TV slur fury highlights poor channels of communication

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 May, 2008, 12:00am


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'Why do you rack your brains trying to turn black into white? Don't be too CNN,' read the lyrics from a popular new mainland song Don't Be Too CNN. The term has now become an internet buzzword, reflecting the rising tide of nationalism that has swept the mainland amid criticism of the west's 'biased reports' on China and its affairs.

The anger was fanned by controversial remarks made by CNN commentator Jack Cafferty last month. Cafferty slammed China for exporting unsafe products, which he called 'junk with lead paint'. Responding to a question by a TV show host to comment on the changes in the communist regime over past decades, he said: 'They're basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they've been for the last 50 years.'

Beijing demanded an apology from the network and rejected a CNN statement as insincere. The Foreign Ministry also 'summoned' CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz for a dressing down.

Analysts say Beijing's strong reaction reflects a fundamental difference between American and mainland media culture and a build-up of frustration over what Chinese officialdom regards as 'biased' and 'distorted' reports, particularly in relation to the recent Tibet protests. 'Chinese authorities generally do not have a deep understanding of how American media works,' said Jim Laurie, director of broadcasting at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. He said American TV channels such as CNN, Fox and MSNBC were about 'developing audience through debates'.

'China didn't know the whole purpose of Cafferty was to arouse controversy,' he said.

Mr Laurie established the first American television bureau in Beijing for ABC News in 1981. Recalling his experiences reporting on the mainland, he said it was not unusual for the Foreign Ministry to condemn reports it was displeased with, or to call in journalists to express disapproval.

Josh Friedman, director of international programmes at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, denied that western media was inherently biased against Beijing. 'The criticism that western reports in Tibet are biased implies that journalists somehow are against China. I don't think this is necessarily the case,' said Professor Friedman, who pointed out that western journalists traditionally 'sympathise with the underdog'.

'These complaints sound similar to those of some Israelis that the western press has biased coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle,' he said. 'Secondly, western journalists react very strongly when things are being kept secret. By keeping all foreign journalists out of Tibet, the Chinese government actually spurred them on to more aggressive coverage of the story.

'It seems the Chinese press and Chinese people are reacting with strong feelings of nationalism, even xenophobia, on Tibet and the [Olympics] torch relay,' he said, adding he would take criticism

of western bias against China 'more seriously if the Chinese press was presenting the whole picture to the Chinese public' rather than portraying the Tibet demonstrators as 'just a few disgruntled people'.

The debate on western media coverage has also fuelled reports by mainland websites and media detailing what they call 'factual blunders' by prominent western media outlets in reports on Tibet.

CNN was criticised for posting a photo in March on its website that cropped out Tibetan rioters attacking Chinese targets to focus on a Chinese military vehicle. The BBC was accused of mismatching an online photo of an ambulance with a caption describing it as a police vehicle involved in the crackdown on rioters in Lhasa.

The Washington Post was also criticised for mismatching an online photo showing Nepali police clashing with Tibetan protesters in Kathmandu with a caption claiming they were Chinese police in Lhasa.

While saying those cases were more likely careless errors than a deliberate misuse of information, the director of the modern Tibetan studies programme at the University of Columbia, Robbie Barnett, acknowledged that he 'certainly has seen cases of media bias' on western reports on Tibet.

Professor Barnett said these cases stemmed in part from the problem that any outsider or westerner who did not know China well would 'imagine' that any negative policy or event in Tibet or on the mainland was the result of totalitarianism under the Communist Party.

'But the specific misunderstanding in this case seems to be because the Chinese government has encouraged reactions to the Tibet events based only on the one riot in which Chinese civilians were beaten and killed, while outsiders have been looking at both this and the other 100 or so protests, none of which involved attacks on Chinese civilians,' Professor Barnett said.

He said China's seizing of every opportunity to reinforce repetitive positive messages about itself 'automatically disgusted the west'.

Beijing has repeatedly accused what it calls the 'Dalai clique' of instigating the protests last month on the anniversary of the 1959 uprising that saw the Dalai Lama flee to India. It also linked the 'clique' to efforts to disrupt the global Olympic torch relay.

Chinese authorities said 18 civilians and one police officer were killed in the Lhasa riots, but the Tibetan government-in-exile put the death toll at 203.

Because of the foreign media's limited access to the Himalayan region, international pro-Tibet and human rights groups such as the London-based Free Tibet Campaign have emerged as the major sources of information outside China.

William Carmichael, a journalism scholar at the University of Sheffield, said it was natural that western media relied on these groups and the Tibetan exiled government for their reports on Tibet 'because there's no information coming from the place itself'. Coupled with this was the fact the Dalai Lama was well respected in the west, which influenced the way the media reported the issues.

Yet with all the talk about the debate between China and the west, it is perhaps ironic that few people on the mainland can actually watch CNN or other foreign media channels because of the government's media restrictions.

'We have the freedom to criticise CNN but we don't have the freedom to watch CNN,' said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at the Beijing-based China Youth University for Political Sciences.

'Of course, there are inadequacies in the western media's reports on China, because they don't have sufficient understanding of the complexities of the country,' he said. 'What China should do is to be more open so as to let foreign media gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of the issues surrounding China.'