(Image above: No western mainstream outlet has examined any possible relationship between their anti-Chinese coverage and attacks on Chinese-looking people in the west. Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash)
JOURNALISM IS IN TROUBLE. CNN spent a third of a billion US dollars to start a news channel they admitted they would close just 22 days later. Mistrust of mainstream reporters is soaring to record levels, the Edelman Barometer shows. The media’s pan-politicization of news events is being increasingly recognized as polarising and harmful to society.
These developments have triggered a global discussion in newsrooms, social media and industry associations, about the systemic fault lines that are destroying the industry. Three issues stand out.
1) LACK OF FAIRNESS
First, there’s an integrity issue, creating widespread distrust of mainstream news, the content from western sources ranging from Reuters to the New York Times that underlies international news coverage worldwide.
A key element is their perceived lack of fairness: they criticize everyone but themselves, said Glenn Greenwald (below), one of the world’s best known investigative reporters, who now works independently of mainstream journalism.
“It’s astonishing. Every relevant metric shows that corporate journalism is held in widespread contempt,” he said. “Nobody likes it, trusts it, or values it. Employees of media corporations complain about this, but never ask what they’ve done to cause it.”
Journalists revel in criticizing groups that get underhand cash from politicized sources – but turn a blind eye when they are the recipients of money from the same people.
POISON PEN FUND
A grating example is the US government’s notorious US$1.5 billion “poison pen” fund to attack the Chinese. This is ostensibly to “counter” China’s “malign influence”.
What influence? “[China’s] PR skills and its ability to create positive influence around the world is so bad that it should have a negative number,” says S.B., public relations executive based in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district who did not want his full name printed. “You don’t need to spend a cent. Everyone knows that if you want to make China look bad, just hand a microphone to Chinese officials.”
So where is that money ending up? The simple answer is: everywhere, albeit invisibly. Just look at how much negative press China gets, how steeply its reputation has fallen in the eyes of people around the world, and how easily people now believe clearly absurd facts, such as the regular allegations that China is “just days away” from invading Australia.
There are plenty of other examples. By minimizing or dismissing US political interventionism, such as during the protests in 2020 in Bangkok, 2019 in Hong Kong, and 2014 in Ukraine, the media damages its own reputation. Worst of all, major media groups including the BBC print reports sponsored by US arms makers with the funding sources hidden from readers—such as the the ASPI reports showing Google Map images of “concentration camps” in China, which turned out to be high schools and municipal buildings.
2) MEDIA BUSINESSES ARE BUSINESSES
A second systemic issue has always existed but has now come to the fore. Western-style journalism is a capital-intense, profit-seeking, highly politicized business, but staff prefer to present themselves as noble providers of a balanced, ethics-driven public service. Many people are no longer willing to tolerate this.
As honest money becomes tight in the industry, media firms desperately need to win clicks, and know that the quickest way is to create an enemy. The Chinese are the default choice, with the Russians providing an alternative this year. Pan-politicization gets more clicks. And it is true that bland, unemotional reportage of factual information (consider China Daily) gets virtually no clicks at all.
“Journalism died a slow death the minute the news became about making money,” says Phil Brown, a sports reporter. “Then it was no longer about informing people rather than a steady stream of [B.S.] designed to pacify their audience and create a hatred of the other side.”
The combination of being profit-driven and being ready to sacrifice principles for political partisanship is a deadly combination. One result is the way paid journalists and their official bodies are refusing to condemn blatant censorship of free speech, and sometimes encouraging it. The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, recently appeared to be attacking video-sharing site Rumble for failing to fall in line with censorship that other outlets had accepted.
Greenwald says: “It cannot be overstated: (a) how surreal and dangerous it is that the leaders of the campaign for greater censorship are ‘journalists’ (i.e., employees of large media corporations) and (b) how vital it is to have free speech platforms resisting this coercion to censor.”
3) HUGE EAST-WEST IMBALANCE
A third, and perhaps overwhelming systemic issue is this: the international media is produced by and for a small minority of the humanity. Western journalism, from Reuters to AP to AFP to the New York Times to the Daily Mail to the Guardian to the FT, dominate the global media space. But they are produced by, and serve, the western world, which is between eight and 16 per cent of the world’s population, depending on how you count it. Eight out of ten members of humanity don’t count.
“The core issue regarding global white media is that it isn’t global at all, but in fact highly parochial.”Chandran Nair, founder, Global Institute for Tomorrow
How does that distort the news? Case in point: There was a call for a “walk-out” at the recent G20 summit meeting, to object to the presence of a Russian in the room. In the event, 17 countries defied the walk-out call. Only three left the room. It was a startling failure.
Is that what the international media reported? No. It reported only the views of the three Western countries’ representatives who left the room, presenting it as a noble display of principle. Reports did not even bother to identify the 17 who defied the call – despite the fact that they included China and India, the world’s most populous nations. To international reporters, only western nations count. It is very hard to avoid the conclusion that racism, conscious or unconscious, is at least part of this.
Chandran Nair, quoted above, Australian commentator John Menadue, and many others have commented on the “white-stance-only” problem.
Could a non-western news sources rise to prominence? Both Al Jazeera and Channel News Asia were once seen as potential alternative voices, but neither has fulfilled the hopes placed in them, with both closely echoing Western stances.
Yet in recent years, the rise of social media has led to the growth of many smaller media outlets, particularly in Asia.
The interesting thing is that they are not Asian versions of Western media. They are often more Asian in character. This means they are less adversarial, less political, more conservative, less polarizing, more business-focused. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t speak truth to power – Chinese history is full of stories about the importance of emperors listening to advisors. They just do it more indirectly.
LESS SHOUTING, MORE ZEN
Journalist-turned-financial analyst Say Boon Lim, based in Australia, has urged his countrymen to take a subtle approach. “Without sacrificing our sovereign rights, we should be able to speak truth to power, without shouting it,” he wrote.
There are also plenty of individual voices who are willing to provide a balance to the Western narrative. On Twitter and/ or YouTube, there’s a growing following for people like Arnaud Bertrand, Jerry Grey, Andy Boreham, Fernando Munoz Bernal, Daniel Dumbrill, Brian Berletic, Mario Cavalo, Lee Barrett, Tom Fowdy, Carl Zha, Navina Heyden, “SK Boz” and others who present an alternative narrative, often generously laced with wit and humor.
There, perhaps, is the answer: The adversarial west may own almost all the international journalists—but the east has more people, of all cultures and backgrounds. And in these days when the democratization of the media space means that everyone can be a “citizen journalist”, a day when Asia is covered fairly is no longer impossible to envisage.
That’ll be good for everyone, east and west. As the Japanese poet Ryūnosuke Akutagawa said, “As individuals we are droplets, but together we are an ocean.”