Pulitzer’s ‘Lookout on the Bridge’ vs. China’s ‘News Ethics Committees’

In a recent harangue on the imperative of better journalism, a website run by the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department tore a jagged page from the wisdom of American newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer: “A journalist is the lookout on the bridge of the ship of state,” the site quotes. “He is there to watch over the safety and the welfare of the people who trust him.”

Pulitzer’s words, so propitious in their own context, an article in the North American Review in 1904 hailing the planned creation of the world’s first professional journalism school, darken against the backdrop of contemporary Chinese politics, where President Xi Jinping is doubling down on controls over all aspects of public discourse.

Make no mistake. In China, the Communist Party alone captains the ship of state, and the first imperative for the lookout on the bridge is to protect the safety and welfare not of the public, but of the leadership. The relationship of trust that truly takes precedence is between the journalist and those in power.

That relationship has soured over the course of two decades, as Chinese journalists and for-profit news media have endeavored to carve out new professional space, earning the trust of the audiences on which they depend. They have dared to explore new visions of their purpose and relevance, sometimes more in keeping with the ideas of pioneers like Joseph Pulitzer. By the turn of the century, China even had a growing community of investigative reporters hard at work.



Good Journalist, Bad Journalist

David Bandurski
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...

But now Xi Jinping is pushing, more aggressively than any of his predecessors in the reform era, to re-establish the old relationship of trust — which is to say, the Party’s dominance over the profession of journalism. His answer is a campaign of moral self-discipline and fear, achieved through new mechanisms and institutions.

The recent adaptation of Pulitzer’s famous phrase accompanied a news report back in September announcing the nationwide establishment of “news ethics committees,” or xinwen daode weiyuanhui. According to the limited details available in Chinese press reports, these committees, to be set up in cities and provinces across the country, will comprise 20 or so members drawn from various government agencies and led by local propaganda offices. They will be charged with fielding complaints about discipline violations in the media, conducting investigations, and determining punitive measures, which will include: orders for rectification and reform, verbal admonishments, demands for public apology, public exposure and condemnation, entry into permanent records of poor conduct, and referral to disciplinary departments.

These tactics are not necessarily new. But their exercise through an added layer of control speaks to the leadership’s strong determination to maintain and intensify press censorship even as the enterprise of journalism migrates to a new generation of digital platforms.

The outward justification for these new institutions has been the appalling state of ethics in Chinese journalism — something no one, it seems, is in a position to deny. China’s media are awash with fake news reports, much of them paid-for news. Journalists routinely accept cash payments (in the form of “transportation fees”) just for showing up to corporate public relations events. In some cases, reporters accept “hush fees” to turn a blind eye to sudden-breaking news stories such as mining accidents or labor disputes. In the most deplorable cases, media engage in “news extortion,” dangling the threat of investigative exposes over the heads of companies in order to coax them into buying advertising. As the September article announcing the news ethics committee rollout said: “The journalism profession faces a crisis of morality and credibility.”

All of this is true.

But when Party leaders talk about moral and professional responsibility, they are really talking about power. Just listen to how the official justification of these news ethics committees conflates professionalism and submission to Party mandates:

Some media have remained indifferent to the principle of the Party-nature of the media and to political consciousness [of the Party’s line], and this constitutes a serious breach of professional ethics, [and leads to] incorrect guidance of public opinion that damages the image and credibility of the Party.

The professional foundation of a Chinese journalist’s work is acceptance of the ineluctable fact that media serve the interests of the Communist Party. Her chief professional duty is to “guide public opinion,” reporting the news in such a way that it supports and advances the Party’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Despite the official pretense of concern over poor media ethics, the dominance of power itself is the root cause of media corruption in China. The Party’s claim to the truth as a matter of political expediency robs journalists of primary responsibility for the accuracy of what they print or post, and defines power as the most basic professional currency. In a media environment under rapid commercial development (which has been the case in China since the mid-1990s), when truth and accuracy must knuckle under to power, you have a recipe for worsening media corruption.



Taming the Flood

David Bandurski
In August 1975, Typhoon Nina, one of the most powerful tropical storms on record, surged inland from the Taiwan Strait, causing floods so catastrophic they overwhelmed dam networks around the city of Zhumadian in China’s Henan province. When Banqiao...

“In China, all political power, including control of the media, is the monopoly of the Party,” wrote Liu Xiaobo in 2004, six years before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. “All monopoly situations beget privileges, and privileges obviously favour corruption.” In his own copious study of media corruption, already then a serious problem, Liu presented a chart listing the fees typically paid to reporters from powerful state media for flattering coverage. The going rate at China Central Television for a blandishment about a provincial leader ran somewhere in the neighborhood of one million yuan.

Xi Jinping’s news ethics committees have been roughly three years in the making, with the first experiments launched in Hebei, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Shandong, and Hubei beginning in May 2013. The stated goal was to create “a long-term mechanism for industry self-regulation.” On December 1 last year, the nightly official newscast on China Central Television announced that pilot programs for news ethics committees across the country had been a success, with 16 local committees established to date.

Among the first crop of pilot programs was the Beijing News Ethics Committee, formed on September 16, 2014, and led by Mei Ninghua, who weeks before had left his post as the top official at the capital’s Party-run newspaper, Beijing Daily. The Global Times wrote, “Mei said that media malpractice includes false reporting, paid news and vulgar advertisements.” But Mei’s appointment as head of the committee spoke clearly to its staunch ideological agenda, in keeping with Xi Jinping’s all-out assault on dissent.

In 2008, as anger seethed in China over what was seen as biased reporting by Western media of riots in Lhasa, it was Mei Ninghua who led a personal attack against one of the country’s most cool-headed commentators, the veteran journalist Chang Ping. Chang had dared to assert the hypocrisy of those who railed against prejudicial Western coverage of Tibet while avoiding criticism of China’s censorship of its own media. And he had argued the benefits of open debate: “Some Chinese web users already understand that biased and inaccurate reporting is not the most terrifying thing,” he wrote. “So long as we have an open public opinion environment permitting the full exposure and discussion of these problems, we can move in the direction of truth and fairness.”

Chang Ping was arguing essentially that a responsible and professional press has to be accountable to the public. But Mei Ninghua, writing in the Beijing Evening Post under the pen name “Wen Feng,” was having none of it. In an essay stacked with invective, Mei attacked the more freewheeling journalism culture of Guangzhou’s Nanfang Daily Group, where Chang Ping had long served as editor at the proudly outspoken Southern Weekly. Chang, said Mei, was a “chicken deep-fried in the Nanfang newspaper system,” which “spared no effort in peddling Western-style ‘universal values’ and ‘freedom of speech.’”

The ensuing debate over “universal values” in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games escalated into an acerbic online debate over two sharply different conceptions of the media and its role.

Meanwhile, at Southern Weekly, a damning investigative report was being actively suppressed. It detailed how infants across China had fallen seriously ill after consuming domestically produced milk powder contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine. This public health scandal would not be exposed until after the Beijing Olympics, and only then thanks to a courageous report by a commercial newspaper in Shanghai. The cover-up meant that tens of millions of Chinese children were placed in jeopardy for many needless months. Health authorities eventually revealed that close to 300,000 infants became ill as a result of contaminated milk powder in 2008 alone.

In a rare criticism of the media’s role in the milk scandal, Meng Bo, a columnist for Hunan’s Morning Herald, wrote that information in China, like milk powder, had been contaminated to the detriment of the public welfare. The “conscience of the media” had been sold out, he said, to commercial interests with powerful government backing. “Generally, media are blinkered as political power forces them to wear blindfolds,” Meng wrote. “But another way this happens is [media] being paid off by power itself.”

Meng too invoked the words of the American newspaper publisher: “Pulitzer once said: ‘A journalist is the lookout on the bridge of the ship of state.’ As a matter of routine [in China], however, the lookout is blindfolded.”

File through official news releases about the network of ethics committees cropping up all over China and it becomes clear that blindfolds, and not ethics, are exactly the point. And those blindfolds are being tightened.

On November 5, the city of Baoshan in western Yunnan province elected the leadership for its newly formed news ethics committee. The committee’s first item of business was to adopt a charter outlining the responsibilities of the journalist:

Journalists in the city must adhere to the basic ideas of propaganda work, fully upholding a correct political orientation; they must work energetically to sing the main theme of social development and progress; they must fully adhere to the promotion of unity and stability, and to the guiding principle of emphasizing positive news in order to cohere and spread positive energy; they must consciously follow the principles of news and communication, firmly grasping the initiative in channeling public opinion; they must treat the channeling of online public opinion as the priority topping all priorities . . .

Ideological blindfolds, the above priorities are being cinched tighter under President Xi Jinping. In a speech on news and ideology in August 2013, Xi said ideological work—in other words, shaping what people think and say—was a critical matter “concerning the fate and outlook of the Party.” He went even further by suggesting, in staunch terms calling to mind the Cultural Revolution, that the Party was engaged in a bitter “public opinion struggle.” Media and press control officials summarized the import of Xi’s speech with a simple takeaway, “positive propaganda, public opinion struggle”—a worrying sign for journalists.

Judging from news coverage over the past two years in China, Xi Jinping’s struggle to bring the media back in line has been chillingly successful. With the notable exception of the Tianjin explosions, a tragedy of such scale it was impossible to keep under wraps, Chinese media have failed to push the envelope on important news stories this year, including the Shanghai stampede and the Yangtze ferry disaster. Southern Weekly, once the standard-bearer of public interest journalism in China, has not made a comeback since staff protests in January 2013 over heavy-handed censorship. Already by 2012, many of China’s finest journalists—including Jian Guangzhou, the reporter who exposed the 2008 milk scandal—had exited the profession, in what some called a “winter” for investigative reporting. In all fairness, that winter could now be called an ice age.

And yet, China’s press moralists are still unsatisfied. The struggle against public interest journalism must continue, they say.

In the midst of the national roll-out of the news ethics committee system, Fan Sancheng, who heads up the General Office of the Beijing News Ethics Committee, addressed the need for more targeted reviews of news content, ensuring media did not “go off topic.”

“Many problems have cropped up in the reporting of sudden-breaking disasters,” Fan said. “Some media seem unable to actively guide public opinion. Instead, they put undue emphasis on the public’s right to know and on watchdog journalism, so that deviations occur with respect to the positioning of stories.”

It would fall to news ethics committees, said Fan, to “send out early-warning signals,” ensuring that offending news media “return to the path of correct public opinion guidance.”

China’s press moralists are now standing on the bridge.