China wants to buy its way onto your TV screen. Will it work?
- By Alex Pasternack Alex Pasternack is the editor of Motherboard.vice.com, an online magazine and video channel.
Last November, Michelle Makori, a business reporter formerly of Bloomberg News, joined a small group of seasoned Western television journalists for a whirlwind tour of China. The trip, arranged by China Central Television (CCTV), the world’s largest broadcaster, culminated in a visit to the network’s two headquarters: on the quiet, far west side of Beijing, a drab campus that sits in the shadow of a giant space needle, and, in the frenzied Central Business District, the new digs — a twisted pretzel of steel and glass dreamed up by Rem Koolhaas’s architecture firm, an engineering marvel that manages to look both muscular and terribly fragile.
Makori and her soon-to-be colleagues had come to China to learn about CCTV America from their new employers, who had plucked them from other networks to develop another peculiar headquarters: a roughly 100-person bureau in the center of Washington, D.C., producing a slick news channel aimed at delivering China-centric news to a U.S. audience. "China has a place in the world economy, so it’s only befitting that China has a place in the global media platform," a senior CCTV executive told them, according to Makori. "The reason you people are before us is because we want to be recognized as a legitimate, objective journalistic force," he continued. "The idea is for this to be not a Chinese mouthpiece, not a Chinese propaganda tool, but a global channel produced with a Chinese flair.’"
Nearly a year later, that vision is coming into focus, and it offers a curious indication of China’s search for soft power. Despite the promise of wider editorial latitude, CCTV America’s coverage of China is largely scrubbed of controversy and upbeat in tone, with a heavy emphasis on business and cultural stories in places where Beijing hopes to gain influence. Reporting on topics sensitive to Beijing, like unrest in Tibetan regions of China or the Tiananmen Square Massacre is off limits. Coverage of scandals involving disgraced Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai and dissident legal activist Chen Guangcheng — topics that dominated U.S. and European headlines over the summer — were confined to reports that echoed official government statements. (CCTV America broadcast a stern-faced anchor in Beijing reading the statement "China has called on the United States to apologize over the issue of a Chinese citizen entering the U.S. embassy here in Beijing in late April," after Chen escaped to the U.S. embassy there.)
"Foreign audiences expect to hear stories about China from Chinese media, and CCTV has nothing to say about the two most important stories of the year?" asked Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger and free speech advocate. "Why would an American audience want to listen?"
Since the U.S. bureau began broadcasting in February, CCTV’s fresh cast of reporters and producers have been struggling to answer that question. Based out of a sparkling new office in Washington, the service comprises a block of news on CCTV News, the network’s recently-revamped 24/7 English-language channel, and covers a range of U.S. and international stories with a cast of 60 reporters, producers, and technicians who have experience at established news organizations like CNN, CBS, and the BBC. Long news pieces, Western accents, slick graphics, live stand-ups in foreign locales, and prominent guests (the likes of Thomas Friedman and Tom Brokaw have appeared on a weekend evening talk show called The Heat), emanate a feel of credibility that has long been absent in CCTV’s dull, starchy news coverage. "They were saying ‘we want you to be doing breaking news and investigative pieces’ and this was the first time a lot of the senior people in China had heard this," Barbara Dury, a former 60 Minutes producer who now runs CCTV’s Sunday newsmagazine program Americas Now, said of initial discussions with top CCTV officials. "And they were asking, ‘how’s this all going to play out?’"
In a turbulent and uphill battle for the world’s hearts and minds, and in an effort to stem what it sees as anti-China coverage in the Western media, Beijing’s global television gambit — part of a multi-billion dollar propaganda push by the Chinese government — is its most ambitious yet. And CCTV America is one of the main beneficiaries of Beijing’s largesse. With heavy emphasis on coverage of under-reported places in Latin America and Africa, the network aims to be what some at CCTV call "China’s CNN." But it takes its biggest cues from Al Jazeera, the state-funded upstart from Qatar that, despite distribution challenges, has won many supporters in the United States.
"CCTV’s strategy is to find niches where other people have let down the global TV audience in the English sphere," said Jim Laurie, a two-decade veteran of ABC who has consulted for new broadcast ventures around the world, and who is helping CCTV develop its American service. From the new U.S. headquarters on New York Avenue, less than a mile from the White House, Laurie and a team of producers and editors, as well as three Chinese managers who have relocated from Beijing, oversee 16 bureaus in North and South America, supplementing hundreds of Chinese and African reporters working at offices in Africa, Europe, and Asia. On another floor, some 40 Chinese journalists and technicians prepare reports for the domestic service.
In one corner of the bustling, glassy newsroom, a giant central desk is surrounded by a phalanx of screens carrying CNN, Fox, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, and CCTV’s other news channels. Seen together, CCTV’s broadcast looked buttoned-up and serious next to CNN’s unceasing parade of graphics and heavy emphasis on pop culture. (And yet CCTV America surprised The Atlantic’s national correspondent Jim Fallows, who spent three years living in China and estimated he’s watched "thousands" of hours of CCTV, as he channel surfed. Compared with CNN, "I’ve generally heard a lot more, and in a lot more detail and less tendentiously and cutesily, from, gasp, CCTV America," he wrote on his blog in April.)
Currently, the bureau produces seven hours of English-language content per week split across three shows, but plans to grow to over 20 hours by next spring, and to add over a dozen more producers and correspondents. "The mentality is expand, expand, expand" said Dury. Half of the service’s new coverage will emphasize business, Laurie said, "because the Chinese believe that the business of China is business."
Thanks to government investment and growing revenues from big advertisers in China like Procter and Gamble and Coca-Cola, CCTV’s own business is booming. The network now boasts international channels in five languages and claims a total global audience of about 125 million. In January, the company opened a studio in Nairobi, Kenya, and has plans to increase the size of its overseas staff dramatically by 2016. New production centers in Europe, Asia-Pacific, and the Middle East are scheduled to open by the end of 2015. The eventual idea, Makori explained, is to rely on a continuous flow of reports from outposts around the world, "a global 24-hour news operation — we come to America during its relevant hours, go to Kenya, and China."
Beyond CCTV, China’s news media reach now extends from mobile phones in Nairobi to newsstands in London to the radio dial in Boston, where WILD-AM, formerly home to the city’s "home for classic soul and R&B," now hosts the state-owned broadcaster China Radio International. Cut-rate prices on syndicated articles and news footage have made Chinese outlets a popular source for media organizations in developing nations. CCTV has also formed partnerships with Western media organizations, inking syndication deals with Reuters, the Associated Press, and NBC.
Even as China deals with a decline in exports and a softening economy, the global economic tumult has also given Beijing a new opening to lucrative resource-for-development deals in Africa and Latin America, and boosted its confidence in promoting a "China model" of development. The same holds true in the media industry. With budgets shrinking and bureaus shutting among major news outlets, the tumult has left room for new entrants. CCTV America claims to have more television correspondents in Africa and Latin America than either Al Jazeera, CNN, or the BBC, and is one of the only major services to boast of a bureau in Havana (one October story by former BBC correspondent Michael Voss even examined Cuba’s "democratically questionable" upcoming elections). "Global TV news competition has only gotten stiffer over the past 10 years," says Dave Marash, Al Jazeera English’s first American anchor, and an ABC veteran. "It’s broken the mold of Western dominance of news media, and who gets to define ‘current affairs.’"
The rise of state-funded English-language television outlets from places like France, Iran, and Russia has made the State Department anxious, and led a frustrated Hillary Clinton in March of 2011 to praise Al Jazeera for its "real news around the clock instead of a million commercials," while lamenting the de-funding of Voice of America. "CCTV already has a tremendous influence on Africa and certain parts of the Middle East, too," says media scholar Ying Zhu and author of Two Billion Eyes, a book-length investigation of the network published in October 2012. "It’s building its empire in regions where Western media are having trouble."
In 2011, two years after President Hu Jintao announced a $7 billion plan for China to "go out" into the world, a shake-up at CCTV landed Hu Zhanfan at the top of the media empire’s hierarchy. The former editor of Beijing-based intellectual newspaper Guangming Daily, CCTV head Hu had cautioned journalists against placing the truth above Party loyalty, reminding them that news must always reflect "our party and country’s political stance."
Even as reforms meant to loosen state control over the media industry began in 2009, CCTV was not among the companies chosen for reorganization. Right now, weeks away from a once-in-a-decade leadership transition on Nov. 15, thinking outside of the box is not encouraged, said political scientist Joseph Nye. "There are some people in the system who clearly get it. But right now is not the time to stick their heads above the fox hole."
While a near-monopoly on advertising in China earns CCTV over $2 billion in revenues each year, CCTV is still funded by the government, which still exercises editorial control, just as it has since its launch, as Beijing Television, in 1958. "They’ve got the mechanics down to a ‘T,’" says David Shambaugh, director of George Washington University’s China Policy Program. "But the substance is another story. You have Western faces with unstilted English reading off teleprompters. The key question is, what’s on the teleprompter?"
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For an hour each weekday at 9pm Eastern time, a program called Biz Asia America — anchored by Makori and Philip Yin, both veterans of Bloomberg News — features top national and international stories. Aside from business and political news in Asia and the Americas, the service includes reports from correspondents in cities across Europe and the Middle East, delivering dispatches on stories like Spain’s growing reliance on Chinese trade, Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Turkey, and volunteer medical centers in Greece.
The day begins with a morning pitch meeting, where the evening’s prospective stories are discussed. Nothing is off limits, but editorial decisions ultimately fall with Chinese news managers, led by Director General Ma Jing, who have relocated from Beijing. (Ma Jing and all Chinese staff contacted declined to be interviewed for this story.) "There’s vigorous debate about what stories will be covered on that day," said Laurie. "It’s a process you see in every newsroom, wherever you are. But when there’s a lack of decision, then the managing editor who’s Chinese will step in."
The roughly 10,000 people that work at CCTV around the world produce over 20 channels, from sports to entertainment to news, all intended to serve the network’s ultimate mandate: promote the values of the Communist Party. Still, Laurie believes that CCTV’s newest foreign broadcasts have arrived at a critical juncture for China, amidst an embryonic debate about further loosening foreign media from the restrictions that dictate domestic broadcasts. "The people that I have learned to know since 2007," he said, "have been bright, sometimes courageous, young journalists who, just like journalists in Europe and America, want to do good journalism, want to push the envelope, want to be responsible people."
"Our operation has to be guided in the end by the limits that Beijing would allow," said Laurie, who speaks in the tidy sentences of a seasoned television correspondent. "There’s no getting around that." Still, Laurie likes to urge skeptics to stay tuned. The idea with CCTV America, he said, was "to do broadcasts that would be able to push the envelope in ways that weren’t possible before on China’s domestic television."
Laurie’s relationship with CCTV is in many ways as complex and puzzling as the media conglomerate itself. While he began working with the company in 2007, his first encounter with CCTV was in the late 1970s, on a black-and-white television across the border in Hong Kong. As a young reporter for ABC News when China was still in the thrall of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Laurie and his colleagues would gather over bottles of beer and study CCTV’s 7:00 p.m. domestic news broadcast for clues to the current ranking of Communist officials. "We’d take a stopwatch and measure how many seconds each leader had [on screen]," he said, referring to a longstanding practice on CCTV of allotting screen time to officials according to their standing in the Party. The more airtime officials receive the more in favor they’re seen to be. The young journalists would then trek out to the border between Hong Kong and China and look longingly across. "I remember thinking," said Laurie, "‘shit, why can’t I be in there?’"
A few years after winning a Peabody Award for his reporting for NBC in Vietnam in 1975, Laurie landed in Beijing as one of the city’s first Western correspondents in decades. In 1989, when students began gathering in Tiananmen Square, ABC sent Laurie, who was then chief of its Moscow bureau, back to Beijing to cover the protests.
In the late morning hours of June 5, 1989, after witnessing soldiers shoot at dozens of civilians as they fled for safety in and around Tiananmen Square, Laurie and a producer turned down a side street. In the crowd they spotted a tall man in a sport coat named Xiao Bin, frantically ranting about what he had witnessed and overheard from others. "The bastards killed thousands!" said the man, a factory worker from the northern city of Dalian, when they interviewed him. "Tanks ran over people. Crushing them." While no official death tally exists, estimates of the dead, including soldiers, now range from the hundreds to the thousands.
As Chinese officials rushed to cover up the events of the previous night, Laurie and his colleague managed to send their footage to Hong Kong for transmission by satellite to ABC’s studios in New York. But somehow, someone in Beijing was watching.
"The Chinese — and its unclear to me this day how they actually did it — intercepted the outgoing signal," said Laurie. The unencrypted signal from Hong Kong had been hijacked. Around the time that ABC’s audiences in New York listened to Xiao Bin’s testimony, so did 200 million Chinese viewers of CCTV, with a subtitle underneath: "This man is wanted," it read. "’He is a rumor-monger and counter revolutionary. Please turn him in to your nearest Security Bureau office.’"
A few days later, Xiao was turned in, and in a public hearing also broadcast on CCTV, accused of "hooliganism" and forced to apologize for spreading "rumors." He was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp.
Laurie was horrified. "The Xiao Bin story is probably the most traumatic journalistic event in my life," he said. "Very rarely in a career as a journalist do you, in effect, send someone to prison. The story is very complicated, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, you can always say ‘that could have been prevented if you had done A, B, and C.’ But in the context of the day after the Tiananmen massacre, it was almost unavoidable, in a way."
Laurie returned to Moscow to witness the end of the Soviet Union, and in 1994 reported on South Africa’s democratic transition under Nelson Mandela, earning more plaudits along the way. But the memory of Xiao Bin lingered. In 1997, he returned to Beijing, and learned that Xiao had been released after five years. "He was living quietly, but I can’t say happily, back in his hometown of Dalian." Through a friend, Laurie sent a few hundred dollars. "Once you go through the Chinese prison system, your life is pretty messed up."
Laurie, who taught journalism at Hong Kong University from 2005 to 2011, acknowledges the irony of his consulting for the network that once turned his reporting against an innocent man. But, now 65, he points out, mustering a chuckle, that the current group of CCTV America’s Chinese editors "were all four years old in 1989." And given his experience, he sees his role as nudging the network in a more open direction, an approach he said some elements at CCTV have tried to embrace. "There are limitations, and they’re constantly trying to find ways they can work around those limitations. They absorb some ideas [from me], adopt some and not adopt others."
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Despite the challenges, a tough economy with dwindling prospects for television journalists can make the attraction of a job at a place like CCTV hard to resist. Western staff at CCTV like Laurie and Makori have been lured by the promise of highly competitive salaries, bigger responsibilities, and ample resources for travel and production. And it’s a chance to be on the ground floor of China’s first big foray into Western media.
"China is the emerging/emerged superpower, so it was a no-brainer for me," Makori explained after a taping of her show in April at the NASDAQ site in Times Square. A few blocks away, the square’s tallest billboard was cycling through a bucolic slideshow of Chinese landscapes — an advertisement for Xinhua, the state-owned wire service that’s another beneficiary of Beijing’s media push.
"It’s like getting on the ground floor of Facebook or Google. You already know that China’s going to be a huge player," she said. "It’s exciting, it’s innovative. China’s obviously pegged to be one of the global leaders, if not the global leader. So for me as a journalist to develop expertise in China, that’s not a bad career move."
Makori told me that even though Chinese editors in Washington and Beijing vetted all stories, censorship was not an explicit policy, and said she was surprised that her reporting on more sensitive issues, like trade disputes, hadn’t been a problem.
"Honestly, a part of me thought that these would be taboo topics, but on the contrary, we highlight them," said Makori, in her light South African accent. "We really try to have a balanced view of both sides, but we make sure to also show the Chinese side of the story." Asked if there were omissions, she said that editorial freedom was greater at CCTV than at a previous employer, SABC, South Africa’s state broadcaster. "I can tell you that CCTV, in my experience, has not been controlling at all from an editorial point of view, from a content point of view — certainly not more so than any other news channel that I’ve worked at."
Nina Donaghy, who left her job as a reporter at the BBC to work as the network’s Washington correspondent, insisted that her coverage was not done "in coordination" with Beijing. "Otherwise I wouldn’t be here, frankly. With my kind of background, I wouldn’t."
Censorship isn’t the network’s only challenge. Distribution remains a hurdle. While CCTV already has greater reach in the United States than Al Jazeera, finding the channel on your television can be difficult, and the network hasn’t generated much buzz among viewers or critics. Like some other foreign broadcasters in the United States, there are no public ratings for CCTV America. Its clunky, often poorly translated website occasionally descends into accidental comedy ("Egypt’s Mubarak in comma, but ‘not clinically dead’" [sic]), and its live stream is often broken. It was only after Barbara Dury’s lobbying, she said, that CCTV agreed in June to launch its first channel on YouTube — a service, she noted with a chuckle, that’s banned in China.
Laurie is hoping to solve CCTV’s distribution problem in the United States by getting the channel into hotel rooms, a tactic that helped CNN gained traction among business travelers during the 1990s. For now, the hopes of CCTV America’s journalists are pinned on emulating the success of that upstart from Qatar. "I remember when Al Jazeera started, people called it ‘the terror network,”’ said Walter. "But now, years later, they’re producing really quality stuff that’s being recognized. That’s what I hope for CCTV. I think it will just get better."
Still, CCTV’s Western employees are taking their new jobs in stride. Donaghy complained that the CCTV label can be an annoying liability. "You get some comments. Running from, ‘I’m sure you’re paid a fortune!’ to ‘Do you speak Chinese?’" When The Heat host Mike Walter, a former anchor at the CBS affiliate in Washington, interviewed for his CCTV job, the station’s chief Ma began by reading him a newspaper report skeptical of the new network. "The argument was, it’s basically going to be a puppet for the Chinese government, basically a propaganda instrument, and she said, ‘what do you think of that?’" recounted Walter. "I said, ‘obviously it was a concern of mine. I don’t want me working for CCTV to change the circuitry in my brain.’"
"Personally, I think their mission is to learn as much as they can," said Donaghy. "And to open up, and to look to the United States to see how to run an international cable network. They’re very open. It’s very early days yet."
Being on the ground floor also means the chance to do good reporting on topics that can’t offend government sensibilities — and, perhaps, on topics that might. "The wall is always shifting," said Walter, whose TV anchor affability seems to belie an eagerness to probe some boundaries. "It’s always good to bump up against a wall and see how strong it is, and whether there’s some softness. I think we are going to chart new territories."
With broader distribution, the network may have a chance to woo audiences in Latin America and Africa, where television reporting has dwindled in recent years. To make inroads in the United States, CCTV will continue to focus on business stories, coupled with a greater emphasis on cultural documentaries about Chinese history, culture, and nature — programming that projects a "cute" image of the country, says Ying, the media scholar. As for its news content, "CCTV won’t change until the government changes."
Marash, Al Jazeera English’s first American anchor, cautioned against writing off the network just yet. If it can manage to loose itself of Beijing’s grip, gain wider distribution, and sway audiences with marquee interviews and exclusive coverage of the Chinese economy, for instance, it might find a foothold on Wall Street, if not on Capitol Hill. "And it’s almost certainly going to get better."
But Walter said that pushing the envelope, even a little bit, was a challenge for the network’s newest journalists, and for the Chinese producers who serve as a middleman with Beijing.
"You got all these Western journalists who want to push this further, and then you work with the other side which says, ‘wait, don’t push too much.’ They have to find a happy balance and operate within these confines. That’s not easy."
"American journalists have the attitude that it’s better to ask forgiveness rather than permission," added Walter. "In China, it’s better to ask permission than forgiveness. We’ve run headlong into that. The approach is very different. It’s something that will be a struggle here."
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Laurie and a camerawoman reported on the Tiananmen Square Massacre together. In fact, it was a producer. Foreign Policy regrets the error.
Clarification: In an earlier version of the story, Jim Laurie recounted an incident about his reporting during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Laurie later said he misspoke when describing that incident; the latest version of this story has been updated with that quote omitted.