At a time when Western news outlets are shutting bureaus and scaling back operations, authoritarians are looking to expand. Two of the best examples come from Russia and China. Russia Today, the Russian government’s international TV outlet, broadcasts in English and Arabic from bureaus around the world. In January 2009, the Chinese government announced plans to launch a 24-hour news channel with correspondents in every major capital. They are not doing it on the cheap. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, is setting up shop with a broadcasting headquarters right in the heart of the media world, New York’s Times Square. Beijing is estimated to be investing somewhere between $7 and $10 billion in this global effort to give its own, authoritarian take on the news. In a speech explaining this massive media endeavor, Politburo member Li Changchun said that China must “take CCTV and other key central media and make them into first-rate international media with a global influence.”
If the idea of a well-financed, state-directed media operation with global reach sounds familiar, you are not mistaken. The express model that Moscow and Beijing’s media minds have in mind is Al Jazeera. While that Qatar-based news outlet has distinguished itself in much of its reporting, especially during this season of Arab revolutions, the Chinese government is attracted to the idea of using a similar non-Western news operation to take its propaganda — some would say soft power — global.
And that is what has made something recently posted by Ezzat Shahrour, Al Jazeera’s chief correspondent in Beijing, so popular. Last week, Al Jazeera’s man in Beijing laid into the Chinese state media machine for its utterly dishonest reporting from Libya. Shahrour writes:
I just don’t see what the point is of media spending so much money to prepare their journalists to go to a dangerous place like Libya when all these reporters do is simultaneous interpretation in China of Ghaddafi’s own television station. Can’t this sort of news coverage be done just as well from Beijing? Isn’t it a complete waste of money? In their live reports, the Chinese reporters constantly emphasize that the majority of Libyans support Ghaddafi, so I suppose those opposition members who are gathering daily on the streets and in public squares must be from some fairy wonderland (or the Chinese media believe, like Ghaddafi, that these demonstrators are just “rats”)? The Chinese media tell us how Ghaddafi’s forces are gaining ground on the opposition forces, but they don’t tell us that there are tens of thousands of foreign mercenaries killing Libyan people at Ghaddafi’s behest.
(To read his entire translated post, go here.)
According to David Bandursk, the editor of the China Media Project, Sharour’s post has drawn incredible traffic. Within the first three days, it had more than 100,000 visits and people had left more than 1,300 comments.
Sharour’s observation puts the question plainly. China can create the most sophisticated and savvy global media machine of all time. But if its reporting is as shallow and propagandistic as he describes, does it even matter? Many of China’s journalists, working for state-owned media, know how to produce quality journalism. But it doesn’t make any difference if the system that rides herd on those journalists isn’t confident enough to let those people do their job. The fact that China’s political masters are launching such high-priced ventures suggests they still don’t entirely understand the media they hope to imitate.