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China’s Programming for U.S. Audiences: Is it News or Propaganda?

March 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
China Central Television has opened a new broadcast bureau in Washington, D.C., and is now producing news programs in English for an American audience. Leaders at CCTV America say they uphold traditional journalistic values, but critics say the programs may look like news, but they really are propaganda. Ray Suarez reports.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, a look at China’s latest efforts to communicate with the rest of the world From Washington, D.C.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: This program looks like it could be from anywhere, flashy computer-generated graphics, a clean, sharp, modern set, competent, professional news anchors.

They’re at work with producers, editors and writers from around the world in a brand spanking new state-of-the-art studio in Washington, D.C.

MAN: Full coverage from there when they arrive.

RAY SUAREZ: Across the globe, you can tune in the BBC, Russia Today, France 24, each with different degrees of editorial independence.

The Chinese government looked at the international broadcasters and decided it had to be in that business, too. This is Chinese Central Television America.

PHILLIP YIN, news anchor, CCTV America: It is 9:00 p.m. in Washington and 9:00 a.m. in Beijing.

Ma Jing is the director general of CCTV America.

MA JING, director general, CCTV America: This is the natural outgrowth of China’s Central Television. CCTV has 42 channels which can reach 1.2 billion audience in China. But the domestic market is almost saturated. So we’re only seeking a growth point on the global market.

RAY SUAREZ: Chinese government-owned and -operated, CCTV America rolled out last month, unveiling three new programs in English for American viewers.

Americans can watch CCTV on cable and satellite systems across the country. “Biz Asia America” one hour, five nights a week reports on general news with an emphasis on economics, finance, trade, and business, as it relates to North and South America and China.

Former Bloomberg and CNBC correspondent Phillip Yin is the lead anchor.

PHILLIP YIN: This is a group of international journalists that are working together for one single common goal. And in my case, it’s really to demonstrate business news from an international perspective.

RAY SUAREZ: Mike Walter, who worked at a CBS News affiliate in Washington, D.C., is the general news anchor and hosts Saturday night’s talk and debate show “The Heat.”

MIKE WALTER, news anchor, CCTV America: In many respects, it’s a fascinating place to work. You’ve got people from all over the world here and from every network you can imagine. So it’s been an incredible experience.

RAY SUAREZ: CCTV also wants to keep an eye on the rest of the hemisphere. A new show, “Americas Now,” is produced by former “60 Minutes” producer Bob Radori and focuses on Central and Latin America.

WOMAN: A phone call is making international headlines.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s all a natural outgrowth of the Chinese government’s desire to make its views known around the world, says Jim Laurie. He’s a former ABC and NBC correspondent and now he’s a consultant to CCTV.

JIM LAURIE, Senior Consultant, CCTV America: Clearly, the Chinese want to have their perspectives on the international stage. They feel that there are areas of the world that are important to China that are undercovered, they’re not covered sufficiently by the traditional networks.

WOMAN: CCTV’s correspondent Sean Callebs, who is live here in Washington tonight — Sean.

RAY SUAREZ: But producing content in the United States for an American audience is motivated by another factor, according to longtime China watcher Susan Shirk.

SUSAN SHIRK, director, Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, University of California: And the Chinese government thinks that, as a major global player, they should have their own media organizations operating around the world, just as the U.S. does, the Europeans do, the Japanese do, and even the Arab world has.

RAY SUAREZ: So this is me-too-ism? Well, these big, important countries have this, so we should have it, too?

SUSAN SHIRK: I think it’s largely that.

RAY SUAREZ: CCTV is just the part of a larger Chinese government effort to speak to a wider world. Once a week, American newspapers include an insert published by the government newspaper. The country has beefed up its presence online.

And China’s government has supported the opening of more than 800 Confucius Institutes and classrooms like this one in George Mason University in Virginia where people can study Chinese language and culture.

But is CCTV free, independent journalism? Is it news?

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM, Cornell University: It looks and spells like state TV. It doesn’t really strike me as being different just because there’s a studio in Washington. I think it’s still propaganda.

RAY SUAREZ: Philip Cunningham has lived on and off in China for over three decades working as a journalist for various Western news organizations. He’s appeared on China Central Television talk shows in Beijing more than 100 times.

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: You know, in a lot of ways, CCTV Washington is an active imagery. And it sounds like the news. You have the format. You have the chit-chat. You have, okay, now over to you, and you have all the remote cameras and stuff. And it looks just like a Western news product.

But the agenda, the hidden agenda, the political commissars who examine and help control and shape the daily news and what the topics will be are not working for the sake of letting chips fall where they may. They’re working for the greater reputation of China.

RAY SUAREZ: This theme, that journalists are supposed to echo government’s line, was spelled out by the president of CCTV. Speaking before China’s National Media Association last year, Hu Zhanfan said, “The first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly and being a good mouthpiece.”

According to reports, he said, “Journalists who think of themselves as professionals, instead of as propaganda workers, were making a fundamental mistake about identity.”

Cunningham says CCTV America’s news programs show this type of bias. I asked him if any stories reflected Beijing’s hand.

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Somebody who was interviewed by the show wrote to me and told me what he talked about and went through everything that they covered. And he said, “I bet this won’t make it on the air.”

RAY SUAREZ: Cunningham discussed the incident on condition that the CCTV guest not be named. But the NewsHour confirmed that the interview which appeared on “Biz Asia America” and on “The Heat” was heavily edited.

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: And it was just cut to pieces. And I know for a fact that there was discussion of Tibet. There was discussion of Xinjiang. There was discussion of having whistleblower, of having the Chinese media become more free, of having elections. And all five of those things were cut. And what was left was fairly innocuous.

RAY SUAREZ: While reporting outside China doesn’t worry CCTV’s leadership, Susan Shirk says stories about sensitive internal issues are a different matter.

SUSAN SHIRK: The leaders of CCTV are Chinese Communist Party officials from the propaganda apparatus and increasingly from the internal security apparatus. The red lines are mostly about reporting Chinese domestic developments.

RAY SUAREZ: But CCTV officials say they edit their stories the same way other news organizations do.

MA JING: We uphold the traditional journalistic values. We consider accuracy, objectivity, truthfulness, and public accountability very important, more important than anything else.

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: I don’t see people coming and saying, Mike, you have got to change this script. It hasn’t happened.

RAY SUAREZ: In an email to the NewsHour, CCTV consultant Jim Laurie strongly objected to the allegation of censorship.

He wrote that correspondent “Wang Guan was commissioned to do a story that fit into the context of 40 years of U.S.-China relations, looking back at Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and his meeting with Mao. Wang’s interview was meant to reflect Mao and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, not on Tibet, Xinjiang or the price of eggs. I would argue those issues were irrelevant to the profile that was commissioned.”

Wang Guan told us when we visited CCTV America that the president of CCTV’s comments about journalists as government mouthpieces have been exaggerated and misunderstood.

WANG GUAN, CCTV America: I think it was taken, to some extent, out of context. That was an hour-long address made by the president. I think he also mentioned the fact that journalists should also to adhere to the principles of reporting news in an objective manner.

RAY SUAREZ: But it’s the mistrust of CCTV editing that caused Shirk to decline the broadcaster’s invitation to be a regular participant on their programs.

SUSAN SHIRK: I have my doubts about the journalistic integrity of the organization at this point. And I’m hoping to be proven wrong. Let’s see how they do.

RAY SUAREZ: Shirk says the Chinese leadership is divided between those who understand the need for a truly free press and those who want government control over what’s reported.

SUSAN SHIRK: This battle over media freedom is still under way inside China, and it will be interesting to see how CCTV reflects that.

RAY SUAREZ: The journalists we spoke to at CCTV America say they know they have to earn viewers’ trust and that the proof of their journalistic bona fides will depend on the stories they produce.

MAN: Thanks for watching. We will see you tomorrow.