Media Matters

I spoke at a conference at Furman University last week (thanks to Kate Kaup, who is putting together an exceptionally impressive China studies program there).  In the Q&A period, an audience member said he had seen a lot of material from the Chinese government documenting the improvements that have taken place in Tibet over the past 30 years.  He asked why the US media does not present this side of the story.

(With the number two official from the Chinese Embassy sitting the front row) I gave a rather inarticulate reply, the gist of which was that for a variety of reasons, the Chinese government does not have a lot of credibility with the US media.  I also emphasized that even if one believes the US media is prejudiced against China, this is emphatically not the result of US government manipulation of the media (which guards its independence jealously).  There was some further discussion of this topic, including comments by former US Ambassador to China Stape Roy in his keynote speech that evening.  But I remained unsatisfied with my response.

Completely by coincidence, a US journalist I know referred my name to China Central TV’s (CCTV) Washington DC office for an interview.  The CCTV reporter who contacted me explained that in a few months CCTV would hold an internal conference in Beijing to discuss strengthening CCTVs work.  CCTV offices around the world have been asked to do taped interviews with foreigners on their views of CCTV.

I had read reports of criticism of CCTV by Chinese viewers who felt it was too dull.  I had also seen reports that the Chinese government wants to build one or more internationally competitive media entities (sort of a Chinese CNN) to help get China’s message out to the world.  So I naturally agreed to the interview.

The interviewer was, as expected, articulate and thoughtful.  She did not just ask “how has CCTV improved since you first saw it in the 1980s?” but pursued in depth questioning about the shortcomings I saw with CCTV and the obstacles it might face to becoming a globally competitive, widely viewed media source.

My responses, in summary, were as follows:

 

§  CCTV has improved in style and appearance.

§  However, the biggest issue for a news organization is its credibility.  With the exception of the BBC, it is hard to think of a government controlled news entity anywhere in the world that has attained widespread credibility.  (note:  maybe VOA would qualify, but I’m not sure its global credibility is equal to BBC’s; we did chat about this in the interview)

§  The issue of credibility is particularly important for Americans who generally view our media as one of the key elements in our system that helps investigate and constrain government abuses.  In other words, the independence of the US media from the government is a critical element in its success.  Since Americans all know that CCTV is constrained in its reporting by the Chinese government/Party, it would be very difficult for Americans to accept CCTV as an objective and reliable news source.

§  While some people in China believe the US media is biased against China (and in certain cases I agree with this), overall, the tone of the reporting on China is not that different from the tone of the reporting by US media on the US government.  The muckraking tradition, at least in theory, remains strong and reporters often see their role as uncovering waste, fraud, and abuse.  In addition, of course, exciting exposes are good for market share.  But the main point is that US media reporting on China, as with reporting on the US, is not a function of government control, and therefore viewed with more credibility than the reports of CCTV.

§  As a bottom line, two elements are important if CCTV is to become a globally influential and trusted news organization.  One was easy:  sufficient resources to produce in serious reporting across China and around the world.  The second though was the critical one:  establishing credibility by producing a track record, over time, of reporting that is independent and objective, and clearly not constrained by the Chinese government.

I have no illusions that my profound comments in the interview will spark a change in the functioning of China’s media organizations or the propaganda entities that regulate them.  And for that matter, I have no idea what my interview will look like in its final, edited form, nor even if it will be used.

All of that said, to come back to a frequent theme of mine in this blog, I am struck by the fact that CCTV wants to seek these outside views.  I assume that over the years there have been many internal meetings on the future of CCTV without a felt need to see what foreigners actually think.  This current effort reflects the fact that it is not just in trade where China is integrating itself into global activities and norms. 

To be a global player in any field, including media, requires taking account of the views of people of the rest of the world.  To be successful as an exporter of goods you have to think about quality standards and food safety requirements in your export markets.  In media you need to think about whether you have any credibility with the audiences you seek to reach.  Globalization creates many problems, but also has positive effects in many areas.

[Note:  For the record I have lots of beefs with the US media, especially the way they were asleep at the switch (co-opted?) in the run up to the US invasion of Iraq and the collapse of our financial system.  That said, overall, I’d happily defend the proposition that our independent media organizations remain an important element in exposing, and thereby reducing, waste, fraud, and abuse in our economic, social and political system.]

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5 Comments on “Media Matters”

  1. LZ Says:

    To be fair, CCTV does have a group of extremely bright talents working on its programs. Although generally considered “filtered” by the party line, over the years, many of its programs have offered some of the most in-depth and sharp interviews, research and discussions. I think the authority does use some of them as windows to release public outcry. One would be amazed by the extend of outspokenness of some of its shows. Of course, this outspokenness is limited by a scope of subjects(eg: targeting officials’ asset problem is ok, but not policy towards Tibet) and sometimes, it’s limited by geography (eg: reporting on local corruption is ok, but central corruption not so much). Bottomline, if ppl want to see serious reporting on social issues, they still turn to CCTV. Local tv stations(other than HK Pheonix tv) have been popular in reporting pop culture, but not much beyond that (probably not even shanghai).
    The credibility problem of CCTV is ultimately the credibility problem of the party and the central government. Until the government is ready for the real “checks and balance” in terms of political structure and environment, CCTV will not be allowed to compete on the same market platform as other tv stations and truly earn credibility from its viewers. The staffers know that (some with frustration). There’s only this much they can do by reaching out to experts around the world for advice. But before that time of political openness comes, CCTV will always be seen as the mouthpiece of the party that has zero tolerance to uncensored criticism or exposure of social problems. For now, all what CCTV can do is to learn how to dance better with chains on.

    • levinehank Says:

      LZ: Interesting points. I may have understated somewhat the extent to which CCTV has evolved in the substance of its reporting. That said, I agree with your bottom line which is that the credibility problem for CCTV won’t go away until it can truly function independently. This is particularly unfortunate because, as you also note, there are a lot of bright and capable people at CCTV who could otherwise compete with any news organization in the world.

    • levinehank Says:

      Kevin: thanks for this. interesting report by Rebecca. And fyi, I run a sort of “introduction to China” course for US government officials at the State Department’s training institution (though I will emphasize that for sure any views I express in this blog are mine alone and do not reflect those of any organization with which I am affiliated). Am fortunate that Rebecca will be in town at the time the course is next held and she has agreed to do a session with the group. Am looking forward to getting updated from her on all her most recent thinking on media issues.

  2. Erin Says:

    Edleman did a survey in 2006 that touched on some of the issues you’ve raised. It asked PRC stakeholders about their trust in various institutions, including government, media, NGOs, companies, etc.

    Their findings weren’t terribly shocking, given the government control of China’s media: only 18% of respondents trusted the media to “do what is right.” When the number was drilled down into the stakeholder groups, it found that only 5% of consumers trusted the media (and only 20% of the media trusted the media).

    Edleman further broke the numbers down into foreign, domestic and web-based media, and bloggers. 38% of respondents trusted foreign media, as opposed to 26% who trusted domestic PRC media.

    So while CCTV might need to work to build its credibility in global markets, it clearly has its work cut out for it at home as well.


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