Friday, March 28, 2008

The courage to risk getting it wrong

This is a follow-up to my earlier post about the recent attacks emanating from China's online communities against CNN's coverage of the unrest in Tibet. Rebecca MacKinnon at RConverstation writes:
Perhaps the Chinese government is feeling a little less worried lately about losing public support? Perhaps they are less worried that people will turn against the Communist Party after reading something in the Western media, now that it is no longer fashionable in many circles to believe what the Western media reports?
Rebecca points to Roland Soong, of EastSouthWestNorth blog, who has been following the controversy closely, translating Chinese sources. Roland quotes Chinese blogger Drunkpiano:
In the reports on Tibet, I did not find the right proportions in the reporting. The Economist called the rioters rioters, and they were the only ones. That is why many westerners (if not the majority) will get the impression from their media that "a group of peaceful demonstrators were mercilessly mowed down by the Chinese government." [my emphasis]
Drukpiano is correct about "proportions" being skewed.

However, skewed proportions are not in themselves evidence of CNN and Western media bias, unless the agencies happened to have been privy to credible reports that would have "set the proportions straight" as we now with the benefit of hindsight know them. The Economist was, in fact, the only Western news agency with a reporter in Tibet at the time -- and its report came several days after the unrest had calmed. CNN, in fact, was among the first to interview him (see this post).

So a most malicious attack against CNN seems to be based on the cropping of a single photograph. Is that fair? The weight of accusations leveled against CNN and the Western media are made with the benefit of hindsight -- which is always 20/20 as they say. They are made without due regard to the practical obstacles the news agencies faced. The seeming domestic propaganda victory for the Chinese government -- noted by Rebecca McKinnon in the above quote -- is lamentable. But we should not blame CNN or the Western media for it.

Look at the "offending" photos, then listen to the extremely harsh accusations being leveled against CNN; note the foul language, the hostility. To think someone constructed an entire website devoted to smearing CNN? This much is clear to me: the vehimence characterizing responses emanating from Chinese sources seems completely out of proportion to the alleged offenses.

As I wrote previously, this whole thing looks like a manufactured crisis to me. Just look who stands to benefit the most from it. First, as Rebecca pointed out, by discrediting the Western media, China makes its own "official" version of the news appear the more reliable. But here's what concerns me far more: By seeing that these accusations get blown out of proportion, China may feel it can gain greater compliance out of the Western media -- like CNN -- in the future, by holding them to task on their Tibet reporting today.

Because errors were made. Some were preventable. Other mistakes made by the Western media would not be so easy to prevent in the future. What we ought to be most concerned about is the prospect of the Western corporate media cowering to appease the authoritarian government of China.* Faced with a torrent of complaints from China, feckless media CEOs in New York or Paris may well decide to call up their news editors and tell them to back off, lest future business deals in China be put in jeopardy.

It takes courage for a news organization to risk making mistakes.
* CNN has changed one of the "offending" photographs to appease those complaining about it. Also, CNN was not among those news organizations invited on an official tour of Lhasa today.


  1. The journalistic offense of the so called western media is not limited to cropping photos but faking photos. You can only imagine this sort of conversation in the newsroom:

    Editor: Hey, I need a photo quick showing the Chinese police beating on Tibetans.
    Photographer: But China locked down the media and I don't have any photos other than some sketchy ones of Tibetans beating up ethnic Chinese.
    Editor: I don't care, just gimme some photos dammit before 3am. My tibetan source said he saw Chinese police beating monks and I wrote this into the article. Someone's gotta have a camera phone somewhere who took these photos.
    Photographer: Will these photos do? I found them on the internets, they show some asians in what looks like military fatigues beating up on tibetans.
    Editor: This should work, no one will notice the differences anyway.

    Of course, the problem is that people do notice. If a bunch of internet right wingnuts who now call themselves the Pajama Media brought down Dan Rather and many others using NYT-watch type attack sites over what many consider to be minor mistakes, why can't Chinese netizens do the same to CNN? Plus, looking at some extreme rightwing political sites such as LGF attacking "that liberal media" and leftwing sites such as DailyKos attacking "faux news", the anti-cnn folks are rather tame.

    Rather than getting into their typical defense mode, why can't western journalists simply report and search for the truth? Which journalist do not even try to interview the victims of a riot where hundreds of stores were burned? If WSJ can track down some ethnic hans to hear about their side of the story why can't CNN and BBC do the same? The fact that the Chinese government agrees on the han victims point of view doesn't mean that this view should not be reported. Not to even try to report on both sides of the issue would indicate a bias and this is exactly what many in the western media has done.

    Agreed on the overall benefactor of this anti-western media movement in China. China government engineers nationalism all the time but this time the Chinese government doesn't even have to do much. Maybe after this it will become more open to remove its great internet firewall which currently censors a good portions of the web.

  2. Do we know much about Dalai Lama, in particular his past?

  3. i think you starting point is not correct. western medias made injustice/fake news about China not only this time. your medias do not have to please China goverment, but the people in China. you know, common Chinese like me often do nothing more than sniffing at what your so-called 'free medias' report unfaithfully about China. but if you intend to incite seperation in China, i am sure you would be the enemy of 1.3B people in China. believe it or not.

  4. Anonymous, you wrote: your medias do not have to please China goverment, but the people in China.

    In an open society, it is surely not the task of the news media to "please" any group of people or any government. The responsibility of the media is to seek, in journalist Carl Berstein words: "the best attainable version of the truth."

  5. Come on Jotman, now the conspiracy theory? I thought you were better than that. Don't mean to be rude. But you really don't think Chinese people were truely offended by those errorneous reports and can carry out the rally by themselves with millions of them highly educated and living/working overseas who can read/write in all kinds of languages? Western media claiming to be fighting for human rights in China. Assuming it means human beings in China, then listen to what they really want! Attacking their government which is trying to restore order after a deadly riot is obviously not what they want. So, whose rights are you fighting for?

  6. Come on Jotman, now the conspiracy theory? I thought you were better than that. Don't mean to be rude. But you really don't think Chinese people were truly offended by those errorneous reports and can carry out the rally by themselves with millions of them highly educated and living/working overseas who can read/write in all kinds of languages?

    I assume this is a reference to my suggestion that the online protest movement has been encouraged -- whether directly or indirectly -- by the Party. To what extent, I am not in a position to say. I point out that Beijing is not lacking in sophistication, human resources, and strategic imagination. Look at the ant-Japan protests of 2005, or PRC belligerence directed at Taiwan through the 1990s. The Communist Party seems to perceive the need to create an "outside" enemy from time to time. Syria, another one-party state, promotes anti-Israeli hysteria. As does Iran. One party states require sophisticated propaganda operations. Targeting the Western media serves to make the Party appear to be a more credible source of news and information. So it's easy enough to see why the PRC government would encourage this. You can read more about Chinese nationalism and propaganda here:

    I also question the unspoken assumption that "overseas" Chinese protesters are somehow immune from PRC propaganda. (Many Americans I have met are not immune from Bush White House propaganda). And some may well be part of the propaganda machine itself. Do you think this improbable?

    I have answered the second part of your question in the following post:

  7. Hi!

    Anti-CNN says: "We Just Want the Truth!"
    But is this true? Is Anti-CNN using lies?

    Have a look and decide by yourself:

    Please, take time to read it and don't look only to the pictures! ;-)

  8. Hi German Student,

    I just started going through your website. I like what I see. I plan to do a post on it soon. Good work!

  9. AnonymousMay 05, 2008

    so you mean:Targeting the Western media, both home and overseas are the results of propaganda. BUT, does it ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe some chinese can really think themselves like some americans? or just like you said 'Do you think this improbable?'
    I am kind of bored to debate on theories, everyone has one, i cann't convice you and you cann't convice me, it's ok, let's just focus on the posts about figures/numberes.


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