, August 24, 2009, 5:35pm]

22 Comments to “If speech is free, why can’t China get a word in edgewise?”

  1. Bill Rich says:

    Apparently, the Chinese government doesn’t know that freedom of speech don’t provide one single unbiased source of news, but millions of biased news sources, providing billions of different views on each of billions of issues. It is when people have accesses to different opinion, and therefore forced to learn how to figure out which ones are interesting and reliable, and then create their own biased view of news. Furthermore, the dominance of media is not through investing into infrastructure, and zillions of media outlets. It is through development of trust from the audience. If few people believe you, it doesn’t matter how often you say, and say it in how many ways, you don’t have influence. So, I welcome China to throw in tons of money, create millions of media channels, and send out billions of message a day to provide information to the world. It will keep a lot of people employed. But only through fact based reporting will they be able to gain credibility by earning trust from the audience.

  2. Salmonfish says:

    “We propose the creation of a free and fair international news and information order. We know this will not be easy”

    No. it won’t be easy – especially if one is this vague about it. How does the author propose doing this? By ensuring the media is not subject to market forces? By making all outlets state-run propaganda mills? Because then of course one can be sure they won’t be influenced by an agenda!

    The ‘bias of the western media’ has been a hot topic in China/Western dialogue the past 18 months, and this Qiu Shi piece demonstrates the hypocracy of these allegations, while DB’s commentary neatly sums up the misunderstandings underlying this phenomenon.

    Within ‘the western media’ there are of course many sources that offer independent viewpoints dinstinct from those broadcast by conglomerates: it is possible (and important) to be discerning about the sources one uses, even if many rely on media outlets that peddle the various agenda of massive corporations. That this seems so misunderstood also demonstrates the rift between Chinese and ‘western’ views of the importance individual choice and responsibility, and the role of the state in dictating that.

  3. Bruce says:

    Personally, I look forward to China’s efforts to “tell its story” to people all over the world in major languages such as English. Am glad to hear that China recently launched a 24-hour TV channel in Arabic.

    I have lived in China 25 years and find the news coverage here very biased, and I would submit that China has zilch to teach the world about objective media coverage.

    But much of the argument surrounding new foreign-language TV stations, magazines and web sites sponsored by the Chinese government focus on how unbiased or objective they would be, which — to my mind — misses the point.

    It is undeniable that newer, non-Western media like Al-Jazeera have changed global news coverage for ever. Gradually, China will learn how to launch and manage media featuring China coverage. It will find that some types of coverage just “don’t fly” and are seen as crude propaganda, while other types of reports and images strike a chord worldwide. Eventually, like Al-Jazeera, Chinese media will find itself doing deals with foreign media that want to buy its images and reports.

    The Cold War was all about pretending the “other side” was always wrong, transmitted nothing but propaganda, and should not be allowed to represent itself on the international stage, be it at the UN or on TV.

    As anyone under the age of 30 will tell you, the “Cold War” is sooo yesterday.

    Let one hundred flowers bloom, and people worldwide be free to choose what to read or watch on the media of their choice.

    Bruce Humes
    Chinese Books, English Reviews
    http://www.bruce-humes.com

  4. Kong Yiji says:

    “Everyone knows that monopoly is the enemy of freedom.”

    Would that sentiment also apply to the CCP monopoly in China?

  5. [...] couple of days I linked to the China Media Project post which translated and explained an article in Qiushi magazine bemoaning China’s failure to get its [...]

  6. Bert says:

    Henry stated, “So if the U.S. can sponsor VOA and RFA, what is wrong with China doing the same in the Western world?”

    They do, it is called CCTV 9. When I go to visit my mom in the USA she has it. It is the last channel on her dish network TV. But like you said that is a gov’t mouthpiece.

    And typical Chinese (no education beyond middle school or high school) are quite unknowing about the USA and the “West”. In fact many students in university I met in China are a bit ignorant about real American society. Many that I talk to after they have gone abroad to study in the USA have been very surprised. Of course Hollywood take a big part of the blame but the education system in China can take some blame too.

    PBS has an agenda ask Bill Moyers.

  7. David says:

    Henry:

    You raise some good issues. I don’t think there is anything inherently “wrong” with the idea of the CCP trying to push its own messages more aggressively. Sure, it could launch its own Voice of China (VOC) and see where that goes.

    The problem is a worsening climate for media inside China, including greater pressure on commercial media and extreme new hurdles for hard news and investigative journalism. So the CCP is cutting off many voices as it pushes its own through the active development of central media. And as we assess this international push we should remember that very real domestic component.

    Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it is commercial media like Caijing magazine that are able to muster real credibility outside China, and amass real soft power. There are lessons there for the leadership, should they wish to see them. Another good case study would be the pre-”Liberation” Ta Kung Pao (大公报), which was a treasure of professional journalism in Asia — China’s New York Times, some have said. The KMT despised it, as did the CCP, but everyone relied upon it.

    Best,
    David

  8. Henry says:

    I would also add that although the idea behind the Qiushi article is good, I don’t think any Westerners will choose to watch a Chinese government-sponsored news channel unless it is far more objective than Chinese state media within China. And there are certainly complications that would arise if the state media said one thing in the U.S., and then another thing in China.

  9. Henry says:

    Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are also “government-sponsored” but they definitely provide a good alternative to Chinese state media. So if the U.S. can sponsor VOA and RFA, what is wrong with China doing the same in the Western world? As far as I can tell, this article is not urging the Chinese government to monopolize media in the Western world, just saying that it should be able to provide a different point of view. The fact is, many Americans are quite ignorant about China. I think those of us who study China all-day sometimes forget that. When all most Americans hear about China on the news is negative news about pollution and oppression, they are bound to have an unbalanced view. That kind of reporting is necessary, but so is reporting which shows the benefits of CCP-rule, such as bringing millions of people out of poverty. American television media would never report on that because it doesn’t fit the narrative that attracts viewers: watch what the bad Chinese government is doing to the poor people.

    Try talking to a typical American (which would mean no college degree) about China and you will find that they’re either totally ignorant about China or have a very simplistic view of state-society relations in China. The remake of “Red Dawn,” produced by Tom Cruise and company, is only going to make things worse. The plot: a bunch of Chinese commies invading a small midwestern town. Sadly, this will affect Americans’ views on China more than any news program could. In this climate, I think an alternative view which is sponsored, but not controlled, by the Chinese government, could be very helpful to international understanding. Not a government mouthpiece like CCTV-9, but something insightful and not controlled by market interest.

  10. Xu Xiaoning says:

    That Henry must be crazy, allowing CCP to speak for all of the Chinese. Remember that not all Chinese are communist. The only reason why CCP is in power is because no one, including Henry, can even dare try opposing it. Speaking of promoting alternative views – what a joke – let’s try doing that at home in China first!!!

  11. [...] the Beijing-based Party magazine Qiushi, translated by David Bandurski of the China Media Project, Hong Kong [...]

  12. Michael says:

    This article is in itself proof of why Chinese commentators do not win wider audiences. Claims such as saying Americans don’t believe Chinese have mobile phones are just wrong, and most international readers would stop right there. Al Jazeera has shown that it is quite possible for a new non-western player to have a strong impact and get a word in edgewise. If tiny Qatar can do this on $30 million, Chinese should be asking themselves what CCTV and China Daily are doing wrong.

  13. Henry says:

    I appreciate that the Qiushi article points out that it is the market economy, not government control, which causes the Western media to often have biased reporting. This point is crucial, and one that many Chinese don’t understand.

    I see nothing wrong with the CCP trying to present an alternative view to Western audiences. Ideally, they could support the creation of Chinese media which is more balanced than Western media’s reporting on China, but not just a government mouthpiece either.

    The flaws of newsmedia which cater to audience demand above all else are very real. Just look at the sorry state of television news in the U.S. today. I’m thankful we have non-profit media like PBS to offer a more complex view of affairs.

  14. hanmeng says:

    Hey, I got an idea–the US media are complaining about declining viewing/readership, and some are even contemplating asking for money from the US gov’t, but since it’s broke, that’s probably not going to work. How about the Chinese gov’t supporting American media, and shaping the stories. Win-win, no?

  15. Richard says:

    “Everyone knows that monopoly is the enemy of freedom.”

    This is among my favourite lines in the article. Comparing China to the “West”, there is one news agency in China and how many dozens in the West? Does he even know what monopoly means…

    This article isn’t meant for foreign consumption but plays to nationalists within China looking to blame the West for the poor handling and the poor results of many Communist policies and Chinese citizens reaction to those policies, supposedly based on the reporting by Western news agencies. Whether mainland Chinese can even see those reports is largely ignored by the nationalist narrative.

  16. David says:

    Micah:

    I’m hoping to have it up on my Chinese blog later this week.

    Thanks,
    David

  17. Micah Sittig says:

    This commentary would be invaluable if it was translated to Chinese.

  18. [...] what it’s worth, David Bandurski and his team at China Media Project absolutely rock, and today’s commentary and translation of a bit of whiny blather from Qiu Shi on “people being mean to China” or some other [...]

  19. [...] This post was Twitted by AdamMinter [...]

  20. junhwa says:

    That’s just the nature of business, which is what big media is. There’s always going to be some kind of monopoly on the press. Sure, the big names have always reported in a way that captures the audience, but with the West’s extreme political correctness, the ‘bias’ presented is relatively tame compared with the rest of the world.

  21. Bert says:

    555, poor China.

    Let’s see……..most info (including political stuff that is right, wrong, liberal, conservative, nuts and silly) is avalible on the internet to people in the US, not the same story in China. China just wants to benefit by crying foul.

    Is the “west” prejudice or just reporting the truth about China? It doesn’t seem to stop people from traveling there or doing business with them anyway.

    Ya take the good, ya take the bad, ya take em both and there you have the facts of life.

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