The “Demise of the Media” seen from China

Written 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.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Dec

    Great, great post, and I agree, I think in the case of China, a lot is being driven by Reader expectations. It would be interesting to look into why Western readers are attracted to certain storylines about China. What does it say about the West that the three you identified: “The Cruelties of the Chinese system” plus, “The Censorship and Emerging Power of China”, dominate the Western media space?

    Part of me wonders if the idea of a truly modern China - one in which the citizens are empowered, and controlling the public domain - is one that scares the West. Perhaps the idea of the Red Threat is easier to take when counteracted with the idea that the people are simultaneously being held down by an oppressive regime.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Dec

    Oh thanks for that :)

    The cruelty of the Chinese system, censorship and emerging power are only 2 examples I picked in the post, there are many more preconceived ideas that the West wants to see in news about China: “violent police”, “oppresive state”, “conquered minorities”.

    I don’t mean to say those things are always lies, often they are true, but if we are going to take them fro granted in every possible event, then why reas the news at all: we have already done the analysis beforehand! This is why many people could not understand the events of Urumqi and many others, for example.

    Re: the image of China. I am not sure how much of the problem is the Red Threat, I think the West has already got over that. At least Europe has, US I am not so sure.

    I guess part of the bad image is inevitable, many workers in the West see China as a menace to their jobs, and in general growing superpowers are always seen with some apprehension, especially by the countries (EU and US) that are losing their power to it.

    But I dont think these things explain completely the bad image of China. A large part of it also has to do with the Chinese leaders and their terrible communication strategy. See the lst link in my post, it is an article by Fallows that explains very well this perplexing phenomenon.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Dec

    We should call a spade, a spade. An ardent follower of socio-economic matters around the world, I have come to the conclusion that China today is one of the most caring nation in the world about its people.

    China is most probably one of the few countries today that is actually building a nation for its people. A nation to be proud of and admired throughout the world.

    The so-called free world, like USA and the European nations are leading their countries on a path of destruction. These politicians have forgotten about their countries and their people. They are only concern about their own personal fortunes. See the plundering going on now, you will underdstand what I mean.

    The bashing of china by the media, is organised and orchestrated by the same people who feel they are losing their grip on world economics and finance. Despite the handshakes, pats on the backs, they have their hidden agendas. They are moulding an ugly image of china, to the world, and will spring the trap when the time is ripe. Look at history. Their media will glorify tyrants who are working for them. Crucify nationalists who fights for their countries. This job is done most efficiently by their controlled media.

    A look at South America, Africa, and even South East Asia will bear witness to this. C

    BTW, I am Chinese, but not a Chinese national. I am an overseas-born Chinese, have no business in China, but am an admirer of what the Chinese Government is doing for its people and country.


    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Dec

    I meant to pay you a compliment about this post, too, which I saw on Friday and found to be quite compelling. While I’d have to think a bit more about whether your classification system (corporate, state, and reader-driven) can really encompass or accurately describe all that’s out there, on the face of it I have to admit it seems to work! I had also arrived at the conclusion that the page-view- and click-through-based metrics that are the economic foundation of online media were working some pernicious effect on the tone of media coverage, and not just on China coverage of course. There’s a substantial body of research out there that shows how, in the presence of so much choice in what to read and watch, consumers opt for the media that just reinforces what they already believe. We’re becoming, as I’ve said many times, more fractured and tribal. You make an excellent point.

    It’s worth considering, though, that on the media’s coverage of China, both left- and right-leaning media find room in their worldviews for “the other side” to be heard on China. That’s not to say I don’t agree that there’s a dominant media narrative that joins the two and makes strange bedfellows out of both the American (and other Anglophone countries’) left and right when it comes to China. But on the left there’s a tradition of ethical relativism that isn’t so quick to proclaim the universality of “western” concepts of human rights, the absolute superiority of democratic political institutions and so forth — a bit more sympathetic to the idea that China, given its history and current economic conditions, might be “exempt” in some sense, at least from “full compliance.” And on the right, there’s a real politic school that isn’t ideologically driven or necessarily hawkish. That accounts in part for why both traditionally left- and right-leaning mainstream media as well as the nakedly partisan new media both find room for more nuanced pieces, occasionally, on China.

    I don’t think the Anglophone mind is necessarily made up yet on China: There have been, historically, huge shifts in public opinion on the way that China is viewed, and more debate is inevitable. It’s a good time for people like you, whose consistently rational voices need to be heard more!

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Dec

    As you say, both in the American right and the left you do find some reasonable people, and some nuanced articles. I agree, and I would extend that point to Europe as well. Even in Spain, where our character tends to be more radical than Anglos, you do find some intelligent analysis once in a while.

    But the problem is articles that get top hits are usually not the nuanced ones. The internet can be silly: when a nationalist Chinese, for example, hits a NYT comments section to flame an “anti-China” article, he is actually supporting that article by the mere action of clicking and attracting more clicks to it! By all measurable standards, for the publisher that article was a succes.

    A better example: have you seen the tratment China gets in Boingboing? Result: they are the second most read blog on the English net. I say this with all respect for Cory Doctorow, I dig his sci-fi writing and I see where he is coming from when he criticizes China. But sometimes it is just too blunt, really.

    [Reply to this comment]

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