Last week CCTV (China Central Television) held its “First international forum for audience & seminar” where they tried to get advice from foreign journalists on how to expand their international influence. CCTV International, which comprises six channels in six languages, is setting up more foreign bureaus and trying to increase its access to overseas viewers.
This is mostly part of an attempt to expand China’s soft power. According to the Wall Street Journal, China’s media is in a “45 billion yuan ($6.6 billion) push to have a greater influence abroad and counteract what they see as biased reporting from the foreign press.”
CCTV representatives repeated several times at the forum the idea of showing “the Chinese perspective” to the world. This, I think, is the fundamental problem with CCTV’s expansion goals.
How often do you watch France 24? Probably never, because they had the same premise. The TV station launched in 2006 with the stated mission “To cover international current events from a French perspective and to convey French values throughout the world.” They hoped to one day compete internationally with CNN and BBC.
The problem is, in spite of what they’ll tell you, most people don’t actually want to hear others’ perspectives. They want their own perspectives reinforced. It’s called Selective Exposure Theory. This is why Fox News is among the top rated cable news channels in the US, even though studies have shown their viewers are among the most misinformed. It’s a place where conservatives can congregate to have their views reinforced and avoid information that contradicts their beliefs. The same rings true with liberals and MSNBC. For both, it’s good business. They both have large audiences. But who outside of China is going to want information from the Chinese view? Pakistan? North Korea maybe?
Beyond a very niche market, most don’t want another country’s “perspective.” CNN and BBC’s international channels have succeeded because of extensive resources around the world that can cover events faster and better than others. They’re certainly not 100% objective but they’re not explicitly promoting the American or British “perspective” either. When I watched news of the 2008 Tibet riots, I didn’t really need CCTV’s perspectives like “Any attempt to split China is doomed to failure.” I just needed to know what the hell was happening.
The advantage CCTV has over France 24, or even BBC, is that a lot of people around the world actually care what’s happening inside China. Bloomberg Editor-at-Large Lee Miller said, “You [CCTV] have resources that we can’t compete with. You can access people that we can’t.”
But that comes to the most obvious problem: credibility. While the foreign journalists at the forum talked about some practical business and coverage strategies, it inevitably kept coming back to that same implicit issue.
Even if CCTV ditched the “Chinese perspective” and just tried to report objective news nobody else had access to, could anyone trust the government controlled outlet? The English channel often makes token overtures to prove they’re provocative to foreign audiences but they still mostly rely on the dry traditional “leaders are busy, people are happy, foreign countries are in chaos” format. Then there’s the whole thing with CCTV’s Chinese channels faking interviews and largely neglecting to report their own massive downtown Beijing fire.
Li Bin, a representative of CCTV, assured the audience that they’re dedicated to improving openness and objectivity. The crazy thing is I actually believe him. Al Jazeera was cited by the host of the forum as a good model at one point. They managed to overcome perceived anti-American bias in the wake of 9/11 to launch Al Jazeera English in 2006. Earlier this year my eyes were glued to the station as they covered the Arab Spring, simply because they had access and resources in the Middle-East nobody else had. Their success in the region has let them expand to the point that they can compete with CNN and BBC in many other places around the world. I remember during the first few hours of the Japanese earthquake their coverage was much better than both those outlets.
It’s obvious those at CCTV International know they have very little international credibility under present circumstances. And from talking to some CCTV reporters, I think they honestly do want to become a true spotlight on the good and the bad of China.
However, there was another English media outlet in China that had the same idea two years ago. They hoped to one day print overseas and compete with foreign outlets. They caused a stir when they ran two pieces on the Tiananmen Square 20th anniversary at a time nobody else in China’s media would mention it. The reporters of this outlet were excited with the freedom they thought they’d have and many (including myself) thought this could be the beginning of a provocative new chapter in China’s media. That outlet was Global Times.
I don’t want to say CCTV has no chance of making it internationally. They have the resources and interest on their side. But even if the government says they’ll untie CCTV for the international channels, I suspect the first time something truly embarrassing is aired the propaganda department will throw the lasso back on – just like they have with Global Times. It’s a shame. Having an objective international media outlet would do much more for China’s soft power than having a propaganda machine that nobody watches.