Freedom of speech -- and thus, consequently, freedom to advertise -- are fundamental principles of a free democracy and a thriving capitalist democracy, right? That's what we're told in this country from a young age. Well it turns out those freedoms are also employed by the Chinese Communist Party. In America. Namely, in The Washington Post.
This is the source of an ethical controversy that has sprung up recently in the arena of journalism. Each month, the Post runs a paid supplement called China Watch, along with a regularly-updated website of the same name. The "paid" part gets done by the Chinese government. In return, China gets to publish articles produced by China Daily, the house organ of the Chinese government, in the Post, and using its masthead. Articles in China Watch portray China and its government in the way you might expect--that is, positively, or else with a particular diplomatic glibness. Ad copy, some call it. Others call it propaganda.
It's a hard boundary to find, that line between advertising and propaganda. People who don't like being sold to are quick to label all advertising as propaganda of a kind, while free market advocates might suggest that if you pay for it, and if you make it clear that you paid for it, then even a government can simply advertise. The Washington Post says that it makes no attempt to conceal the paid nature of China Watch. Both print editions of the publication and its corresponding website bear a small disclaimer box in their top right corners. But critics of the Post's partnership with China Daily argue that the disclaimer is not nearly as prominent on the page as the Post's masthead at the top of the insert. While readers have technically been informed that China Watch has been paid for, critics argue that the prominence of the Post's masthead makes a bigger statement, confusing readers who might think the Post at least officially endorses China Watch content. The web-edition of the pro-China publication is hosted under the Washington Post domain name. Moreover, the Post neglects to disclose who pays for the ads.
Of course, there's no law generally requiring companies to disclose details about their advertising partners to the general public. However, things are a bit different when you're dealing with a representative from a foreign government. The Post's dealings with China Daily could run afoul of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires that foreign agents and their activities be properly identified to the American public. Such disclosure involves more than a box in the upper-right-hand corner.
Nor is this the only instance of dealings where The Post has been accused of serving as a mouthpiece for the Chinese government. In an editorial last month, Patrick Pexton, The Post's own Ombudsman, lambasted the newsroom for at the very best, lazy journalism, and at the worst, kowtowing to the Chinese PR machine. Particularly at issue in the editiorial was the February 13 publication in The Post of an "interview" with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. It was later revealed that the "interview" was hardly an interview at all -- Post reporters submitted written questions to Jinping, and in return they received a response to questions that had been modified, deleted, and added. Pexton disagreed with the newsroom's decision to print the reponse:
So, The Post submits written questions — already a far cry from a live face-to-face unscripted interview with journalists — and the Chinese say, thanks, but we don’t like your questions, so we’ll provide our own questions and answers. Take it or leave it.
The Post took it. I think it should have left it.
Of course, Pexton pointed out, this is a complicated issue. While both the printing of the
interview propaganda and the lack of transparency regarding China Watch suggest the Post is soft, even misleading, in its coverage of China, The Post also does its fair share of reporting that embarrasses the Chinese government and others. It's a difficult world to navigate, especially when dealing with China, which often withholds press visas, or grows mum around reporters asking too many uncomfortable questions.
It's not just The Post that faces this difficultly. China is sitting on a billion citizens, nuclear weapons, the world's fastest-growing economy, and $1.2 trillion of U.S. debt. So it has a lot of weight to throw around with governments and major corporations, let alone media outlets. But is it right for The Post to lend its masthead and domain name to China Watch? Pexton observes:
That's the thing about China, whether you are The Washington Post, the U.S. government or Apple computers. There is interdependence in the relationship, and constant negotiation and compromise. The Chinese know it, and they take advantage of it.
Right might not always come into play these days.
Hat Tip: The Washington Free Beacon