In D.C., China builds a news hub to help polish its global image

January 16, 2012

In a downtown D.C. office building hard by a Starbucks and a busy construction site, China’s most ambitious effort to become a global power in English-language TV news is literally taking shape.

For months, Chinese and American workers have been constructing a multi-floor TV studio complex on New York Avenue NW. Within a few weeks, China Central Television (CCTV) — the nation’s state-run international broadcaster — intends to originate news broadcasts produced by a staff of more than 60 journalists hired in recent weeks from NBC, Bloomberg TV, Fox News and other Western news organizations.

The new Washington operation, its managers say, will be a hub of CCTV’s global news-gathering operations as the network launches a major expansion outside China to compete with international broadcasters such as CNN, the BBC and al-Jazeera.

China watchers see an even larger aim in China’s multimillion-dollar investment in Washington: capturing the attention and perhaps the hearts and minds of viewers throughout the United States and the Western Hemisphere. China’s ambition, they say, is to use news reporting and cultural programming to advance its “soft power,” or cultural influence, making it commensurate with the nation’s growing economic might.

China’s leaders think their country is “constrained, even contained, by the global dominance of Western media groups and Western culture,” said David Bandurski, the editor of the China Media Project, a research consortium at the University of Hong Kong.


A woman walks pass the China Central Television complex in Beijing. (FRANKO LEE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

To counter this, Bandurski said, China is “building networks across various types of media that can be used to convey [the Chinese point of view] to the world. China’s leaders hope this will help the country channel public opinion globally, offsetting what they see as overwhelmingly negative coverage of China by Western media.”

To this end, he said, China has poured billions of dollars into the international expansion of government-controlled news sources such as CCTV and Xinhua, the state wire service. Among other ventures, it funds the distribution of a state-run newspaper, China Watch, which is carried in The Washington Post and the New York Times as a monthly advertorial insert. CCTV opened a new broadcast center similar to the Washington operation in Nairobi last week.

But Bandurski and other China experts say the country’s lofty media goals may collide with the communist government’s long history of official censorship and propaganda. China’s desire for international respect and stature raises a question for its journalists: Can they report without fear or favor, free from government ma­nipu­la­tion and second-guessing?

Those hired by CCTV for its U.S.-based effort acknowledge the challenge.They say viewers are likely to be skeptical of any news source controlled by Beijing. However, they insist that the network will have autonomy from Beijing, and that its journalists are seasoned professionals who understand the difference between government propaganda and news.

CCTV wouldn’t permit any of its officials or journalists to speak on the record for this article. Instead, the network offered a series of responses to e-mailed questions. It said its replies should be attributed to “a representative of CCTV News’ Broadcast Center” in Washington, with no names or titles attached.

“The management of CCTV News in Washington is empowered to make editorial decisions,” the network said in an e-mail. “CCTV News will establish its credibility over time by the accuracy and comprehensiveness of its news product. Only by watching the programs over a period of weeks or months can viewers truly determine for themselves its credibility.”

CCTV’s top adviser for its American news operation is Jim Laurie, a former NBC and ABC reporter who has been a consultant to several international broadcasters in Asia. Laurie referred questions to CCTV’s management.

As described by several of its Washington hires, CCTV’s new Washington operation will produce original news reports and locally produced talk shows. It intends to broadcast an hour of programming a day from Washington starting next month, increasing to four hours this summer. It has not announced a lineup or named its anchors.

In addition to Washington, the network is adding reporters in what it calls “key” cities across the continent, including Miami, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and Toronto. It also will have correspondents in Latin America.

Since its launch in 2004, CCTV International’s English-language reporting in the United States has been limited to wire-service stories from Reuters and the Associated Press, along with a few original pieces produced by freelancers. Perhaps as a result, the service has been “invisible” in the United States and Britain, with few viewers and little influence, said Xin Xin, a senior research fellow at the China Media Centre at the University of Westminster in London. “It has not been very successful,” Xin said.

CCTV’s news and documentary channels have been carried in the Washington area by MHz Networks, the Falls Church-based nonprofit educational broadcaster that airs international programs. Through MHz’s affiliation agreements with cable, satellite and over-the-air broadcasters around the country, the programs are available in about 35 million households, including most with cable service in the Washington area.

While the average American viewer may be “less inclined” to watch a state-run international channel, “people do want to know what other places think,” said Frederick Thomas, MHz’s chief executive. “The interest in international information of all stripes is really something that is grossly unstated in this country.”

CCTV could face some of the same resistance in the United States that has hobbled al-Jazeera English, the English-language offshoot of the Arabic-language network. Since its founding in 2006, AJE has struggled to gain widespread distribution on cable and satellite TV systems throughout the United States. AJE is funded by the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.

CCTV doesn’t need a lot of viewers to succeed, Xin said — it just needs the right ones. “The choice of Washington [for its news center] shows that its target is the U.S.’s political elites,” she said.

But despite CCTVs insistence that the network will enjoy autonomy, it’s not clear how how much latitude its Washington reporters will have.

In an interview last year with Columbia University’s “Global Media Wars” monitoring project, Laurie, CCTV’s American adviser, said that Chinese officials are debating whether to permit greater freedom for China’s international broadcasts than its domestic ones. “Gradually a ‘one country, two systems’ approach is taking shape” in which state-run media outside China can be more critical of the government than those reaching China’s 1.3 billion people, he said.

If so, the key word may be “gradual.” After reviewing CCTV’s programming, Columbia’s “Global Media Wars” report said that the network still largely toes the party line.

“The government’s hand can be seen most clearly in what isn’t shown — in the omission of any content that might contradict or criticize the image the Communist Party promotes,” the report said. “There is plenty of criticism of the United States (and virtually none of China’s leaders). But [the network’s] hosts use a lighter touch than their counterparts at state-financed Press TV from Iran or Russia’s RT. They suggest, by way of implication rather than assertion, that the world’s only superpower is in decline and fearful of China’s ascendancy.”

A CCTV news story, for example, about China’s image in the West took on a defensive, almost wounded tone. After a Chinese college professor offered a sound bite about how Westerners have ginned up “the China-threat fallacy,” an announcer intoned, “The presumed threat is likely to grow this year as China now has the world’s second-biggest economy. Today, China’s critics view it as several threats to economics, military matters and energy. There are negative reports about the country in the English [-speaking] media every day.”

On a more mundane issue, CCTV apparently has a long way to go before its broadcasts are as smooth and polished as the global broadcasters it hopes to compete against.

The Columbia report said that CCTV’s broadcasts “look amateurish. . . . In one segment of the program News Update, loose wires trailing from an anchor’s microphone were visible on camera; in another, an anchor launched into the day’s top story only to be informed, on camera, that the lineup had changed. Often, the same ‘correspondent’ narrates back-to-back segments — even if the stories involved are happening on opposite sides of the globe. Occasionally, anchors and correspondents cite contradictory facts without offering explanations for the discrepancy.”

The report concluded that CCTV has “yet to produce a broadcast with global credibility and world-class technical standards.”

That’s one of several challenges a new crew in Washington is about to face.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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