Absolutely free or independent media, a castle in the sky

By Liang Xiao
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, July 19, 2021
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The U.S. regards Chinese news media outlets as part of a "propaganda machine" of the government because they are state-owned. On Twitter, almost all Chinese news agencies and journalists are labeled as "China state-affiliated media," implying their reports are neither true nor objective. The United States also argues that since its media is mostly privately held, they are "free" and "independent," and that only these sources are credible. This simple association has been widely accepted as the norm of the global media landscape.

However, German author Michael Lüders recently exposed how a small number of elites and interest groups manipulate public opinion through the media in the U.S. in his book The Hypocritical Superpower.

A case in point. Buzzfeed was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a series of false reports written in 2020 about the mass detention of residents in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The reporters allegedly discovered more than 300 "concentration camps" from satellite photos without conducting any field visits. Many of which were later confirmed to be ordinary residential communities. In addition, most of the "evidence" cited in these reports came from Adrian Zenz, a far-right fundamentalist.

As Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky illustrated in their seminal works Manufacturing Consent, it is impossible for the media, either in the East or the West, to be absolutely free and independent. The authors argue that the Western mainstream media journalism has "five filters." These five filters are: ownership of the medium, the medium's funding sources, sourcing, flak, and "fear ideology."

Sources refer to whom the journalists speak to or where they get their information. For example, for the purposes of expediency certain interest groups help reduce the cost of reporting news by giving "authoritative" reports written by think tanks with specific agendas. In addition the experts interviewed by reporters are often from those think tanks funded by special interest groups.

Flak refers to negative responses to a media statement be it in the form of a social media backlash, lawsuits, speeches and bills before Congress or modes of complaint, threat and punitive action. The final filter is fluid and changes with the times; for example it has morphed from a fear of the Soviet Union to the war on terror and Islamic extremism, and now China. These filters ensure that news coverage that endangers the interests of capital simply never see the light of day.

The United States considers Chinese media to be state media, and similarly, one could argue that most American media is corporate media. For example, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and Sky TV are controlled by Rupert Murdoch. These media outlets have to consider their owners' commercial interests. In this regard, private capital not only holds the ownership of the media, but its content is paid by advertising, which shapes the stories covered or not covered as well as the angles taken.

One thing that cannot be ignored is the bondage of ideology. The Cold War mentality fostered the idea of framing complex narratives as simple confrontations between good and evil, severely affecting the judgment of people. Therefore, the transgressions of the "good" are largely ignored or downplayed by the corporate media, as with Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. But the transgressions of the "evil" are vilified in the most vocal way possible. This "propaganda model" of the media, as Chomsky puts it, creates a dangerous double standard.

The U.S. media's constant coverage of the alleged "human rights abuses" of Uygurs in Xinjiang is juxtaposed with the complete absence of news about extra-judicial drone killings authorized by U.S. presidents, war crimes committed by U.S. troops or the hard evidence recently uncovered that Canada, one of the U.S.' most important allies, committed genocide against its indigenous people.

In today's new globalized and digitalized media era, the landscape has changed. Extremely provocative or ideologically driven reports or click bait tend to get the most attention. In this era of big data, once a user's reading preferences are known, he or she will continue to receive similar information creating an echo chamber effect, where it is difficult to see what is real and what is not.

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