The “Demise of the Media” seen from ChinaWritten by Uln on December 2nd, 2009
There’s been a lot of things coming up lately in the field of “demise of the media“. In particular in China we have seen the spectacular series of posts by James Fallows and others, casting some light on the results of Obama’s visit to China. For the Old vs. New media debate this cannot count as a hit, because both sides in the discussion were newspaper people. But China has a way of making things more interesting, and here we see the whole thing from a different perspective.
Nobody really cares about the “demise of the media” in the country of People’s Daily, instead the media debate here is framed in terms of pro-China vs. anti-China. Obama’s visit is a great case for analysis, because this time the controversy is too obscure to excite the masses, and we can look at it without the polarizing effects of the West-nut and Fenqing friends.
In all the discussions about the bias of Western Media, I have always stood in an uncomfortable middle ground: I do not agree that there is a World conspiracy to damage China’s image, but I see there is some serious bias in many of the news items, and I try to understand the reasons for this. This is my attempt to offer an explanation: it has to do with the three main powers that, in different proportions, influence all mass media: The States, Business and the Readers.
- Media predominantly controlled by The State. This includes some of the main Western players like BBC or NPR, together with the bulk of the Chinese media. The key for them to work is the existence of credible mechanisms to ensure their independence from the governing party, which is impossible in countries where party and State are not distinct. In some cases, like the BBC, they can produce quality results, but the system is not scalable: if ALL media was controlled by States, credibility would be seriously compromised.
- Media predominantly controlled by Business, whether it is the media corporations themselves or their major advertisers. This can include papers like the WSJ and News Corp, and also many local newspapers whose readership is (was) secured for geographical reasons, and whose main challenge was not really to get more readers (the population in their territory was limited) but to obtain the best advertising deals with the local business establishment.
- Media predominantly controlled by Readers is the one that strives to please as many readers as possible to increase its circulation. Examples include the British tabloids and a large part of the Internet Media. The fight to obtain more Readers has always been important from the times of Pulitzer, but with the new technologies and the crisis of the newspapers, it has become vital. On the internet, nobody cares for Corporate opinions, or even for the laws of a State. The only valid parameter is clicks-per-month, and as long as you deliver, advertisers don’t ask questions.
All these three powers affect all media in different degrees, and none of them is conductive to unbiased reporting. But little is written about this, because most of us have come to terms with the harsh reality: whether good or bad, these influences are inevitable. Therefore, the debate is not about how to obtain a completely impartial newspaper, but rather how to preserve the many imperfect ones that already exist, whose bias go in different directions and impose “checks and balances” on each other, allowing the critical reader to draw some conclusions.
This diversity is essential, and what we are seeing nowadays in the West is a growing uniformity that comes from the eagerness to please readers. Ironically, by freeing itself from the first two powers, the media is falling prisoner of the third one. The internet has turned information into a perfect competition market where the consumer is king, but as we saw here, the invisible hand is not all that good at objective reporting.
When readers demand independence of the press, they rarely mean independence from themselves. But in fact they can be the most damaging influence: not only they are apt to delude themselves in droves, but also they lack a counterbalancing view to put the information in perspective. When the Media tells the readers what they want to hear, it closes a feedback loop of partisanship and preconceived ideas that it is difficult to escape, and the investigation of an outside truth becomes secondary. This is one of the main dangers of the media today, old and new alike.
Conclusion Seen from China
I don’t know to what extent this Reader factor is responsible for the bad quality of the Media, but I am convinced it plays a main role in the perceived anti-China bias. As we saw in Xinjiang, many Western journalists were there to witness The Cruelties of the Chinese system, just like Washington journalists followed Obama to witness The Censorship and Emerging Power of China. In both cases the stories were pre-written by the expectations of Western readers, and most media Old and New followed the script obediently.
I am convinced Reader bias is at the root of the problem because I simply can’t find any other explanation. It cannot be the interests of Big Business, when most corporations have big stakes in China, and a rise of nationalism or trade wars can only bring them losses. It cannot be the interests of governments like the US, which would have nothing to gain from a rise in Chinese nationalism and militarization. It has to be that Media bias is just a reflection of the image of China in Western societies, and that both Image and Reflection are constantly feeding each other.
The World needs well grounded, reasoned critiques of the CPP policies, and particularly of its disastrous records in Human Rights. But sadly, by focusing on wrong targets and wrong timing (for example, when hundreds of Chinese were being murdered in Urumqi) the Western media only manages to alienate itself from its Chinese followers, and create even more misunderstandings between China and the West. By doing this, they are are unwittingly providing the nationalist fuel that the CPP needs to survive, and further delaying the freedom that most of us honestly wish for the Chinese.
Supposing the Media really cared about fair reporting, they could try to get more PRC journalists and readers, and listen to their opinions to introduce a counterbalance in their closed loop with Western Readers. Supposing the CCP really cared about the image of China, they could go a long way to improve it without necessarily giving up their authoritarian power.
But let’s not dream too much, neither the CCP’s nor the mainstream media have such priorities. They are old structures coming from a different World, and they share a single common objective: to survive in times of fast change.