In response to my post on the Olympic torch and the Tibetan flag, someone emailed me about the “incredible bias in the western media against China (would you agree?) There has been for some time. … The average [Chinese] person on the street doesn’t know anything about politics and cares even less. Making a fortune is the focus of things. But, after the CNN comments the whole nation is up-in-arms.”
I think the western media, to lump them all together, takes its watchdog role very seriously. Usually, far more seriously than it takes copyediting and proofreading – to judge by some of the gaffes I find.
It’s not a new thing. Tom Jefferson was ferociously critiqued, the British monarchs have been mocked since our Revolution, and when Eleanor Roosevelt simply tried to help minorities and children during the Depression the American press ridiculed her savagely.
Some liken the public exposure of the media to sunlight, or bleach, for its antiseptic properties. The only group semi-protected from this is the right wing. John McCain, for example, is rarely criticized the way Democrats are. While Obama is criticized for his pastor’s comments, McCain’s connections to right-wing fundamentalists and their crackpot claims practically get a free pass. I think its because the American media is owned by right-wingers.
Almost a half century ago, the American media focused a lot of attention on John Kennedy’s Catholicism. The question pushed to the forefront of people’s minds was whether the White House would be run by proxy from the Vatican. My grandmother was convinced Kennedy would take orders from the Pope – she didn’t come up with that question on her own. (Since then, JFK’s reputation has been redeemed. Somewhat. Now they tar him for his sex life.)
In the west, any powerful institution that tries to operate without criticism is exactly the kind of target journalists look for to prove their worth. Journalists are like puppies eager to chew. China, therefore, with its burgeoning power and its monolithic media and aversion to criticism becomes an easy target.
I can imagine how the Chinese feel it is unfair – I wish it were easier to show them the history of our media in this regard. In 1978 a Chicago journalist named Mike Royko mocked California governor Jerry Brown for wanting to use satellite hookups for schools. He called Brown “Governor Moonbeam.” The name stuck, and the image of Brown as spacey was effectively used against him all across America; his national aspirations were thwarted.
After his defeat in running for the Senate, Brown went to Japan for a while and studied Buddhism. Since then, schools did use satellite hookups – and 15 years after mocking Brown, Royko apologized for calling him Governor Moonbeam, saying Brown was just as serious as any other politician. By then, of course, the damage was done, and the caricature is how people nationwide think of him.
I once read a lengthy essay on power in China. The writer drew an oversimplified, general distinction. He said that, in the US, politicians will be publicly critical of each other, to show themselves and their opponents in stark contrast, but are often friendlier behind closed-doors. Capable of “backroom deals” with their opponents.
In China, politicians close ranks in public – they stress public harmony. It is only in private that they are comfortable disagreeing.
I don’t know how true this is. But it would explain why the Chinese have a very hard time with the public criticism they get from the western media.
My only question would be whether there might ever be a day when the Chinese come to value the watchdog properties of the media the way the west does.