I do hope everyone who points approvingly to Anticnn and insists the US media are hopelessly biased against China gets to listen to this superb podcast over at Popup Chinese. It touches on many media-related issues, but the first few minutes are devoted to the bias issue.
These are really smart China hands talking, and they all agree that the notion among many Chinese (especially the fenqing) of purposeful media bias against China is seriously inflated.They generally agree there is some bias against China, but it occurs mainly over in the US editorial offices where the headlines and photo captions are written, and is not symptomatic of the foreign correspondents living in China.
They also acknowledge there is bias for the Dalai Lama, but not because the editors are anti-China, It’s because there is a strong, irrational bias in America towards Buddhists, just as there is often a strong media bias in favor of Israel, and an even stronger media bias against Arabs and Muslims. Thus, as they say in the podcast, the Tibetan monks get far more sympathy and attention than the Uighurs. But what the fenqing need to get is that this is generally not anti-China bias, but a bias in which Buddhists are gentle, devout souls who are all about peace and love. Editors in the US may also view China as the oppressors and the Tibetans as the oppressed. But this doesn’t mean they are anti-China.
What those pressing this issue furthermore need to get is that everyone feels they are a victim of media bias. The Republicans, the Dems, the left and the right – we all have complaints with media bias. We all feel we are misrepresented. Every company feels that way, too. China just needs to join the club; everyone perceives bias against them. The difference is that most don’t allow themselves to get so manipulated and worked up about it so they think they’re the only ones. Inaccuracy in media is simply a fact of life.
The podcast goes on to explain why this is especially so today, with US newsrooms being drastically shrunk in size and fewer editors doing much more work. Everyone suffers, not just China. And I know (I really do) that you can find this or that example of media bias against China. Yes, it does happen. But usually it happens in the copy room, and often it’s simply a mistake. There may be bias behind these mistakes; that’s probably what led to some Western media falsely describing weapons used in the Tibet protests of 2008 as belonging to the Chinese, when in fact they were being used by the Tibetan demonstrators. This wasn’t an act of intentional bias against China, though. It was a matter of jumping to conclusions based upon a bias that sees the Tibetans as gentle and sweet.
Much of the current media coverage, as discussed in the podcast, is surprisingly pro-China. There is a powerful new meme going through the media, particularly the financial press, about how China proves how effective an authoritarian government can be, and pointing to it as a possible model for the future. (As part of this argument the pundits point to the hopeless political mess in the US; does that make them “anti-US”?) Most economic stories on China are positive, although a lot of critics jumped on the property bubble band wagon, as well as Jim Chano’s predictions of a China collapse. But they also jump on similar stories in regard to Europe, and the US.
This is pack journalism, a bad thing, but certainly something that is in no way exclusive to coverage of China. The media, in a huge pack, went after Obama last week for not getting emotional enough over the Louisiana offshore oil rig catastrophe. Does this mean the media is biased against Obama? Say that to any wingnut and they’ll laugh in your face; in their eyes the media are hopelessly in love with Obama. The truth is they are just being the media – short-sighted, rushed, fact-starved, on impossible deadlines and fighting to get the best headline in the face of shrinking readership. They do it to Obama, they did it to Bush, they do it to Europe and they do it to China.
The notion that there is a monolithic prejudice among the US media against China is a falsehood and a fabrication. What you’re seeing is the standard prejudice and screw-ups that pervade all journalism, unfortunately. Many see the media fawning over China, others see it as needlessly and unfairly critical. Both are right. Because it is not monolithic, and the distribution of prejudice and poor reporting is spread out evenly to everyone and every nation.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.