Tuesday, May 13, 2008



The earthquake in China offers those in the Western press a chance to do what they do best --report the facts, but it may also turn out to be field day for those who like to hit a country when it is down. Some good old-fashioned reporting would be a good change of pace for certain US and European news outlets, especially the recently maligned CNN, to repair reputations tattered for sloppy reporting on Tibet.

Echoes of imperial prejudices and predilections as old as British colonialism itself could be heard in many Western reports that neatly played ethnic minority off ethnic majority. Really basic mistakes, like confusing Nepal with Tibet in photos and incorrect connecting of the dots went uncorrected too long, so hungry was the appetite for images that fit preconceived notions.

There may be no such thing as Western journalism in the sense that Chinese bloggers like to invoke the word, with conspiratorial overtones and an assumed intent to humiliate, but strikingly similar mistakes were made, apparently independently, across the world of Western journalism, from Germany to France to America and Britain. Might political and cultural differences not have something to do with it?

It's also a bit disappointing to see similar neo-colonial attitudes at work in some of the Western coverage of Burma's great tragedy. US First Lady Laura Bush set the tone, wagging her finger, finding fault in a way that eluded her ken in the case of Katrina, making veiled threats at a supine country in great distress, almost guaranteeing that US offers of aid would be viewed with suspicion and subject to delay. The story of a storm was quickly transmuted into a political equivalent of a quail hunting accident, in which Burma's government was the target, but collateral damage ensued.

Given such prevailing winds, China's timely material aid was viewed as a PR exercise, while reckless US and French offers to essentially invade Burma to save it from itself, were cast in a deeply humanitarian light.

The challenge for UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is to keep the UN at the center of relief efforts, to steer a middle way, perhaps with the help of ASEAN, to keep the aid flowing without unnecessary political interruption or intervention.

When it comes to Myanmar, CNN continues to disappoint. At least the BBC has the courage of conviction of the English language to call Burma, Burma. For CNN anchors, it's "Miramar" or something appropriately exotic, and a ridiculous amount of air-time is devoted to the exploits of its daring reporters trying to sneak around behind the backs of Burma's police or bemoan the lack of access. The tone is triumphalist and self-congratulatory, and the meta-message clear --we are CNN, give us access or we will diss you.

And now, another huge human tragedy, the earthquake in Sichuan. Unless major screw-ups follow, the story should remain focused on the earthquake and its victims instead of degenerating into the predictable political sniping when a communist country, or a political system that dares to be different, falls on hard times.

Here CNN has a chance to reverse its declining China fortunes, for the Beijing bureau is lucky to have a seasoned China hand like Jaime Florcruz at the helm. The self-effacing Florcruz says things that are almost impossible to hear from "thugs and goons" Jack Cafferty or the big-haired, big egoed hacks back in Atlanta. Earlier today, he quietly pointed out in a live report that the Chinese government is pretty good at marshaling resources in times of disaster.

On a not entirely unrelated topic, I have been reviewing Western media coverage of Tiananmen 1989 for an upcoming twenty-year retrospective. I worked as a freelancer for BBC at that time, and at one time or another have done work with NBC, NHK, CCTV and have contributed to China documentaries aired by CBS, TV Asahi and PBS. It is dismaying that after all this time, an event of such importance to the Chinese people is still taboo to the Chinese media. Secondarily, it is lamentable that so much of the Western coverage was narcissistic and imagination-driven.

The story, just published in the Bangkok Post, that follows raises a question still pertinent in the aftermath of careless Western reports on Tibet, though the focus is instead on BBC, and the setting is Tiananmen. If a British media star can't tell the difference between a fellow reporter from Hong Kong staying in the same hotel and a Beijing student leader on the run, then by what rights is his view so authoritative as to be canonized by Granta as Western reporting at its best?

For the full story, please go to http://jinpeili.blogspot.com/

or http://www.bangkokpost.com/News/13May2008_news22.php