Kuora: The bias inherent in American media portrayals of China

Correspondent Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway with Chinese officers in Chonging, 1941.
Correspondent Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway with Chinese officers in Chonging, 1941.

The Bookworm Literary Festival in Beijing recently held its Committing Journalism panel, in which four foreign correspondents spoke thoughtfully about reporting in China. Kaiser, who was never a foreign correspondent but did plenty of reporting back in the day, counts China journalists as among his closest friends. Here, he answers a question originally posted on Quora on May 8, 2015:

How realistic is America’s media portrayal of China?

Like China itself, American media reporting on China is a paradox: It’s both realistic and not at all realistic. In the factual accuracy of stories, reputable media outlets from the U.S. usually do quite well. There are exceptions, but on balance, there’s a fairly rigorous standard for accuracy applied to reporting, and the many American reporters I know — the ones in China, where I live — are all people of great integrity.

Factual accuracy does not, however, get you all the way to “realistic.” But getting to realistic is, well, not very realistic.

The lens through which most Americans know what they think they know about China is, of course, the media, and that comprises individual people, all saddled with their own privileges and prejudices, all possessed of their own ideological or epistemic or ethical norms, all shaped by unseen cultural and historical forces. It’s not surprising that bias should exist. Of course it does. Anyone would be a fool to think otherwise.

But much of the lack of big-picture realism we see isn’t about that sort of bias, probably — not the “fault” of the reporters or the media outlets they represent. In large part, it’s structural: It’s simply impossible for a relatively small number of reporters (I’m guessing that there are maybe 50 or 60 American accredited reporters, and maybe twice that number of active freelancers, reporting for American media outlets in China) to cover so large, so diverse, and so complex a country “realistically.” The picture can only be partial. That means there will be a process of story selection: They’ll cover the bridge that collapses, and not the thousands that don’t. They won’t write the “dog bites man” stories — the banal, the quotidian.

American conceptions of the purpose of journalism put journalists quite naturally at odds with governments, corporations, and other foci of power. I don’t remember who it is who once said something like “Journalism is about printing what they don’t want you to print. Everything else is just PR.” That’s a statement that would likely resonate with most American reporters. They’ll go after stories that make power uncomfortable, and good for them for doing that! If there weren’t a certain antagonism, I’d feel like the Fourth Estate wasn’t doing its job: That’s what makes me uncomfortable when I see things like the White House Correspondents Association Dinner (“Nerd Prom”), when power and media look a bit too cozy.

No worries about that in China: Both sides make it abundantly clear how they feel about each other. That may serve the ends of good journalism well, but it doesn’t necessarily get us closer to big-picture realism. It doesn’t help that Beijing makes things very tough for reporters in China. There’s a vicious circle in play here, where shabby treatment of reporters at various levels, central and local — and this can include making access difficult, surveillance, harassment, denial of visa renewals, expulsion, and even in some cases roughing-up or detention — tends to lead to more negative reporting, which in turn begets more shabby treatment.

It should not be a surprise that given the structural limits, given the American assumptions about journalism’s proper role, given Beijing’s completely different conceptions of what journalism ought to be, and given the way journalists are too often treated in China, that there would be many stories devoted to official malfeasance, corruption, human rights violations, popular unrest, oppression of minorities or marginalized groups, inequality, censorship, environmental degradation, and so forth.

This is not by any means all there is to China. Nor is it all that’s being reported: Plenty of stories look at scrappy entrepreneurs, at China’s great success in infrastructure, in improving livelihoods, at the flourishing art scene, and much more. But it’s very easy for me to understand why it is that Chinese people who are attuned to U.S. coverage of China would find it very biased and unrepresentative.

There are times when I personally feel that bias is in play in ways that aren’t structural, and really can be fixed. Very recently I got into a (very civil) discussion with a Washington Post reporter who had run a piece headlined “China orders Muslim shopkeepers to sell alcohol, cigarettes, to ‘weaken’ Islam.” Reading the piece, though, it was clear that this was a policy ordered by officials (or an official) in one town in China. To call it “China” ordering this was, I thought, very misleading: It would give readers the impression that this was a national policy. Despite my arguments, and despite the fact that the reporter agreed that “China village officials order…as part of government campaign to weaken Islam” would be clearer, he said that there just wouldn’t have been room for that headline. He let it stand (as did his editor). I’m appealing this to a “higher court” and hope that it will be fixed: The last thing I want is to give people who believe that there’s a systematic, inherent bias in U.S. reporting on China any more ammunition.

A veteran reporter, James Fallows (national correspondent for The Atlantic), was on a panel with me at NYU Shanghai a few weeks ago, and he said something I thought was very true, if not very practicable: If China really wanted the U.S. (he said “Western,” I think) press to report more positively on China, it should reverse its current course of severely restricting the number of foreign correspondents in China, and make it easy for thousands to report here. Writing, as they necessarily would, on a much larger range of topics, overall coverage would improve and be more positive. After all, as Fallows said, “No reasonable person could look at what this country has done in the last 35 years and not conclude that they’ve gotten many things right.”

A great idea — but alas, it costs a lot of money to keep a correspondent in the field, and there’s a limited appetite domestically for China stories. Still, I do believe that Beijing is shooting itself in the foot in its attitudes toward foreign reporters. A more laissez-faire attitude, I think, would hurt in the short run but, I honestly believe, help very much in the long run.

Kuora is a weekly column.