Good Journalist, Bad Journalist

As China marked its annual Journalists’ Day over the weekend, proclaiming the importance of “correct news ideals,” even jaded New Yorkers stopped in their tracks and took notice. How could they not? The message beamed over 7th Avenue on Times Square, dominating one of the world’s most visible jumbotrons. According to a Chinese-language press release posted by the marketing department at PR Newswire, “many New Yorkers stopped to watch and take photographs.”

Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
Journalists and a pair of security guards during a session of the 2013 National People’s Congress.

Of course, this is all pure fantasy.

The jumbotron message was no more than a propaganda fizzle at the center of a media-saturated universe China’s leaders seem chronically incapable of understanding. Unable to read Chinese, most Times Square onlookers would not have known this had anything to do with China. The logos of state-run Chinese media, arrayed across the bottom of the screen, would have been equally obscure.

But the fantasy nevertheless reveals a great deal of truth about how the Chinese Communist Party continues to understand the role of journalists and the media today. Fifteen years after Journalists’ Day was created in 2000 as one of three professional holidays in China, the country’s leaders still refuse the media’s right to exist as a true profession, rather than as a proxy of Party-state power.

Here is how the release — framed as a congratulatory message from PR Newswire to China’s “news workers” but quite reflective of the Party’s “mainstream” view — describes China and its press:

As the world’s largest economy, China has one of the world’s most developed media industries, and in terms of the number of media and news workers it far surpasses the other countries of the world. In recent years, along with the rapid development of Chinese media and the Internet, a great number of quality and influential news reports have emerged domestically [in China], attracting the attention of global media. This has not only objectively and impartially revealed to the world China’s openness and vitality, but at the same time has promoted the advancement of Chinese brands around the world. These achievements have been made by dint of the efforts of all Chinese journalists of this generation. [emphasis added]

The message here is that China’s media must serve a larger narrative of the country’s success under the leadership of the C.C.P. Moreover, it is the success of this narrative — in “attracting the attention of global media,” for example — that decides whether news coverage is “objective” or “impartial.” To be objective is to see the big picture of China’s success without being distracted by those niggling facts that might darken or discolor the portrait.

Zhang Xudong—Xinhua/Zuma Press

A journalist prepares to report on China’s manned submersible, Jiaolong, with its carrier, Xiangyanghong 09, as they set sail from Jiangyin City, Jiangsu province, November 25, 2014.

For China’s leaders, a professional press is a submissive press. As former Xinhua News Agency Chief Li Congjun wrote two years ago: “We must effectively strengthen our sense of political responsibility ... upholding fully the principle of the Party-nature [of media], adhering to the principle that the politicians run the newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations, and websites.”

This was the point that Liu Yunshan, a member of the C.C.P.’s powerful politburo and chief of ideology, reiterated yesterday when he met with media representatives during a journalism awards ceremony held in Beijing to mark Journalists’ Day. Journalists, Liu said, must build support for the recently released 13th Five-Year Plan, and “properly tell the new story of China.”

Liu Yunshan stressed, as he did on numerous occasions as China’s propaganda chief, that journalists must “abide by professional ethics, and uphold social responsibility.” But the professional imperatives are, as ever, circumscribed by political imperatives, by the journalist’s duty to the Party and to its social, economic, and political agendas. As Xinhua reported,

He emphasized that [those on] the news frontline must deeply study, publicize, and implement the spirit of the Party’s Fifth Plenum, concentrate on the “13th Five-Year Plan” . . . stirring up positive energy, in order to provide public opinion support and a favorable public opinion environment for the full realization of a moderately prosperous society.

Liu left the more rigid control language to his successor as propaganda chief, Liu Qibao, who was also present to tell those gathered that they must “express their social responsibility through the positive channeling of public opinion.” This involved:

Enhancing their sense of [public opinion] channeling, upholding correct guidance of public opinion, and raising their ability to channel [public opinion], consolidating and expanding positive and healthy mainstream opinion.

Consider that one of the award-winning pieces of journalism from the event over which Liu Yunshan presided this weekend was this fawning series of reports from Xinhua News Agency, “Raising Even Higher the Great Banner of Reform and Opening Up,” which marked the 110th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s birth and further shored up the reform credentials of President Xi Jinping. Click into the multimedia piece and it begins with soaring music and images of Deng and Xi against a rich, chocolaty background that resolves at the top into the ceiling of the Great Hall of the People.

If this is the standard for professional journalism, where do journalists go from here? How much higher can they raise the banner?

In a string of cases in recent months, Chinese authorities have made the case for stronger press controls, citing poor ethics in the journalism profession. But it is the hypocrisy of pro-Party ethics in a highly commercialized media environment that is the root cause of poor — and by all accounts, worsening — ethics in Chinese media.

While the Party leadership upholds falsehood, in the form of “guidance” and propaganda, as the ultimate professional standard, media operate under a competing market imperative that says they must attract audiences and deliver them to advertisers. Between the mechanisms of power and profit, there are no truly mediating professional standards or organizations.

The message: we can all profit from falsehood.

Reporters, editors, or publishers who envision themselves as professionals working in the public interest are out on their own. And if they try to form a professional community or act in concert over professional ideals, they run extreme political risks.

The only communities allowed for the media in China are about “discipline” rather than professionalism. Take, for example, the latest “convention” made by Chinese media, reported back in September by, one of the media outlets featured in the Times Square ad. Directed by the China Alliance of Radio, Film, and Television (CARFT) — formerly the combined but acronym-challenged General Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (GAPPRFT) — media organizations signed “a self-discipline pact promising to uphold journalistic ethics.”

Just last week, on the eve of Journalists’ Day, CARFT announced the creation of a new committee to enforce the guidelines laid out in the September “convention.” This news was reported by under the headline: “New Committee to Uphold Media Ethics.”

Is this really about ethics?

Let’s take a quick look at the so-called “Professional Self-Discipline Convention for News, Publishing, Radio, Film and Television.”

Article 1: In order to fulfill socialist core values; pursue professional ideals; strengthen the building of professional morals; [promote] compliance with the Constitution, laws, and regulations; and advocate a healthy industry climate, mass organizations in news, publishing, radio, film, and television jointly formulate and sign the following convention.

Article 2: Those participating in the [professions of] news, publishing, radio, film, and television shall carry out the following course of professional self-discipline:

Clause 1: Preserving the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the national interest, not publishing or spreading any language that damages the image of the Party or the nation.

And there you have it. Clause 1 makes it clear from the outset, yet again, that professionalism equals political obedience.

Happy Journalists’ Day!