For all the attention that’s been focused lately on the mainstream media’s objectivity and credibility, there’s no doubt that some major newspapers have for years been foisting unmistakably fake news on their readers, and I just got a reminder when I went out to my front porch this morning to pick up my Washington Post. It comes in the form of the ChinaWatch supplement (see here, e.g.) that arrives stuck inside the print edition periodically.
My main problem with ChinaWatch – which also has deals with other leading publications, including The Wall Street Journal – isn’t that it’s issued by the Chinese government, and therefore is nothing more than Beijing propaganda. Any country valuing free expression should welcome all comers to its media markets and national debates.
Instead, my main problem with ChinaWatch is that there’s no way for anyone lacking considerable knowledge about China and its state-run media to know that ChinaWatch is a Chinese government product.
Near the top of the front page, readers can see that the ChinaWatch supplement is “prepared by China Daily, People’s Republic of China” and “did not involve the news or editorial departments of the Washington Post.” At the very bottom comes the statement, “ChinaWatch materials are distributed by China Daily Distribution Corp., on behalf of China Daily, Beijing, China. Additional information is on file with the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.”
But why should that raise any red flags (no pun intended) with non-specialists? After all, the Post and most other news organizations routinely report that the Chinese economy is full of “private companies.” (See, e.g., here.) Why not simply assume that China Daily Distribution Corp. is simply one of them? It certainly sounds like a typical American-style business. And although the Justice Department reference might look a little odd, how many readers of American newspapers recognize it as a sign that the “company” is required under U.S. law to register as a foreign agent (though not necessarily as a foreign government)?
On page two you’ll find the masthead, with contact information for ChinaWatch‘s offices in China and various foreign locations. But no hint of any Chinese government affiliation appears here, either.
But there’s an easy fix for this problem: Require ChinaWatch to mention prominently on the front page (at least) that it’s a Chinese government publication. And because ChinaWatch is hardly the only foreign government product to appear in American news media outlets, the same should go for the United Kingdom’s BBC, Russia’s RT America, and others. As those two are among the foreign government media organizations that mainly broadcast, their identification could come in the form of text that continually appears in the “crawls” that so many televised news programs run at the bottom of the screen, or, in the case of radio, as periodic announcements (say, every five minutes).
And finally, in the interests of full disclosure, although ChinaWatch specifies that its content has nothing to do with the news and editorial departments of papers like the Washington Post, its appearance has lots to do with the business departments of those newspapers, and their bottom lines. For ChinaWatch is paid advertising. So the Post and the Journal and any others should make clear on a regular basis that they depend in part on the Chinese government for revenue.
After all, as the Post declares ominously in its new, Trump-era advertising slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness.” That’s also the place where reader ignorance and conflicts of interest flourish.