Why Is CNN Patriotic?

(Yang Hengjun's blog)  Former CNN Beijing Chief Explains Why CNN Is Patriotic.  April 22, 2008.

[in translation]

I came across the partiality and extremism in western media coverage of China a long time ago.  I remember that I went to work in the United States for the first time more than a decade ago.  In order to improve my comprehension of spoken English, I sat in front of the television every day to watch the news and talk shows.  At first, I was able to understand only the news reports and commentaries about China because I was familiar with the news background.  Frankly, it was very unpleasant watching the reporting and commentaries in American news.

Even today, though I regard my mission as criticising China and that the best form of patriotism is to criticize one's own country so that it can become better, I am still ill at ease when I see the negative western media reports about China.  Sometimes, I want to give them a lecture, but whom do I go to?  There is no supervisory department for the western media.  This is easily shown by their regular criticisms of their own leaders and governments.  In the United States, the attacks by Fox News against President and Mrs. Clinton were extremely insulting.

But I also observed a phenomenon.  After the 9/11 incident, the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and the various American news media including CNN became very patriotic.  This was perplexing to me.  By that time, I had gained some understanding about American media and I knew that these media enjoyed independence and freedom.  They were not connected to the government, with whom they had no official ties.  So why did they become so patriotic?  It looked as if the White House was coordinating the direction of public opinion.

I could not resolve this problem until I went to Hong Kong to attend a literary festival.  There, I was on the same stage with former CNN Beijing bureau chief Rebecca MacKinnon for a session to discuss my works.  Rebecca's father is a Sinologist and she spoke fluent putonghua.  She worked for CNN for a long time, and she headed the Beijing bureau from 1992 to 2001.  I knew about her first from watching her on television.  She is presently teaching journalism at Hong Kong University.  I thought that her understanding of CNN could help me get the most accurate or perhaps most truthful answer to my question.

I brought up this issue over lunch.  I said that the normally unruly news media such as CNN became patriotic when it came to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  It got to the point that I began to suspect that the White House was pulling the strings from behind the scene.  I thought maybe Rebecca could provide a satisfactory answer because of her relatively independent and fair attitude towards American media as well as her friendly attitude towards the Chinese people.

Rebecca confirmed that my observations were correct.  During that time period, CNN and other major media were "very patriotic."  But she corrected me by saying that the government did not apply any pressure.  The White House would not dare to interfere with the news.  And it had nothing to do with the owners of CNN being American, etc.  The main reason was that a pair of even more powerful hands were controlling things.  Rebecca explained that to me by referring to her personal experience.

During the war in Afghanistan, she travelled with a (Japanese) photographer to the frontline in order to deliver live reports for CNN.  She said that she knew what to report as a reporter.  At the time, the war in Afghanistan had just begun and many Afghans were displaced due to the war.  Rebecca was at a site where the displaced Afghans had to pass, and therefore she could see all the Afghan refugees who had to leave their homes with their families, sometimes even getting separated from each other.  With her keen sensitivity about news value as well as humanitarian concerns, Rebecca recorded these real moments of the lives of these refugees and kept feeding the video back to the CNN headquarters in the United States.

But just as Rebecca thought that she found the best news material and worked hard, an order came back from CNN.  The order asked Rebecca to say less about the refugees -- after all, the wave of refugees who were displaced by the American firepower is negative information about the American war on terror.  CNN headquarters wished that Rebecca could make more reports from Afghanistan that could rouse the patriotism of Americans.  The rationale for CNN headquarters was simple: the audience did not like to see any refugees.  They want to watch things that are patriotic and they want to watch the war against terrorism.

After telling me about this incident, she said: "Now you understand why CNN is patriotic.  The government did not tell them to be patriotic.  Their bosses did not suddenly discover their conscience and become patriotic.  It happened because the American audience became very patriotic after 9/11 and they did not want to watch anything 'unpatriotic' -- such as the large number of refugees that were created by the war that the United States started."

At that time, CNN's competitor Fox News was avidly supporting the Bush administration (note: Fox News gave President Clinton a hard time) and gained high audience ratings.  Lagging behind, CNN had to ignore certain original news stories and instead aired rousing patriotic stories in order to satisfy the patriotic passions of the mainstream in the United States.

I think that this was one reason why Rebecca left CNN eventually.  She holds a certain critical stance towards the major international media for abandoning journalistic standards in order to accommodate the mainstream crowds and hence win the advertising dollars.

So let us now turn to the matter of Jack Cafferty at CNN.  I would like to share some of my experiences and views.

(1) Did Jack Cafferty insult China with his words?

Early on, I read what Jack Cafferty said.  As I write this essay today, I checked the original English-language transcript again.  Based upon my understanding, Cafferty did insult the Chinese people.  He may claim that he did not articulate himself clearly and that "they" may refer to the Chinese government and not just the Chinese people.  Yet, from the context before and after that sentence, Cafferty was stretching it when he said that he had meant the Chinese government.  Thus, I can say that Cafferty had severely insulted China in a way that carried racial bias.

Let us go back to why Cafferty claimed that he had meant to criticise the Chinese government after the Chinese Foreign Ministry lodged a protest.  The reason is quite simple.  According to western media standards, any media/journalism worker has the right to criticize the government.  It is another matter about whether that criticism is based on evidence or justified.  But there is never any doubt that the media can criticize or even verbally attack the government.  Therefore, Cafferty initially offered this point in his defense.

During that program, Caffery also made a series of comments about "Chinese products are trash."  I don't think that saying Chinese products are trash is an insult to China.  Most Chinese exports to the United States are very low-priced, and it is natural that their quality would not be as good as European imports.  There has also been some safety problems (reportedly, the American government is about to publish a report on the safety of China-made products).  Therefore, it is not an insult to China for a newscaster to say that "Chinese products are trash."  I heard that some companies want to sue Cafferty and CNN.  There is no need to do that.

But then Cafferty switched to the Chinese people, saying that they have been "goons and thugs for the past 50 years."  According to either Chinese or American standards, this statement has gone beyond the bottom line for a newscaster.  Not only was this an insult to the Chinese people, but it conveyed heavy racial bias.  In this sentence, Cafferty used a time frame ("for the past 50 years") and this became the basis for him to say that he was attacking the "Chinese government" and not the Chinese people.

No matter how Cafferty wants to explain this, the Chinese people is justified at this time to demand an apology.  The problem is: How shall we deal with CNN?

(2)  Why is CNN indifferent to the complaints from the Chinese government as well as the anger of the Chinese people?

The Chinese Foreign Ministry lodged three complaints to condemn the non-state media company CNN and asked for a genuine apology.  The patriots of the mainland Chinese Internet also wrote to complain and criticize.  The overseas Chinese people (especially the overseas students) held unprecedented public demonstrations.  Their wills have coalesced together into a powerful force.

But to date, the western media have rarely mentioned this affair and CNN has done nothing.  This is really hard to understand.  Yet, if I link this to the previous discussion about why CNN suddenly became patriotic, then we can easily perceive the crux of the matter.

It does not matter how the western media advertise their freedom of press and professionalism, they are still just for-profit multinational corporations.  They have one God -- their audience -- who are the invisible hands that control and manipulate the media.  In some sense, putting aside core values such as freedom and democracy, the western media worship the mass western audience who pays their bills.  Of course, this does not mean that there is any conflict with the freedom and democracy that they adore because the majority of the western audience have accepted those core values.

Let us look at the situation of CNN right now.  Where is its God?  Obviously, none of the Chinese protestors watch CNN.  The majority of mainland Chinese people are not allowed to watch CNN.  Therefore, the audience of CNN has never included any mainland Chinese viewers.

The money-makers for CNN and the huge hand that controls CNN -- its audience -- are almost completely outside of mainland China.  How do the three protests from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the fury of the Chinese people look to this outside audience (especially to the western audience)?

Here is where the problem is.  For the CNN audience, the protests of the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the worldwide condemnation of CNN by the global Chinese community do not harm CNN.  They even directly lift the ratings for CNN.  On this point, I think that the senior management at CNN must be laughing quietly in some dark corner.

The protests by Chinese netizens, the Foreign Ministry and the overseas students are rarely reported on CNN, or the other major television channels such as Fox News and BBC.  Why is that?  There are many other factors, but there is one important factor that must not be ignored.  For example, when Fox News reports that 1.3 billion Chinese people are protesting against CNN, eight or nine out of ten Fox News viewers will switch over to CNN to see what this is about.  So why should Fox News turn its audience over to CNN?  There is also another shameful phenomenon in that the western world regards China as a place with no freedom of press and reporters are frequently sent to jail for their writings.  So the simple-minded westerner infers: When CNN offends the 1.3 billion people in a nation without freedom of press, then CNN must be a fine example for the freedom of press in the west.  You better go and watch it now.

My analysis is clearly not complete.  I am just dealing with one aspect.  But my assertions have a basis.  Does this analysis mean that when we the Chinese people get insulted by a television newscaster, we can't do anything about it?  Must we tolerate it?  Will this affair just die off without resolution?

That is not necessarily the case.  As the Foreign Ministry spokesperson puts it well: The Chinese cannot be bullied so easily!

(3)  What are we going to do?

Before I offer some proposals, let me state that it was legal and reasonable for the Foreign Ministry to lodge three complaints and certain civilians to organize protests.  But are there better choices?  What about the long-term goals?  Do we have more effective methods?  This should be brought up and debated in public.

I offer some ideas:

First, CNN is a global media outlet which reaches into the various corners of the world.  It obviously has an office in China with a sizeable amount of business.  This naturally causes someone to think that if CNN does not issue a genuine apology as we demanded, we are going to kick them out of China.  It is a huge loss for a global media to be kicked out of China which has a population of 1.3 billion.  But this method is absolutely out of the question, because the damage to the image of the Chinese government in the world will be far more than any respect that we can get for ousting a private media.  We shouldn't do anything that results in a bigger net loss, especially during this Olympic year.

Secondly, my analysis says that CNN is indifferent to the complaints from the Foreign Ministry and the Chinese people because our actions do not affect its audience ratings and economic revenue (mainly through advertisements).  In fact, CNN may actually be profiting in the western world on account of this affair.  We see that once we strip away the veneer (such as the freedom of press) of this super-media outlet CNN, it is just another profit-seeking multinational corporation whose mission and goal are to maximize profits for its owners and shareholders.  So what can China do about this?  I think that there is.  Based upon my observations, a large amount of advertisements on CNN come from mainland China and the overseas Chinese community.  If CNN refuses to handle this matter and issue a genuine apology and if the Chinese are sufficiently unified to threaten CNN about stopping all those advertisements, it can deal a tremendous economic blow to CNN.

Thirdly, this is not going to be a fatal blow.  So what other methods do we have to solve this problem in a fundamental way?  Cafferty is famous as a "stiinky mouth" and has insulted many people including Americans.  If our protests result in his dismissal by CNN, this is just a temporary victory.  How can we change things overall?  Can we change the biases of the western media towards China?  Can we guarantee that more Cafferty's will not appear on western television?  Of course we cannot.  The western media will not change their journalistic model and concepts of the past one hundred years solely because of the protests of some citizens and students.  So how can we solve the problem completely?  There is a method that is easy to describe but hard to execute.  That would be to reach the invisible hands that control the western media -- the God that the western media worship -- the western audience.  We have to increase the understanding of China by western people and open China up to the ordinary western citizens.

There is a common saying: Easier said than done.  The western media can provide biased reports on China because they are backed by the western people.  One can say that they have a mass foundation.  At this point, someone might ask: Didn't the western people gain their understanding of China through the western media?  Isn't this a vicious cycle?  That is not necessarily completely true.  In the west, there is freedom of press.  At the least, our CCTV can be seen all over the United States and nobody is going to shut it out.  Over the years, the Chinese have invested a lot of money in media in the western world, either openly or secretly.  In the overseas communities, the Chinese-language newspapers are able to make more and more positive reports about mainland China and more and more Chinese media are changing directions to lead opinion on the right path.

The western audience can watch CCTV's English-language programs if they want to.  CCTV's Joint News Broadcast is reportedly the television program with the biggest audience in the world.  But in the United States, apart from certain intelligence operators and certain Chinese business people doing business in mainland China, very few people would watch news on CCTV.  This is nothing for us to be proud of.  Most mainland Chinese want to watch overseas news programs, but they cannot watch them.  Westerners are able to watch Chinese news programs but nobody wants to do that.

Even though our news media possess unique Chinese characteristics, we must not forget that the news media were introduced to China from the west.  Although we condemn the distorted reporting of China by the western media, we cannot isolate ourselves outside of western media.  The western media are significant in watchdog journalism, presenting the public will and reporting the truth.  If China wants to solve the problem in a fundamental way, it must aim at the God in front of the television set -- the audience.  The full solution requires China to reform its own news media system and emulate the more active side of western media; China should abandon that journalistic model with a single unified voice that reports only the good news and no bad news; China should abandon the notion that the media are mouthpieces and tools for proselytizing ...

Someone might well ask, "Is there a direct connection between what you say and our immediate problems?"  Of course.  This may not be able to solve the problems immediately, but it will be able to solve the problem in a fundamental way.  Our China has always been able to make the huge investments to create mega-projects.  But so far, this grand nation of 1.3 billion people has not been able to produce one or two international media outlet.  In the United States, the television stations and newspapers operate freely.  Why can't we do that?  If nobody watches them, then why not?  If we have media outlets that are trusted by the global audience, we can present China to the world in a fairer way.

The above is about one aspect.  There is another aspect.  When we find that the western media hold biases and prejudices when they report about China, have we reflected on whether the mainland Chinese media also hold severe biases and prejudices when reporting about the world?

I have said many times before that the biases and prejudices in certain mainstream Chinese media are shocking and frightening.  I am not under-estimating CNN here.  My understanding is that the audience rating for that program in which Cafferty insulted the Chinese was not high.  Even if the western audience heard him, they would not pay too much attention.  So the impact is small.  The American audience has a lot of choices, including the right to watch CCTV.

But our mainland Chinese media are different.  There is basically just one voice speaking.  In the past, there was the strange sight of 800 million people closing the door to the outside and getting ready among themselves to liberate the world.  Today, things are better but far from adequate.

When there is only one voice in the country and freedom of speech remains to be developed, the people will appear to be too simplistic, easily angered and readily hurt on the world stage.  It is very hard to earn the genuine respect of the people in the world community.

I must mention something else.  The overseas Chinese (especially the overseas Chinese students) are marching in the streets to protest the western media biases against China.  I am delighted to see that because the most direct victims of western biases towards China are the Chinese people living overseas.  But amidst the passion, we should remember that the western people learn about China not solely through the western media.  More often, their principal contact is with the overseas Chinese living in their countries, especially the overseas Chinese students.

Here, I should end this essay.  Finally, I just hope that our overseas Chinese residents and students would ask themselves: Apart from my coming out this time to protest the distortion in western media about China and to express my patriotism, did my normal speeches and actions in the west let the westerners see the hint of a Chinese people who are peaceful, civilized and respectful of human rights and other universal values?  Let me ask once more: through our global mobilized demonstration march against CNN, the western media may become more careful in the future.  But how is the God for those media -- the western people going to view us?