Chinese Netizens versus Western Media

(Associated Press via CNN)  China puts out its Tibet version.  March 23, 2008.

CNN's bureau in Beijing has been deluged in recent days by a barrage of harassing phone calls and faxes that accuse the organization of unfair coverage. An e-mail to United Nations-based reporters purportedly from China's U.N. mission sent an Internet link to a 15-minute state television program showing Tibetans attacking Chinese in Lhasa.

A slideshow  (Riot in Tibet: True face of western media) posted on YouTube accused CNN, Germany's Der Spiegel and other media of cropping pictures to show Chinese military while screening out Tibetan rioters, or putting pictures of Indian and Nepalese police wrestling Tibetan protesters with captions about China's crackdown.

Though of uncertain origin, the piece at least had official blessing, with excerpts appearing on the official English-language China Daily and on state TV.

There are theories about the origin of the slideshow.  In one theory, the slideshow was prepared by overseas Chinese students spontaneously.  The students checked the media coverage in whichever countries that they were studying and took out the worst offenses.  The results were then consolidated into this slideshow.  In another theory, the slideshow was ordered by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Orders were sent out to the Chinese embassies/consulates around the world to monitor the local media coverage and send back the worst offenses.  The results were then consolidated into this slideshow.  The slideshow was then released under the nickname 'dionysos615' on YouTube.  From there, the slideshow spread like wildfire across the world.

Does it matter which theory is true?

If you take the view that "political position" is everything, then it does not matter.  If it is true that the Chinese government is behind it, then you don't have to address any of the issues related to western media biases.  You have shot the messenger and the message is no longer relevant.  If it is true that a group of spontaneously organized overseas Chinese students did it, then you don't have to address the issues either, because these young people have clearly been brainwashed by their government.  Therefore, you can sleep easy and you don't have to read the rest of this post either.

If you take the view that "political position" isn't everything because there are absolute rights and wrongs, then it does not matter either.  Your task would to be assess the rights and wrongs contained in that slideshow.  The identity of the creator is irrelevant.  There is an additional reason why any Chinese government role does not matter, and that is because we now know that this slideshow has a huge viral effect across the Internet.  Chinese netizens are not dupes; if anything, they are the most resistant people in the world because they have to deal with that all their lives.  There is something in this slideshow, which makes this a case of "Chinese Netizens versus Western Media" and definitely not "Chinese government versus Western Media."  The Chinese government could not have pulled this off without there being something in there.

If you are still interested, you can read on.

The slideshow had been previously described here at Comment 200803b#021 (see also  This is a series of screen captures of TV screens and websites from USA, UK, Germany, France and Spain.  Let me spell it out very carefully: A SMALL NUMBER OF SELECTED EXAMPLES ARE PRESENTED AND THIS IS SUPPOSED TO REPRESENT THE TRUE FACE OF WESTERN MEDIA AS A WHOLE.

I am going to discuss that SMALL NUMBER OF SELECTED EXAMPLES first.

In my personal opinion, some of them are arguably acceptable.  

Here is the first example:

Here is what seems to be the scenario.  The Times' Beijing correspondent Jane Macartney filed a report to the London headquarters.  The editor then looked for a suitable photo to accompany that story.  The editor cropped an agency photo with multiple characters down to two men, one man approaching menacingly with a white stick in hand while the other is down on the ground and raising his arm to fend off the coming blow.  The cropping was probably done in order to fit the tight page layout.  In my personal opinion, The Times has nothing to apologize for.  The essence of the story is in the text and not the photo.  Besides the cropped photo does not diminish the menacing tone of violence.

The second example is the now infamous CNN case (做人不能太CNN), in which the Chinese netizens found another photo in the Agence France Presse series that showed rioters throwing rocks at the military trucks.  Why did CNN crop out the rock-throwing rioters?

In my personal opinion, if I assume the following scenario.  The CNN website has the text of a report and needs to find an accompanying photo.  The editor sieves through a bunch of agency photos and came up with one from a series with various kinds of cropping (note: there is at several more in this series) without considering the consequences.  But CNN completely bungled the case when it responded by an discussion of a third different photo which it did not used.  Later, CNN came back and replaced the photo in the story with the "original" one according to the Chinese netizens.

And then there are the examples in the other extreme which are outrageously wrong.

The third example is the RTL television story.  RTL had shown a program with a photograph of policemen wielding sticks to chase demonstrators under the title "The number of dead in Lhasa is uncertain."  The policemen in the photo were Nepalese and the incident took place in Katmandu.

The fourth example is the NTV television story.  Previously, NTV had shown a photo under the title of "New Protest in Tibet" with a monk being grappled by Nepalese policemen.

The fifth example is the Radio France Internationale website.  Previously, RFI had published a story with a Reuters photo of Nepalese policemen grabbing a monk with the caption: "Chinese police arrest a Tibetan monk, March 20, 2008."

A prominent Chinese media scholar has come out to defend the media on the grounds that they had "too little information" and "too much pressure."  That may plausibly be used in Examples #1 and #2 above.  That excuse is not applicable to Examples #3, #4 and #5.  Regardless of your having "too little information" and "too much pressure," you are picking photographs for a story about Tibet.  When you examine one of these agency photos, there has to be an accompanying description such as "Police arresting Tibetan monks during demonstration in Katmandu, Nepal on March 15, 2008."  If I am not too severe in my judgment, this is a case in which the editor was geographically challenged and assumed Katmandu and Nepal were in Tibet.  If I want to be more severe in my judgment, then this is a case in which the editor knew exactly what he was doing and didn't care anyway.  He figured that there would be no consequences because his readers weren't smart enough nor wouldn't care anyway.  In either case, this is a breakdown of professionalism and ethics in journalism.  Notwithstanding "too little information" and "too much correction," corrections/apologies are called for.  For the record, RTL (in example 3) has apologized for its mistake.

Having discussed some of the details, I would like to step back and look at the big picture: A SMALL NUMBER OF SELECTED EXAMPLES ARE PRESENTED AND THIS IS SUPPOSED TO REPRESENT THE TRUE FACE OF WESTERN MEDIA AS A WHOLE.

First of all, this is a small number of examples that were screened and selected for good reason.  So they represent the worst of the worst.  Let me stipulate that THIS CANNOT REPRESENT THE TRUE FACE OF WESTERN MEDIA AS A WHOLE.  Therefore I respectfully decline to pronounce judgment on the western media as whole on the basis of these selected examples alone.  Somewhere out there, there are very good (and also very bad) western media not included within this set.

Secondly, some of the examples are inexcusable mistakes while others are marginally okay.  So let me stipulate that I will examine each example individually and I will not render judgment on the set as a whole.  By this time, you know that I am somewhat okay with Example #1; I thought that CNN bungled the matter in the marginally acceptable Example #2 but that was a self-inflicted wound with no one else to blame; and I thought that Examples #3, #4 and #5 were inexcusable mistakes and corrections/apologies are in order.

How hard is it to apologize?  You have no idea how easy.  Just read what happened in the Greatest Media Debunking Act by ESWN ever -- it is as simple as saying: "Our Tibet story on March 15, 2008 was accompanied by some illustrative photos from Katmandu (Nepal) and we are sorry that some of our readers led themselves into thinking that these photos came from China."  You blame your readers for being stupid!!!  Before the saying "Don't be like CNN," there already was "Don't be like Sing Tao."

I support the idea of a western media watchdog such as  This is not an attack on western media as a whole, but a watchdog project to keep them honest.  If the western media knew that the egregious mistakes here will be in the public limelight, they would be less adventuresome and/or sloppy.  This is not a question about forcing them to censor themselves, because this is about not using Katmandu (Nepal) photos to stand in for Tibet, for example.  Is that too much to ask?

I have told you how I faced up to the issues raised by the slideshow.  These are my personal opinions and you are welcome to go through, look through the case studies and decide for yourself.  The site is in Chinese, but you dno't need to know Chinese to look at the screen captures from western media.

I can also tell you what to avoid saying because of the adverse effects:

(1) You should not say that you refuse to look at the slideshow because this is just Chinese government propaganda.  Just as you closed your mind, the Chinese netizens will close their minds on you because they don't think that you are reality-based.

(2) You should not pick on a single example such as the one in Bild below and formulate your response.  The Bild headline says "Will the world boycott the 2008 Olympics in China?"  with the sub-title "Hundred deaths in heavy unrest in Tibet"  The photos are of Nepalese policemen manhandling Tibetan demonstrators.  You take this example and say, "There is no indication on the page that says that the police action is taking place in Tibet.  Rather it was your fertile imagination."  And then you walk away.  This Sing Tao defense won't work because the Chinese netizens are not interested in your response to this one example -- it is your response to the entire set, including Examples #3, #4 and #5.  If you walk away in this manner, then it is obvious that you can't deal with the rest. 

(3) Do not attempt a comparison of western media with Chinese media, because Chinese netizens know a lot more about their media than westerners and they have their own workarounds.  Some of them may even have the illusion that western media are always truthful.  It won't do to tell them: "Since the Chinese media are rotten, we are surely entitled to suck (but not as much)!"  No, that would only serve to inflame feelings.

Relevant Links: