Freedom of the Press and the Responsibility of News Media: An Examination of the Current International Order of News Communications

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-19 20:05
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    It has been China’s solemn promise to the outside world that China will stick to the road of peaceful development. To achieve this goal, China has taken peace, development and cooperation as its watchwords, pursuing an independent foreign policy of peace and an open strategy of mutual benefit, and striving to help build a prosperous and harmonious world that will enjoy lasting peace. During the past few decades, China has demonstrated to the world the image of a responsible country that is sincere, open, reform-oriented, united, energetic, cordial and prepared to treat others as equals, and has won ever greater respect as well as objective, rational and cordial assessments. However, China’s sincere endeavors have also run up against an extremely unfavorable environment in international public opinion. The international order of news communications controlled by a handful of dominant Western mass media groups has covered up the truth, disseminated prejudice, and artificially created a succession of “iron curtains” and “gulfs,” in a way that has severely hindered communication and understanding among different nations.

    It is time now to reflect on the international order of news communications. 

  Monopoly Is the Natural Enemy of Freedom

    Monopoly is the major feature of today’s international order of news communications.

    Freedom of the press, as one of the slogans and guiding principles the bourgeoisie used in their fight against feudalism and also one of the important fruits of victory won by the bourgeois revolution, embodies the needs of social progress. However, under capitalism, market mechanisms are the essential force for the evolution of the news industry and news industry monopolies have become an inevitable outcome of market competition and also a major feature of journalism under modern capitalism. The ruthless competition of “big fish eating little fish” has led to the monopoly of the news market in all major developed Western countries by a handful of mass media groups, bringing about a situation that is exactly the opposite of freedom of the press. For instance, during the decades since World War II, monopoly has taken its toll on newspapers in the United States: an ever greater number of influential newspapers have come under the control of a few financial consortiums and over 90 percent of cities have only one newspaper per city, an obvious sign of the newspaper monopoly in the United States. The five major networks, namely ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN, determine what American people can watch and listen to about what happens in the world around them. 

     These few media giants, by their enormous financial resources, send out correspondents to various parts of the world to collect international news that they “like” and “want,” and then sell it to smaller media companies that cannot afford to send out their own correspondents and have to purchase international news from them. Thus, these Western media giants have achieved a monopoly not only over their own domestic news market, but also over the whole world’s market for international news, and turned the majority of media companies into their mouthpieces and loudspeakers. At present, the Associated Press, Reuters and AFP account for four fifths of the world’s total international news; over 90 percent of the international news broadcast in the world is provided by Western media, of which over 70 percent is in the grip of the Western media giants.

    In this way, the world’s attention has been turned to where they would like it to be. Thus the voice of a few dominant Western media companies has become the basic tone of international public opinion while voices from the developing countries have been drowned, suppressed and ignored.

    It is well known that monopoly is the natural enemy of the freedom of the press. The high degree of monopoly in the international order of news communications has been a grave obstacle preventing the people of various countries from obtaining objective and unbiased news and information. The mass media may not be able to determine how people think. However, by providing certain information and setting up certain topics, they are certainly able to determine what people think about. When the ears and eyes and then brains of people in various countries have been effectively controlled by the “news gatekeepers” from the handful of major Western mass media groups, can our world still have freedom of the press?

    Monopoly’s detrimental effect on freedom has been recognized even in Western countries. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposed restrictions on the four major networks of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, preventing mergers and cross-ownership. However, with regard to the monopoly in the international news market, Western governments have adopted an acquiescent and even supportive attitude. In recent years, the expansion and mergers of Western media giants have been on the rise, leading to an ever higher degree of monopoly in the international news communications industry.

    The above phenomenon has brought about two outcomes: firstly, a handful of Western media giants actually control the power to sway international public opinion; secondly, a large number of developing countries have had to face the reality that their own right to speak has been suppressed or taken from them because of their own weak communication capacity.

    This is the true ecology of freedom of the press in today’s international space. It seems that the obvious imbalance and injustice in the current international order of news communications will not undergo major changes in the near future.

  Prejudice Is More Terrible Than Ignorance

    Prejudice is the most notable outcome brought about by the international order of news communications controlled by a few Western media giants.

    Things would get better if the Western media that maintain a monopoly position over the resources of international news communications would follow their much vaunted principles of “objectivity and fairness” and report and comment on news events around the world in a responsible way.

    However, they are not doing so. Instead, they are still demonstrating the arrogance and prejudice of “Western superiority” in their international news reporting by their tireless promotion of Western ideologies, their evaluation of everything in the world by Western criteria, and their appreciation of whatever conforms to Western ideologies and demonization of whatever does not. With their powerful voices, they have been fostering stubborn ideological prejudices in the domain of international public opinion. For many years now, people have had too much experience of the prejudice demonstrated by the Western media.

    The Chinese people have had an even keener experience of such prejudice. After the March 14th incident occurred in Lhasa, Tibet, in 2008, some Western media groups stirred up an anti-China countercurrent and seriously misled the international community. After the July 5th incident of this year, during which serious violence and criminal activity occurred in Urumqi in Xinjiang, the government of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in response to the concerns of the international community, immediately gave permission for both domestic and foreign reporters to visit the sites of these events in Xinjiang. Hopefully, this will reduce the prejudiced reporting by the Western media.

    China has been changing, but some Western media groups will not change their prejudices. In reports from some Western media, vicious, ferocious and ruthless violence and crimes were once again written up as “peaceful demonstrations” and “the uprising in Urumqi,” and the legal action taken by the police to restore order once again became “bloody suppression” and “Beijing’s suppression of a Muslim ethnic group.” In the face of this wanton disregard for the facts and the truth, how can the Chinese people refrain from indignation over the way the Western media stand the facts on their head and mislead the public ! 

    The Dalai Lama used to be the chief representative of both religious and secular serf-owners and loved ornaments made of human skin. Now he has become the head of the “Tibetan Government in exile” and is engaged in purely political activities. But some Western media have always described him as a “religious man” and an “exponent of non-violence” who loves peace, and have even awarded him the laurels of “human rights defender.” Rebiya Kadeer is an ordinary woman who acquired a little fame by utilizing China’s reform and opening up policy to become rich and was then imprisoned for her role of selling state secrets. But since she has sought the patronage of the anti-China influences in the West and engaged in splitting activities, some Western media have even tried to package her as the “spiritual mother” of the Uygur people. The Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer are extremely unpopular among the Chinese, but have quite a market for their wares in the West. Such a sharp contrast is the direct result of the propaganda and hype of the Western media.

    In many instances, the Western media reach such a degree of paranoia in their prejudice that they lose their basic capability to analyze and explain events, and their reports become an arbitrary “labeling” type of propaganda. They have constantly labeled China’s political system a “totalitarian dictatorship,” but have never seriously thought about how a totalitarian dictatorship could have brought about rapid and continuous economic growth in China for 30 years, kept Chinese society dynamic, and enjoyed the support of the Chinese people. The United States’ Pew Research Center once published the results of a global survey that showed that 72% of Chinese people surveyed felt satisfied with the condition of their country and 76% of them believed that their future would be better, making China the best performer of all the 17 countries surveyed in terms of both degree of satisfaction with their country and individual optimism. The Asian Barometer Survey’s latest report on political attitudes shows that on the mainland of China, those surveyed gave a score of 7.22 for the status of democracy in China, putting it in third place among Asian countries, on a par with the so-called democratic countries as designated by the West. The Western media have never tried to engage in serious analysis and research on the survey results produced by Western survey organizations, let alone publicized these results.

    Although ignorance is terrible, it can at least change with the exploration of the truth. Prejudice is even more terrible than ignorance, since it often chooses to avoid or even cover up the truth in order to prove its correctness. The stubborn prejudice of some Western media cannot help but arouse people’s suspicions that their reports about China are actually compositions that had been assigned a central idea and a conclusion before they were even written. It seems that all they want to do is to put on their permanently colored spectacles and try to find material to support their conclusions; if they cannot, they will simply take the easy way out and make up something out of nothing, or even make day into night and devils into angels.

    News takes truth as its life and the introduction of prejudice will inevitably damage the truthfulness of news reports. If the news communication order is led by prejudice, where will we find impartiality? 

  Extreme Market Orientation Impairs the Media’s Social Responsibilities

    An extreme market orientation is the most obvious defect of the Western media’s criteria for news value. 

    In the West, news media are often called “social instruments.” In fact, most of the Western media are owned privately and capital has extensive control over them. As moneymaking machines driven by profit-first capital, the media have taken the pursuit of commercial profit as their number one goal and “selling points” as of overriding importance. Circulations and audience ratings and the advertisement income that comes with them are the most important considerations. As long as the “readers need them” and “the audience like them,” what should be reported can be missed out and what should not be reported can be noisily hyped up. 

    Under the functioning of this extreme market orientation, the principle that “only bad news is good news,” piously believed in by the Western media, has become a criterion for news value. The more abnormal, negative, abrupt and sensational a happening is, the more news value it will have. Thus, newspapers and screens are filled with news about violence, pornography, crime and scandal. The negative side of developing countries, such as wars, coups, upheavals and disasters, are relentlessly publicized, but positive coverage is rare. The Western media’s love for publicizing negative news stories has also brought about negative social consequences even in their own countries, so much so that some thoughtful people in the West have even started to reflect on such practices and put forward the “social responsibility theory,” emphasizing the need for the media to fulfill their responsibility to society and the public while enjoying their freedom.

    According to Western views about news, it is the news media’s natural duty to oversee and criticize the government. Their logic is: “I have the freedom to criticize my government, and of course I also have the right to criticize other governments. This is fair and appropriate.” However, in saying so and doing so, they have ignored the basic fact that in their own countries, their criticism of their own governments will not prevent the public from understanding the true situation in those countries, since they live there and can make up their own minds about whether the media’s criticism is fair or not. When the media focus on “revealing the ugly side” and “digging out the dirt” in reporting about other countries, they do not help the public understand the outside world as it truly is. Instead, misunderstandings will accumulate gradually and prejudices will harden gradually.

    The Western media are constantly complaining that China is not open enough and lacks freedom of the press. But the fact is that since China started its reform, the Chinese media have carried out extensive, objective, comprehensive, wide-ranging and in-depth reporting on the developed Western countries. On the other hand, the Western media’s reporting on China has often been severely prejudiced, far from being objective and comprehensive. Today’s Chinese people are becoming more and more interested in knowing the outside world and have reached an unprecedented understanding of it. This is one of the major factors explaining why China can learn from all the advanced achievements of the civilized nations and has achieved phenomenal growth. On the other hand, even in a developed country like the United States, some people are amazed to see Chinese people using mobile phones just like they do, and ask ridiculous questions like “Do you Chinese also use mobile phones?” Their knowledge of China remains many decades behind the times and many of them have an incredibly shallow vision of China. To a large extent, this is the result of the media reporting in their country.

    The idea that businesses should assume social responsibility for their actions or products has become a consensus among the international community. If businesses that manufacture material products should bear social responsibility, don’t news media that report news and comment on world events need to bear social responsibility? The answer is self-evident. To help the public gain a truthful understanding of the outside world is the news media’s basic social responsibility. Otherwise, they are neglecting their duty. To cater only to market needs will certainly make the media stray further and further away from their social responsibilities.

  Globalization Calls for a Free and Fair New International Order of News Communications

    At the present time, with the globalization of the world economy and the increasingly close interdependence between countries, the common interests of humanity and the common challenges we face have become increasingly prominent. Issues on a global scale, such as international financial security, international economic stability, climate change, food safety, security of energy resources, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, major natural disasters, and outbreaks of major contagious diseases are posing serious challenges to peace and development in the world. No single country or group of countries can cope with such challenges by its own efforts; they have to be dealt with by the joint efforts and cooperation of all countries in the world. Humanity will not have a bright future unless, politically, all countries show mutual respect and consult each other on an equal footing; economically, they all cooperate and complement each other; culturally, they draw on each other’s experience and seek common ground while preserving differences; on security matters, they trust each other and strengthen their cooperation; and in environmental protection, they assist each other and advance through joint efforts. 

    The world is rich and variegated and such variety has an objective existence that will not change according to some people’s subjective will. Any attempt to unify the world with Western ideologies and social systems is doomed to fail. It is the coexistence, communication and integration of different civilizations that have brought about the development and progress of humanity. No mutual discrimination, hostility or exclusion should ever exist among different cultures. Instead, they should respect each other, learn from each other and complement each other, and jointly promote the harmonious development of human civilization.

    In international relations, the mass media should carry out the lofty mission of promoting democracy, harmony, cooperation and efforts for mutual benefit and become a bridge of communication, understanding and cooperation between different nations. For the basic functions of communications – respecting the truth, reporting the true state of affairs, promoting understanding, advocating rationality and broadening common ground – media people of different countries should overcome their ideological differences, stick to the principles of objectivity and fairness, and discard selfish and narrow-minded mentalities. That is a rational choice founded on our common destiny. However, the current international order of news communications obviously has not been able to accomplish this task, a failure for which some of the Western media groups in dominant positions should be held responsible. If the media always distort facts, disseminate prejudice, create barriers, or even incite hatred, confrontation and conflict, they will have an irrational and destructive effect on the destiny of humanity. 

    The imbalance and lack of freedom and justice in the international order of news communications are forcing the victim countries to build up their own capacity in international news communications. They have also brought about another consequence: the erosion of the credibility and influence of some Western media. Respect for facts and truth is the basis for all communications. If facts can be distorted at will without adhering to even basic honesty in order to vilify and demonize a country, then the best way to deal with such media is to ignore them ! 

    Historical changes have been happening in the relationship between China and the world and China’s destiny is becoming closely tied to the future destiny of the world. We call for the establishment of a free and fair new international order of news communications. Although we know it won’t be an easy task, we believe that, with the intensification of the globalization of the world economy and the development of a multi-polar world, and with the expansion of a rational common understanding of the common good of humanity, a new international order embracing the economy, politics, culture and news communications will certainly make continual progress in a more just and fair direction.

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