Bias and the eye of the beholder

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At first, you don't see it at all

SOMETIMES I WONDER how people fail to see pervasive anti-China bias in the news. Other times I remember that I didn’t always see it myself.

And I recall a lesson about perception learned at a modest historic site in Japan.

Gohyaku Rakan, just outside of Tono in Iwate Prefecture, is a wooded hillside thickly strewn with mossy boulders. Upon these rocks an 18th century priest carved the faces of several hundred rakan (arhats or Buddhist saints) to bring solace after a series of famines.

I visited Tono some years ago, hiked to the edge of town, found a sign marking this lonely but pleasantly sun-dappled grove and . . . that was it.

At first, the scene looks entirely natural: Picture: Tono Tourism Association

I walked around looking for carvings and found none. I started to wonder how Gohyaku Rakan rated as a tourist attraction.

Then I chanced to see a carving in low relief, a face gazing mournfully through the moss. Having seen one, I saw another — and another, and another — until the grove was crowded with these haunting faces. Now I wondered how I’d failed to see them in the first place.

The answer was simple. I didn’t know what they looked like. Once I’d learned what to look for, I saw a face every which way I turned.

Spotting bias in the news works the same way. Once you recognize it, you see it everywhere.

SOLID WALL OF ‘NO’

My breakthrough came soon after I moved to Hong Kong late in the 1980s. Back then the South China Morning Post had a near monopoly on English-language news. On most topics, it was a lively debate platform with opinion columnists sparring on its pages.

When, though, the topic turned to conflict between Beijing and London or the Hong Kong colonial government, all diversity of opinion vanished. The columnists closed ranks to form a solid wall of “no” to Beijing.

With the enemy at the gates, the tribe invariably chose solidarity, no matter how flimsy or absent their arguments. But why was I able to transcend the tribe and see bias to which my friends and colleagues remained blind?

Maybe I was somewhat alienated from my natural expat tribe in Hong Kong. I had previously lived in Japan and Taiwan, where Americans like me dominated the expat community. In Hong Kong, by contrast, Britons and a few other Commonwealth nationalities held sway not only in expat social circles but also in government, journalism and other institutions of “their colony”.

Imperial privilege tended to deny to the rest of us full membership in the tribe, at least until seven years’ residence turned us into “belongers” with permanent residence.

For that or whatever reason, I first recognized anti-China bias when heightened in the South China Morning Post in tandem with cross-border tensions.

Then I started detecting it in the paper more generally.

Then I noticed it in the BBC and RTHK, the British broadcaster’s local clone and wannabe.

Finally, I became aware of pervasive anti-China bias in other news outlets, not least my daily International Herald Tribune — my own tribe!

REVELATION

Fast forward to Hong Kong riots in 2019. Coverage showed how brazenly biased and dishonest the press could be even in a city that was among the most wide open and fact-checkable in the world.

This revelation changed how I viewed coverage of any place with a government that the press loved to hate — Russia and Belarus, Iran and Syria, Myanmar and North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela — no longer just China and Hong Kong.

Now I spot what are probably distortions and omissions, perhaps lies, even where I don’t know the truth.

All I need are my Gohyaku Rakan eyes.

But, unlike that mossy, sun-dappled hillside in Japan, this stony news-scape offers no solace.

* * *

Top picture: Kai Cheng/ Unsplash; other pictures: Tono tourism boards

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