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Pew Research Report, “THE U.S. MEDIA ON CHINA”

In January 24, 2011, Pew Research Center’s Project on Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) released a report (“THE U.S. MEDIA ON CHINA“) analyzing U.S. media coverage of China in the last few years, an ongoing effort started since 1997. The report asked, “When China has made news, what is it Americans are learning about?” That question was precisely answered.

In this post, I will take it further and share with you how the U.S. media narratives were as consumed by the American public. I will then share with you whether those narratives are truthful. In fact, as you will see in the PEJ report, the U.S. media reporting of China really vacillates around few dominant and recurring negative themes. And, they are not so truthful; definitely not objective.

There is however one exception, and in writing this post, I feel saddened because the topic I feel the narrative is finally correct is one of great tragedy.

Below are passages from the PEJ report which I think summarizes its key findings:

Over the last four years, the biggest story subject involving China has focused on problems with imported products, including tainted pet food and lead paint in children’s toys. According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, almost a quarter (21%) of the coverage has focused these issues. The second biggest subject (14%) was the May 2008 earthquake that rocked the Chinese province of Sichuan—killing as many as 70,000 and injuring nearly 400,000. Relations with Tibet (6%) are also prominent. The subject of trade and business ranks third (12%) among all the coverage involving China since January 1997, when PEJ began its content analysis.
. . .
Two of the other top five weekly stories focused on violence and political unrest in China.
. . .
Only one story that involved relations between U.S. and China was among the top weekly stories of the last four years, and it wasn’t about diplomacy or public policy. It came as the 2008 Beijing Olympics neared. Protestors in Paris and San Francisco made their opposition to the rule of Tibet and human rights violations known as the Olympic torch traveled through those cities the week of April 7-13, 2008. That week, attention to the protests filled 7% of the media newshole, which made it the second-biggest story in any week.

To further distill that down, I have made a summary list below of the topics predominantly reported in the U.S. media about China:

  • 1. Tainted pet food and lead paint in children’s toys (massive toy recalls)
  • 2. May 2008 Sichuan earthquake
  • 3. 2008 Olympics torch relay protests and riots in Lhasa and Xinjiang
  • 4. Currency manipulation
  • 5. Political unrest and censorship

Some of you might say, clearly there are other topics about China, including positive ones. No doubt about that. But their coverage were paltry in comparison and must have been drowned out by the topics PEJ identified. That repetition of the dominant topics is what ultimately calcifies the views of China in the American mindset.

How were these topics reported in the U.S. media?

On the toy recall, the dominant narrative is exemplified as follows (this one from the NYT):

Mattel, the maker of Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars, is recalling nearly one million toys in the United States today because the products are covered in lead paint.
. . .
Mattel is hardly the first manufacturer to encounter a breakdown in the Chinese production chain. In recent months, factories in China have been sources of poisonous pet food sold in stores in the United States, dangerous car tires, and lead paint on the popular Thomas & Friends wooden toys.

In other words, China is a terrible country and the source of toy recalls in America. However, the truth is just not told in the U.S. media. 80% of Mattel’s recalls were due to design flaws – batteries accessible by children or some parts can be easily removed and pose as choking hazards. University of Manitoba business professor Hari Bapuji and University of Western Ontario international business professor Paul W. Beamish analyzed Chinese-made toy recalls by going through recalls issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission from 1988 to August, 2007. Their conclusion?

Of the 550 toy recalls since 1988, 76.4 per cent were due to problems that could be attributed to design flaws. Among those flaws were errors such as strings that were too long and presented a choking hazard, small parts that easily fell off, or eyes that were glued on stuffed toys rather than stitched.

In contrast, only about 10 per cent were attributable to manufacturing defects, such as poor craftsmanship, lead paint and inappropriate raw materials. (With the rest, the authors couldn’t determine if the problem lay with design or manufacturing.)

The report points out that when Mattel recalled 20 million toys this past August, 80 per cent of the toys were pulled were because they contained small magnets, which is a design flaw. But Bapuji says all of the media focus has been on the lead paint issue. He says Canadian consumers should instead be demanding better of their toy makers.

U.S. media reported virtually nothing of this study nor of similar findings by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine (China’s watchdog on product safety).

The U.S. media reports were always “Chinese” toys and “Chinese” lead. Is there nationality for lead or toy? There was really no attempt at making a distinction between the companies who were actually at fault against the rest. In fact, the entire of ‘China’ always were dragged into the controversy. Is there a surprise how Americans feel about ‘China?’

Granted, there were still lead paint and shoddy manufacturing that were truly faults of some Chinese manufacturers. The fair and objective reporting should have been focused on the offending factories, but that was clearly not the case.

In covering the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, I thought American media did an exceptional job. Melissa Block, Robert Siegel and other NPR crew in their Chengdu Diary brought the tragedy to America in a respectful and caring tone. The outpouring of concern from ordinary Americans to the victims were heart-warming, especially when they called into NPR’s “All Things Considered” program to express support.

NPR was in China to cover the country in anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. When the earthquake hit, they jumped on the event as they were based in Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan Province.

However, U.S. media eventually switched gears and focused on the collapsed schools and tried to blame the Chinese government over “shoddy” construction.

Before the earthquake tragedy, the U.S. media were already full tilt in supporting the Tibetan separatist point of views, set off by the Lhasa riot. CNN cropped an image to remove rioters with bricks in hand ready to throw at an army convoy. The network completely fabricated the story – turning truth 180 degrees – wanting to instead show a quiet street with debris all over and troops flooding in. U.S. and other Western media were using fake photos from other events, some of which were not even in China, to paint pictures of “brutal crackdowns.”

(Update July 7, 2011: Image below shows CNN’s version on the left, and the original photo on the right.)

CNN crops rioters photo to change the story

In response to such blatant distortion, Anti-CNN was born, attracting millions of Chinese Internet users. More interestingly, it has become a crowd-sourced platform to systematically document all cases of false reporting in the Western media about China.

The narrative in the U.S. media about the Dalai Lama and his TGIE separatist positions have always been one sided. In fact, that narrative is revisionist too. Below are passages from the most recent article in NPR (sourced from the Associated Press), again, the typical narrative, about the Dalai Lama’s recent visit:

The elected prime minister of Tibet’s government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, says a grand religious gathering starting Wednesday in Washington will allow expatriate Tibetans a right denied their brethren inside China: to meet their spiritual leader.
. . .
Although he remains the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, his decision to abdicate is one of the biggest upheavals in the community since the Chinese crackdown led him to flee in 1959 into exile in India.

What NPR and the Associate Press failed to tell their readers is that the 1959 flee was due to a failed armed uprising supported by the CIA. The Dalai Lama has recently announced his ‘retirement’ from politics, so how is it that China should just allow this separatist and political leader be a ‘spiritual leader’ be seen by ethnic Tibetan Chinese as if this is all of a sudden a religious persecution issue? This is revisionist nonsense.

For a wiser and more practical approach to the ‘Tibet’ question, I will quote raventhorn2000, who, in a forum with the American Bar Association China Law Committee debated with a Tibetan separatist lawyer, said the following:

Whatever its stage of democracy, China surely is a sovereign state, comprising a territory that without a doubt includes Tibet. Just as moral arguments won’t restore parts of the US to their former owners, moral arguments are not sufficient to create an independent Tibet. Rather, autonomy for the Tibetan people must come, if at all, from within the structures of the Chinese state, as the Dalai Lama himself recognizes. As foreign observers, our role can only be to support and encourage this process, not to dictate from an imaginary position of moral superiority. And we must realize that the Chinese government needs to manage much more than Tibetan autonomy. No large country on earth has changed as quickly as China has in the last generation. The economic, cultural and political changes that have resulted present the government with numerous difficult challenges, of which the Tibetan situation is but one among many.

Actually, in response to the Dalai Lama’s ‘retirement’ announcement, Allen recently wrote, “Dalai Lama Retires…” where the article exposes the politics, the hypocrisy, and (as a reader points out in the comment section) the on-going persecutions of another sect perpetrated by his institution.

Buxi has translated a revealing conversation between the Dalai Lama and his subordinate while answering a question from a Xinhua reporter in a news conference in Germany in 2008 following the Lhasa riot.

The point of objective and fair reporting means the ‘Chinese’ perspectives should be heard. In this piece, “Opinion: Dear Mr. Dalai Lama … please tear down this wall!” Allen argues why the Dalai Lama should instead be trying to bring the ethnic Tibetans in China closer to the Han and other groups.

So, how is it not propaganda when the U.S. media only reports one side of the story? How is it not propaganda when it revises history?

Unto the fourth item on the above list: currency manipulation. Do I need to quote a paper in the U.S. on how they covered this issue like an echo chamber? The fact is every country controls the value of their currency. They print more to dilute its value, as the U.S. have been doing these few years (QE1 and QE2). They raise or lower the interest rate to alter the demand for the currency which then affects the value. Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate no less has been trumpeting this ‘currency manipulation’ mantra at the New York Times for a very long time. He is an economist and understands how these things work. He and others were pursuing this fiction with fervor because America needed the yuan to appreciate and help generate higher demand for American goods.

For an in-depth analysis, Allen spells out for us in his article, “Opinion:Making Sense of the Dollar and Yuan.”

Granted, U.S. media did publish Op-Ed’s of prominent business leaders like Morgan Stanley Asia Chairman Stephen Roach arguing against this ‘currency manipulation’ hysteria, arguing the trade imbalance was due to America’s over-consumption and China’s ‘abnormally low’ consumption.

However, opposition to the ‘currency manipulation’ theme was a trickle. China the ‘currency manipulator’ was the dominant narrative.

Finally, looking at Liu Xiaobo, is there a doubt in the U.S. media’s “anti-Chinese government” stance? Liu is a criminal convicted in the Chinese courts for attempting to subvert the state. I wrote the article, “The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo and what it means to the Chinese,” to document his source of funding (by some contributors to this blog).

Barry Sautman (a political scientist and lawyer at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology) and Yan Hairong (an anthropologist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University) on the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo explained in “Liu Xiaobo Deserves an Ig Nobel Peace Prize” why the laureate intends to take down the Chinese government and does not deserve the prize. Sautman participated in the discussions on this blog too. Their work were widely circulated, including in the popular ESWN (東南西北) ‘China’ blog.

However, none of that really made into the mainstream U.S. media.

Why is that when all the U.S. ‘China’ reporters frequent that site?

The theme of ‘cracking down’ on people like Liu Xiaobo, and more recently, Ai Weiwei continues. The New York Times even fabricates stories about a ‘jasmine ban’ in China, because they want their readers to think the Chinese government is heavy-handed and paranoid due to the Arab Spring. I responded with “‘Catching Scent of Revolution, China Moves to Snip Jasmine’ – Retarded Government or Retarded NYT?

It was retarded NYT.

(In case you want to see how the NYT reporter responded to me debunking his ‘story,’ click here. Make sure to read the comments section, to see how readers of this blog feel about his reponse.)

And that’s the sorry state of the U.S. media on China reporting. One exception being their initial coverage of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

There is no more suitable description other than calling such behavior propaganda. Allen recently articulated what we mean by that here in response to me showing examples of good journalism and propaganda side by side:

One key point, in my opinion, of our work here is to try to disentangle facts from one’s version of the truth. What is especially difficult is trying to disentangle one’s plausible version of the truth – a truth arising from one’s ideological perspective – from facts. At least that’s the soft version. The hard version is trying to reveal the perpetration of plausible truth in furtherance of political ends that perpetuate many unjust aspects the current world order – that promote war rather than peace. We call such perpetration “propaganda” – even though we fully understand that in the West, people prefer to relegate “propaganda” to government sponsored perpetration, calling the rest “spins.” We personally don’t see the need for such discrimination. Political “spins” – especially carried out consistently and pervasively on a population that is neither educated nor vigilant about world affairs but that gladly “votes” (enables political actions to be taken) based on ignorance – is probably the supreme form of “propaganda.” YinYang has pointed out just a very small (and in the overall scheme relatively insignificant) instance of such.

  1. colin
    July 7th, 2011 at 09:16 | #1

    Yep, same old flagrant anti china bias. The thing about the tainted toys would be this: I could accept it if the US media reported recalls and tainted products from all countries equally. I read somewhere that there are more recalls on a percentage basis from countries like Mexico. But the fact that the media chooses hypocrisy in singling out china and demonizing it makes it unfair and unacceptable.

    Also, I was watching the Rachael Maddow show on CNN yesterday. I generally side with many of her viewpoints, but when it comes to china, she is not immune either. She was talking about the how US infrastructure is crumbling, and describing the Louisiana causeway bridge, formerly longest in the world, being replaced by the new Chinese bridge as record holder. She described the Chinese bridge as “ugly” in a condescending tone. To paraphrase, “how can we let our bridges break down and be replaced as record holders by these UGLY chinese bridges”. I really don’t understand how she came up with describing it as ugly. Engineering beauty often is not the same as artistic beauty. Even then, has she seen enough of the bridge and in real life to blatantly label it as “ugly”? I doubt it. The description I think just comes from the pervasive anti china bias in the western media. The false stereotypes and worldview of china is so pervasive and entrenched that even folks like her don’t think twice about committing journalistic fraud when it comes to reporting on china.

  2. zack
    July 7th, 2011 at 09:30 | #2

    correction: the perception comes from jealousy; think of it this way, colin; in the US, americans are reminded of the decline of their state and the ‘rise of China’ as the narrative of their media shows, especially with unemployment still being persistently high, and when they’re informed that China’s got new high speed rails, space system launches, engineering feats like that bridge in question, western media stations (a broad term i know) have to find ways to reassure their public and console them with the negativities in China.

    i wonder, will they still have the breath to assume a sense of moral superiority when China leaves them in the dust?

  3. July 7th, 2011 at 10:52 | #3

    @colin #1,

    I agree that the disproportionate reporting of recalls and tainted product from China arises from anti China bias than anything else. However I don’t agree reporting by country is the solution to better quality products. There is a more direct way to do it. The reason we have “brands” – and the reason why global “brands” – currently dominated by Western countries – is because brands gives notice to the consumers an expectation of the quality of the products and services. The whole reason we have “brands” is for this purpose. So when we have problems from a car company like Toyota, for example, we hold Toyota to fire – not Japan, or U.S. (where many of its cars are made). Toyota as a company is in the best position to manage and apply quality control to its design, manufacturing, distribution chain. When an airliner made by Boeing or Air Bus is revealed to be defective in some manners, the entity held to task is Boeing or Air Bus, not the U.S. or various nations of the E.U. Same should go for products “made in China.” The brands behind the products should be responsible. They are the one in control. They are the one who profits. They should be the ones who are liable.

    I put “made in China” above in quotes because so many things assembled in China are assembled from parts made elsewhere. Thus when an iPad made in China does goes down (which is rare), it may be due as much to assemblage as defective parts made in Korea, U.S., and other parts of the world. Holding a vast geographic region like China blanketly responsible is crazy. The gov’t of China rules China, but does not control everything in China.

  4. LOLZ
    July 7th, 2011 at 12:56 | #4

    It’s not surprising that the coverage of bad “made in China” products make US news. It’s a fact that the outsourcing of manufacturing to China has cost many American jobs. Consumers of US media are thus more receptive to negative news about China’s products in general. Japanese products (especially Toyota) has also experienced a lot of bad treatment from the US media although American made cars have experienced far more quality problems and recalls.

    I am somewhat surprised that coverage of ethnic protests/clashes (Tibetan and Uighurs) when added together would make up most of the news which people read about China. IMO the US media (and western media in general)’s coverage of China’s minorities are some of the most biased. If there is one area where China needs to work at in terms of PR, it would be to work better with journalists who covers these areas.

  5. July 7th, 2011 at 18:07 | #5

    This is an interesting development to follow:

    China’s state-run news agency looking at Denver for English-language news hub

    Wikipedia’s blurp on CNC World:

    CNC World (simplified Chinese: 中国新华新闻电视网英语电视台; traditional Chinese: 中國新華新聞電視網英語電視台; pinyin: ) is a 24 hour global English-language news channel, launched on July 1, 2010. It is 51% owned by the China Xinhua News Network Corporation, and 49% by private investors, including Chinese home appliances maker Gree.[1]

    CNC World’s mission is to provide comprehensive coverage of world affairs while explaining matters of direct concern to the Chinese leadership in a perspective its producers consider appropriate.[2]

    The venture is part of Beijing’s effort to “present an international vision with a Chinese perspective,” Xinhua President Li Congjun said at the press conference announcing the launch of CNC World.

  6. July 8th, 2011 at 14:17 | #6

    Media on the domestic front is also crazy.

    I read somewhere Boston Globe published results of a study showing Twitter questions from ordinary Americans to Obama vs. American media questions to the President in the last two weeks at White House briefings, and conclusion?

    Public: mostly policy questions
    Media: mostly political questions

  7. xian
    July 14th, 2011 at 09:40 | #7

    Big media latches onto certain perspectives and continue to propagate those perspectives by cherry picking news and/or associating current news with past events. This is especially true of American media. I believe it is a system of appealing to the audience by reaffirming their beliefs instead of questioning them. However, I feel this system applies to every subject reported in the news. If you look for news on Korea, it’d consist mostly of items about North Korea. If you look for news on Japan, it’s all about the earthquake and economic decline. On Iran it’d be nuclear armament. On Venezuela it’d be oil and Chavez. For China the topics tend to center around “Evil government”, “Cheap goods”, “Economic rise” amongst others. Do other things happen in these countries? Sure. But it doesn’t fit their stereotypes, therefore they either don’t care or don’t want to challenge them.

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