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.
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.
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.
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.
a big event, a good journalist works this way:"I come.
I see. I report. And I win."
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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.
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
is a member of The Center for International Communications Studies,