Live Coverage of Lies or Truth?

By Li Xiguang


" In war nothing is too deceitful"
Sun Zi (Chinese military strategist of the sixth century BC)


"This is London." When Edward Murrow said these three words, he meant that his listeners would get both good news and bad news from his broadcast, but not deceptive information.

What are we watching on TV everyday? News or propaganda? Truth or lies? On March 20, 2003, people were seeing, hearing, and even smelling the start of the Iraqi war with their eyes, ears, and noses simultaneously with satellite TV broadcasts. But can we trust our own eyes, ears, and noses in the age of globalization and global communications? Who defines the news we consume everyday? Media critics have theorized that news reporting is a subjective reconstruction of the objective world and not an objective reporting of the real world. In the age of information decentralization and fragmentation, the flow of international news is becoming more centralized. And the global flow of information continues to be one way and unbalanced.

I am grateful to the organizers and sponsors of the meeting at Cambridge, which commemorates the first anniversary of the Iraq War by starting a debate on the controversial topic of media coverage of the war. Here I want share my observations and experiences with Chinese TV coverage of the war.

Twenty-four hours, day and night, for 20 days one billion Chinese viewers sat glued to their television sets as soldiers fought in Iraq. They watched live coverage of government leaders' speeches one after another, government press conferences one after another, official slogans and national flags one after another. They were watching government and military-approved journalists traveling, eating, sleeping, chatting, and laughing with soldiers. These journalists were broadcasting live with "their" troops. You might have thought it was just the classic propaganda of the communists and the communist-controlled media. In actuality, the Chinese were watching CNN and Rubert Murdoch's channels. Since the first day of the war, the Chinese government handed over the country's five most popular TV channels to CNN and Murdoch. All the images and messages the Chinese audience got from their TV sets were filtered by CNN and Murdoch's people.

Since the war broke out, the three most popular government channels and the two most popular channels jointly owned by the government and Murdoch hired translators who parroted live 24-hour broadcasts from CNN and Fox for almost two weeks.

In covering a big event, a good journalist works this way:"I come. I see. I report. And I win."

But during the Iraqi war, almost all the Chinese journalists worked in the following way: "We do not come. We do not see it. We do not report. But we use CNN. And we win." Yes, indeed, CNN and Murdoch's TV programming did win the hearts and minds of the Chinese people with official messages from the White House and the Pentagon. China probably was the world's only country where anti-war voices were not heard in the press. Such terms as "invasion," "occupation," and "resistance" were all illegal words in the reporting of the Iraq war and post-Iraq War.

Of the 3,000 journalists reporting from Iraq during the war, not a single one was Chinese. Initially, the Chinese media was overjoyed about the upcoming war because they thought it would bring them a competitive edge in the country's prosperous media market. They sent more than 100 journalists to the Iraq border prepared to cover the war. However, in the end, the Chinese authorities banned all of them from reporting in Iraq. They were only allowed to report on U.S. government and military briefings in the American and British governments' information center in Qatar, to stay with U.S. marines, and to report from the deck of a U.S. carrier from the water of the Gulf. When Mr. Shui Junyi, CCTV's top international reporter, refused to leave Baghdad in an attempt to become the first Chinese journalist reporting live from Iraq, the Chinese ambassador escorted him out of Iraq in his limousine and made sure that he would not sneak back into Baghdad.

In the Qatar-based government press conference room, according to a report by the official China News Agency, the U.S. government and its military spokesman favored Chinese reporters over any other country's journalists. Once the spokesman praised a Chinese journalist for asking a good question. Delighted by this praise from the US military, the Chinese press covered the news extensively, pushing Chinese journalists to work harder to please the US military spokesman.

The Chinese government had a good reason for banning Chinese journalists from going to Iraq to cover the war: "We don't want our journalists be killed in the war." This reasoning makes it seem like the Chinese government is the only government that cares about the life, safety, and human rights of journalists. But Chinese editors disclosed that the real reason the government decided to ban journalists from entering Iraq was that the government did not want to see another "accidental" bombing and killing by the American army. The Chinese government had a crisis in 1999 when NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and killed three Chinese journalists, an event that brought about nationwide student protests against the American-led war and the killing of journalists. As a display of their good feelings towards globalization, Chinese government officials want to prevent the manifestation of any sentiments, feelings, or protests that would make the American government feel unhappy again.

In the age of globalization, the Chinese television audience is increasingly becoming the passive subject of manipulation and control by thirteen state TV channels and nine Murdoch-owned channels.

Many people praised the live transmission of CNN by the state TV stations as the beginning of uncensored news reports in China, the dawn of press freedom in this totalitarian or dictatorial society. The only element that Chinese TV stations added to these relayed broadcasts of CNN were segments with Chinese military strategists and pundits sitting around a table, watching CNN and chatting about the war in a light-hearted atmosphere as if they were playing Chinese chess or an electronic game. The Chinese TV commentators and pundits dealt with the war with a sense of aesthetics. Fascinated by the state-of-art warships, warplanes, guided-missiles, war vehicles and tanks on CNN, Chinese TVs tried to teach their audiences to appreciate the killing machines as they were shown from the cameramen's angle against a beautiful sunset or the morning sunlight.

What the Chinese got from their screens were memorable pictures of falling statues, cheering Iraqis, and beautiful high-tech weapons. What they did not get was the toll and context of the war. The state programming, which had been filtered by CNN and Murdoch, was not interested in reporting the number of civilians killed in the war. Chinese news programs talked about the importance of Basra as a military city, but not the historical and cultural riches of the city. No one remembered that it is the port city where the legendary traveler Sinbad departed for China. In this sense, the Chinese state networks are becoming the tongue and the throat of the American government. If we measure the freedom of the press and the independence of the media by how close they follow lines set by the White House and the Pentagon, the Chinese press did become freer and more independent.

CNN and Fox followed the Pentagon line lauding the war as bringing freedom, depicting American soldiers as liberators. But what is freedom? Can we enforce the First Amendment on a global scale? Can we have a global democracy, which requires us to protect the underdog's right to speak and to make sure that the voice of the weak countries be heard?

American journalism has long been regarded as a model for many Chinese journalists for its brave coverage of Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers. But if the model functions consciously and unconsciously to glorify war, it would be a great setback for those countries with an emerging free press.

During the Invasion of Iraq, the American government's propaganda was filled with symbols, slogans and images which immediately became the journalistic language in the Chinese press, where they read more like news than propaganda. Since the Chinese media did not send journalists to Iraq to experience and witness news events, CNN and Fox's live coverage naturally became what most Chinese believe to be the most reliable channels for providing information to the public.

Since most Chinese believe that American journalists enjoy the freest free press in the world, and since the American press serves as a model for the future of Chinese journalism, Chinese journalists and viewers never suspect that American journalists can sometimes fall prey to government and military propaganda.

When the official Chinese press was filled with war-glorifying stories dispatched by its correspondents from the U.S. carrier, the Chinese correspondents, along with their readers and viewers, never realized that the official propaganda frame was embedded in the minds of most embedded journalists. This framing provides them with guidelines as to how best plan topics, select sources, choose filming angles and use light, and how to select and delete content. They did not know that their news reporting served to camouflage the government propaganda.

In a war, it is understandable that the government and the military try to control and manipulate domestic and international public opinion in order to boost soldiers' morale and put pressure the enemy. The Pentagon has skillfully used the doctrine of Sun Zi: "In war nothing is too deceitful."

But few Chinese journalists realize that truth is the first casualty of war. On Chinese TV, journalists were rarely heard challenging the Pentagon versions and interpretations of the war, even when the officials gave obviously deceptive information. The Chinese journalists refused to believe that in a free society like the US, the media rely heavily on government sources when covering a war.

The Chinese audiences did not know that what they saw and heard on TV was not the real life of the war. It was a world seen through the frame of the global media such as CNN and Fox. The images, angles, the lighting, and the content the Chinese were watching was the subjective reality created by journalists and their sources. It was a mediated reality. Like the journalists working with the global media, Chinese audiences were too easily cheated and deceived by government propaganda, which was broadcasting a lot of misleading information along with deceptive and dishonest stories.

Today, everyone is talking about a booming market economy in China. It is said that a market economy encourages competing perspectives, diversified frames, the use of all possible angles in news reporting. But China's experience with the TV coverage of Iraq shows that, due to their living in the global media system, Chinese audiences are looking at international events in a more narrow and stereotyped way.

The landslide victories of CNN and Murdoch in China during the Iraq War show that in the age of globalization it is difficult to know the truth of news. The first step to getting closer to truth is to be freed from the birdcage of government propaganda and global media. No more pictures or live broadcasts of an embedded journalist bragging atop a military vehicle or aboard a carrier. Journalist I.F. Stone pointed out that all governments are manipulated by liars. I.F. Stone might sound extreme, but his critical and skeptical spirit is vanishing among both Chinese and American journalists living in the age of globalization. To break free from the propaganda birdcage, whether Chinese or American, the public should have both easy access and the desire to view all sorts of views, angles, frames, and focuses in news reporting. And that could only come when the international community is able to watch CNN, BBC, Fox, CCTV, Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and Abu Dhabi all at the same time when the next Gulf War comes.

If global press freedom means the international audience hears only one voice, sees pictures only from one perspective, and gets information only from one source, what does dictatorship mean? TBS


Li Xiguang is a member of The Center for International Communications Studies, Tsinghua University.

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu