Given China’s regional might, it is little surprise that the nation casts a long shadow across Asia — including in its media coverage. However, we are now seeing a disturbing trend of Western media casting a favorable light on China, right as it stands accused of suppressing democracy in Hong Kong, interning Uighurs and obscuring investigations into the origins of COVID-19.
At the same time, important coverage of Asian democracies, such as Taiwan’s 20-place leap in the Democracy Index last year — in the midst of a pandemic that brought major constrictions of democratic rights in many places — gets downplayed or, worse, ignored completely.
Writing and researching The Gray Lady Winked, my book on a century of the New York Times’ misreporting, I learned how media narratives, like ones now concerning China, shape history as it unfolds. For decades heralded as the US’ “paper of record,” the New York Times has a unique ability to set the news agenda about Asia, as much as Europe, Latin America and the US itself. What it chooses to cover — and, importantly, what not to cover — has a profound impact on the way millions of people see the world.
To take a recent example, Bloomberg News reported last month that US President Joe Biden’s administration was pushing for Taipei to be represented at a key WHO gathering, despite being blocked by Beijing since 2016. However, there was no prominent coverage of this story in the New York Times.
Although significant in its own right, this coverage-by-omission points to a much bigger, more severely underreported story concerning Taiwan. That story is, of course, Taiwan’s virtually unparalleled success in combating COVID-19. Taiwan was reporting less than 10 new daily cases as early as April last year. The nation of 24 million people has seen 12 deaths — that bears repeating: 12 total deaths — from COVID-19.
To put that in context, Australia, which has roughly the same population as Taiwan, and which has been hailed for its success in battling COVID-19, has seen nearly 1,000 deaths, almost 100 times that number.
While the New York Times recently offered up a pair of short articles about Taipei’s success, the reporting pales in comparison to banner coverage of China’s supposed success.
In August last year, for example, the Times ran a 1,200-word article praising China’s pandemic response and hailing the country as a global “outlier” where life was thrumming. China might indeed be considered a COVID-19 success story — that is, if its cases and deaths reporting could be taken at face value. In its August article, the Times reported Chinese COVID-19 deaths at 4,634. Today, official Chinese reporting on total COVID-19 deaths is 4,636, just two more than eight months ago. That two Chinese, out of nearly one-and-a-half billion, have died from COVID-19 in almost a year beggars belief. Despite this, through its parroting of Chinese claims, the Times was willing to legitimize China’s narrative about its COVID-19 success.
Among the other major omitted reporting in current China coverage concerns the source of the virus itself. This debate recently flared up on social media when a Washington Post columnist accused the Times of “bending over backwards” to avoid giving credence to the increasingly credible theory that the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
This is not unfamiliar territory. As I show in The Gray Lady Winked, the paper’s infamous cover-up of the Ukraine Famine (which, in reality, was a deliberate genocide perpetrated by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin), as well as its complete blackout of coverage of the Holocaust, was motivated by financial interest as much as ideological considerations.
Disturbingly, we are seeing the same forces at play with regard to the Times and China.
The Times recently offered high praise to NBA star LeBron James, saying James was “leading a generation of athletes into ownership” in a headline that made clear reference to slavery. However, it was James who offered a loud defense of China, which has been accused of pressing Uighurs into slavery, when an NBA coach dared to offer his support for activists in Hong Kong.
Here, on the topic of the Uighurs, we again see how non-coverage by the Times helps shape the narrative. Since the start of this year, the newspaper has done almost no direct coverage of the round-up, internment and persecution of more than 1 million members of an ethnic minority of its own citizens.
Instead, the Times’ reporting is oblique, with articles about the Biden administration’s policy shifts, fashion brands dealing with a potential Chinese boycott, opinion pieces calling for corporate America to take a stand, and a column pondering whether China’s actions constitute genocide.
This prompts a question I was faced with while researching previous episodes of misreporting: How can this be?
The answer is tragically simple. In China, the New York Times has identified a massive, wealthy, content-hungry market that represents decades of potential growth. It has responded to this opportunity by growing its editorial presence, including with a Chinese edition of its daily paper and, more recently, a luxury lifestyle magazine.
As a New York Times press release announcing the magazine put it: “The appetite for New York Times journalism in Chinese has never been stronger.”
With access to the Times in China shut off whenever the country’s propaganda mechanism finds displeasure in the Times’ coverage (or actions), the >Times’ management can only be well aware that access to China’s burgeoning middle and upper classes means pleasing Beijing.
The paper is cognizant of the rich rewards to be reaped from this access.
“The New York Times brand now has a firm foothold in the country and among the global Chinese diaspora,” wrote Craig Smith, the Times’ former Shanghai bureau chief who helped set up the company’s China operations. “When news media restrictions relax, and I believe they eventually will, the Times’ Chinese audience will most certainly take off.”
For a conglomerate like the New York Times Co, the trade-off for that inevitable stock-soaring moment might seem minor. After all, what is an omission here, a language tweak there, raising pro-China stories up and playing “anti”-China stories down when you are gazing at the prospect of giant revenue projections from Midtown Manhattan? Most likely, it must seem like no big deal at all.
Ashley Rindsberg is a novelist, essayist and freelance journalist.
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