China’s Long Tentacles Extend Deep Into American Media
One unfortunate casualty of media consolidation could be the objectivity of news at a time of rising tensions with China. According to Gallup, public approval of the media’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is the lowest out of the nine institutions surveyed, the only net negative on the list. Many more Americans approve of the president’s response.
There are three reasons why the public is right to be skeptical, all of which have been on display during the coronavirus pandemic. One is a credulity toward experts. Max Fisher of the New York Times tweeted on Monday, in response to growing skepticism toward Chinese claims that they’ve brought the outbreak under control, “If your well-grounded concern is that official Chinese data can never be trusted, it’s worth considering that the WHO is vouching firsthand for the country having achieved a major turnaround.”
The tweet linked to an interview with Canadian epidemiologist and World Health Organization advisor Bruce Aylward, who spent last Friday dodging a Hong Kong journalist’s questions about Taiwan in an interview that really has to be seen to be believed. Setting aside the other evidence that the WHO has been co-opted by China, this is a little embarrassing.
The second reason is the worldview of most journalists. These were the same people who told the public in February they should be more worried about the flu, or stigma against Asian Americans, than the virus itself.
The third reason is that many media companies either do business with China or are paid by the government in some way. This one is potentially more insidious than the other two.
The companies that own the major news networks, NBC, ABC, and CBS, all do significant business in China. On the print side, top U.S. newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times have been criticized for running paid China Daily inserts. What they were paid for these inserts is still unknown.
By contrast, conservative news companies are much less involved in China. Conservative radio giant Salem, whose attempt to buy Tribune several years ago provoked an enormous freakout from media reporters over consolidation, is all-American. And Fox, after several troubled attempts to break into the Chinese market—including sending a News Corp team to help build People’s Daily a website—has mostly given up, after selling its Asia-Pacific operations to Disney over the last two years.
Disney owns ABC and has a park in Shanghai. It also owns ESPN, which was criticized for its coverage of China’s retaliation against the NBA earlier this year over one team owner’s support of the Hong Kong protests. But other than ABC, Disney is relatively uninvolved in news.
Comcast, on the other hand, has a much larger footprint in the U.S. media landscape, between NBC News, CNBC, and MSNBC. The company’s role in fostering cultural exchange is truly historic: they’ve brought to millions of American homes a customer service experience akin to a utility provider in a communist country, and have invested billions to bring “Minion Land” and a Harry Potter village to Beijing, with the help of a state-owned investment vehicle.
What might the Chinese government do if it were displeased with something that ran on MSNBC? Perhaps they’d have a tense conversation with their partners at 30 Rockefeller Plaza about the forthcoming slate of movie releases in China. Or it might be worse, given their decision to cut off all NBA games to retaliate against one team owner.
But evidently China is pleased with their partnership so far, and no NBC journalists had their residency permits pulled earlier this month. A March 10 post on the New York consulate’s website touted a recent meeting with Comcast execs:
Comcast Corporation is not only the participator of the increasingly close cultural exchanges, but also the contributor and beneficiary of deeper economic exchanges between China and the US. The NBC and the Universal Studios Theme Park in Beijing are witnesses of the in-depth development of Sino-US economic and trade relations and increasingly close cultural exchanges.
Consul General Huang Ping made a point of discussing China’s response to the coronavirus, as well as news coverage in the U.S.: “China’s prevention and control practices have earned valuable time and experience for other countries. …We hope that the NBC and other U.S. media will objectively and fairly report China’s efforts to control the epidemic.”
At this point, there should be no doubt that the Chinese government would not view it as objective or fair to question their initial response to the epidemic or their case numbers now. And it’s not hard to see an implied threat in the consulate’s statement: nice theme park you’ve got there, it’d be a shame if something happened to it.
A few weeks after the meeting, NBC News stories appeared saying the only new coronavirus cases in China had come from foreigners, and another one about China asserting its global leadership. These stories would no doubt be considered objective and fair by the Chinese diplomatic corps, but it’s a level of credulity NBC News would never take with, say, the Trump administration.
This kind of corruption looks very different from Paul Manafort trying to sneak an ostrich jacket through customs. Yet it’s still troubling all the same.
J. Arthur Bloom is the managing editor at The American Conservative.