RED STAR OVER THE UN: The Media Downplays Human Rights in China
the United Nations opens its Millennial Summit in New York September 6 with an
expected 150 heads of state in attendance, the world organization is trying to
refocus its mission and revive its credibility. (Never mind the cost of staging
the world's most expensive photo op, or the absence of clear and agreed-upon
priorities. Never mind the organization's internal divisions and continuing lack
of adequate external support--e.g., the United States has yet to pay back dues!
And let's not even discuss the indignity of developer Donald Trum's fast-rising
and hideous 90-story luxury condo across the street, which will overshadow the
UN building itself. Realty trumps reality in this town every day.)
UN is desperate for favorable publicity. By inviting so many majordomos, Kofi
& Co. can at least bank on their entourages of traveling
journalists--"the boys on the plane"--to get the story into the media
worldwide. Unfortunately, the UN seems to receive more coverage on a regular
basis in Nigeria than New York, where its ongoing activities rarely get any
attention unless there is a scandal or the United States is rallying the world's
nations for a military adventure.
week's main sideshow is the visit of two top Chinese leaders, Li Peng, now head
of China's National People's Assembly but best remembered as the "Butcher
of Beijing" for ordering the tanks into Tiananmen Square in 1989, and
President Jiang Zemin, who will be meeting privately with U.S. President Bill
Clinton. I saw parliamentarians from all over the world shmoozing with the well
guarded LI at a UN reception and learned that while he was welcomed, Ricardo
Alarcon, the president of Cuba's National Assembly had been barred by the US.
has launched a new PR offensive complete with a two-part Mike Wallace interview
on "60 Minutes," now owned by Viacom.. CBS hyped its
"exclusive" thus: "The discussion between Wallace and Jiang
ranges in tone from slightly tense to lighthearted and humorous. Wallace asks
all the difficult questions." I love that phrase, "difficult
questions," don't you? "Difficult" for whom, Mike? Jiang? Did I
miss something? Isn't asking difficult questions what journalists are supposed
to do? Would news programs in an earlier era boast of their "lighthearted
and humorous" exchanges with a repressive dictator? (Jiang sings a song
during the interview) Will CBS end up humanizing Jiang with all that
lighthearted and humorous banter? An interview some time back on CNN between
Jiang and then-Beijing correspondent Andrea Koppel, (daughter of Ted,) did just
that! Jiang's handlers know how well he can dodge the uninformed
let's-all-be-friends questions of U.S. interviewers.
big TV score may be linked to the hiring of, a high-priced PR firm best known
for hyping China apologist Rupert Murdoch (but less successful at plugging
MediaChannel), and the opening of a $7 million cultural expo at New York's
Javits Center that then will travel nationwide. (From the press release:
"The exhibition will offer an unprecedented look at the beauty and
diversity of China. The event is being presented free to the people of New York
as a gift from the People's Republic of China.") This is intended to
upgrade China's image before the U.S. Senate takes up the China Permanent Normal
Trade Relations (PNTR, formerly known as permanent most favored nation status)
issue. The bill, which has more to do with U.S. investments than bilateral
trade, passed after acrimonious debate last spring in the House of
Representatives. The legislation exempts China from having its human rights
record considered in any way that can impede American companies making money
there. (Of political interest is how this affects the Gore campaign. Al backs
the bill; most of his labor supporters do not.)
for China's big budget expo (read propaganda show), I was struck that two U.S.
media moguls are honorary sponsors: TimeWarner's Gerald Levin and Viacom's
Sumner Redstone Both do business in China and both have toadied up to the
Chinese government before. On September 28, 1999, in the midst of China's fierce
crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement , Sumner Redstone, who was about
to merge his giant Viacomese nation with CBS, was in Shanghai for a conference
hosted by TimeWarner-owned Fortune magazine and keynoted by President Jiang.
the delight of the Beijing government, Redstone called for American press
restraint in the coverage of China. The media, he said, should report the truth
but avoid being "unnecessarily offensive" to foreign governments.
"As they expand their global reach, media companies must be aware of the
politics and attitudes of the governments where we operate... Journalistic
integrity must prevail in the final analysis. But that doesn't mean that
journalistic integrity should be exercised in a way that is unnecessarily
offensive to the countries in which you operate." Right, Sumner, let's keep
it lighthearted and humorous.
kind of signal do you think this sends? And talk about one-way appeasement. At
the conference itself, the Chinese brazenly censored a TIME magazine special on
China, published by Mr. Levin's TimeWarner. As one news report explained,
"The edition, whose masthead was emblazoned with the headline 'China's
Amazing Half-Century,'" fell foul of Chinese censors by including articles
by exiled dissidents Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan and the Tibetan Dalai Lama.
Obviously, TimeWarner was not pissed off enough to stay away from proudly
endorsing the Chinese government's New York expo.
rights doesn't register too highly on the media's corporate agenda, any more
than it seems to over at the UN. At Beijing's request, that body also excluded
the Dali Lama from a meeting of world religious leaders. An "official"
Chinese delegation was permitted to take part, which promptly hewed to the
government line by further denouncing Falun Gong as an "evil cult."
this same line has been regurgitated uncritically in many U.S. news reports as
well. In late August, the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Washington
Post all ran strong reports on China's massive abuses of ordinary practitioners,
but such reports are so few and far between that the public still has very
little idea of the extent of China's human rights violations: in a little more
than a year, 24 Falun Gong practitioners died under mysterious circumstances,
with 50,000 arrested, pervasive torture and the incarceration of people wiithout
due process in labor camps and mental hospitals. That is why I wrote "Falun
Gong's Challenge to China” (Akashic Books), in which the testimonials of
people we otherwise never hear from can be read. I also talk about the pathetic
quality of most news reporting on the issue by media companies who evidently
prefer doing business with China to asking "difficult questions" or
exposing human rights violations.
Gong's perspective (real interviews, not soundbites) was mostly missing from the
news stories, not only after Chinese practitioners were silenced but also for
institutional reasons that have to do with the structure of overseas news
coverage. Few news organizations solicit comments in the United States for
China-based stories. So if voices are silenced in China, they are rarely heard
at all, since what human rights groups or Falun Gong followers overseas say is
not usually considered part of a China correspondent's beat. This though Falun
Gong practitioners are accessible on the Internet.
problem has to do with language and how stories are framed. In the case of Falun
Gong, many news outlets, perhaps unconsciously, used the same language that the
Chinese state media used in labeling Falun Gong a cult or a sect, and sometimes
both in the same story. One Reuters story didn't know how to identify them so
used the term "mishmash." (A Chinese practitioner asked me what the
word meant.) In England, after a complaint was filed with a press oversight body
regarding the use of the term "cult," an editor told me with a
chuckle, "Well, we just voluntarily stopped using it. Then we just began
calling them a sect."
Rights Watch Director Ken Roth told me that the American press doesn't know
quite what to call Falun Gong either. It's not a religion. It's not really just
an exercise group. It's some kind of mystical combination of things that
doesn't fit into an easy label. And so perhaps out of laziness, many Western
journalists have simply started using the Chinese government's terminology,
which is that of cult. It's another example of the Big Lie: If you repeat a lie
often enough, it's taken as the truth. And that's something that's
not easy to report on human rights or worker protests in China, and the
situation is made more complicated when Western news agencies put business
interests above their journalistic responsibilities. MediaChannel.org readers
will recall the whistleblower account by Beatrice Turpin, a former producer for
Associated Press Television News (APTN), who believes her commitment to covering
the Falun Gong story led to her dismissal and subsequent expulsion from China.
Chinese government has also tightened its already stringent control of the media
since the crackdown began. The Press and Publications Administration announced
in early January 2000 that 27 newspapers and publications had been punished for
violating press regulations. The Information Center of Human Rights and
Democratic Movement in China revealed in December 1999 that 200 local
newspapers, accounting for 10 percent of the country's total, would be shut down
in the year 2000 to allow the central government to reassert control over a
press that might be deviating from the Party line.
the Falun Gong conflict has become a communications tragedy: China cannot hear
the appeals of its own citizens, while the world media does not hear, or make a
serious commitment to report, the ongoing cries of this significant new
spiritual force. After a closer look at coverage of Falun Gong, it is easy to
see that the American media and the Chinese media are not as different as they
first appear. All too often, the world of news and the world of newsmakers are
the world's leaders gather in New York, and as protesters from Tibet and Falun
Gong challenge the Chinese government and speak out on other issues, pay
attention to whose voices are reported--and whether already compromised media
companies give them the attention they deserve.
Danny Schechter is the executive editor of MediaChannel.org. Parts of this column appear in "Falun Gong's Challenge to China" (Akashic Books).