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NPR Reporter Frets about Media’s China Coverage

In this Leonard Witt IM Interview, Rob Gifford, NPR’s China correspondent from 1999-2005, talks about the US news media’s coverage of China and tells what worries him most. The interview grew out of a lecture and a seminar he recently gave at Kennesaw State University’s Year of China lecture series.

Leonard Witt: Hi Rob: During the Kennesaw State University lecture you mentioned when you were in the US you saw TV coverage of China and you were shocked. What was so shocking?

Rob Gifford: What surprised me was a television host who was speaking in a very subjective way about China in a piece that I took to be a news piece – there was no effort at objectivity, though afterwards I realized that perhaps that was the point – to be provocative.

Witt: How do you mean provocative?

Gifford: It was all about how the Chinese could have the AUDACITY to make certain economic demands/requests – his words – I can’t even remember the specifics of the report, but what I can remember is the way it was reported. The Chinese have the AUDACITY to DEMAND something from the US government, and how unbelievable this was – no attempt to just report the news.

Leonard Witt: Maybe that was just one isolated incident, how is the US coverage of China in general?

Gifford: It could have been – I am not trying to extrapolate from that that all coverage is subjective, but it did hit me between the eyes. Part of the problem with being based in China is that you don’t see lots of US media coverage – especially broadcast – you read the papers online, but not necessarily say the network news. Actually I think the print media do a very good job – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times present a nuanced picture of the convulsions going on in China and that is excellent. I think maybe it is the broadcast media that are often less objective and still very black and white in their coverage (with certain honorable exceptions…).

Witt: What is the black and white perception of China? Is it good or bad? How does it manifest itself?

Gifford: My sense is that there is a lot of lingering sense that China is Bad – it is run by a Communist Party which does Bad Things and could possibly be A Threat to the world. These things may be true (I have seen evidence of them in six years living in China) but it is not quite that simple – you cannot say China is any more good, any more bad than you can say the US is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ In the past it WAS mostly bad, because the Communist Party had various very bad policies, but it is much more gray now, and much less black and white – it can manifest itself in the language of the reports that can be very emotive and suggestive.

Witt: Do think the news media, especially here in the West can report the gray areas? If so how, what advice would you have? After all you have been reporting on China for six years.

Gifford: Of course. There are dozens of us out there (here) who report the gray areas – we report bad things and good things and things that are good and bad, and things that are good amidst a sea of bad, and bad amidst a sea of good. You simply can’t take as your starting point that a country is BAD and so everything that goes on there is BAD – my advice would be get reporters out in the field. Of course an editor in New York cannot report the gray areas and tends to be influenced by whatever images he/she has in his/her mind, but reporting means getting people on the ground to report it as they see it.

Witt: But this is an era of dwindling resources? Are we getting more or less coverage from your point of view?

Gifford: Of course we are getting less coverage, because of those dwindling resources, or should we say the reallocation of what resources there are to subjects that are more ’sexy’ than foreign news, and will gain more viewers. Again you have to split this between TV and print – print and radio such as NPR are still putting a lot of money into foreign coverage and it shows. Their foreign coverage is excellent – the problem is that the news organizations that actually present relatively unbiased foreign reporting are perceived by some to be the ‘liberal media’ and are treated as such.

Witt: How about the White House, what it says gets reported, often as fact. That of course influences perception. So this a dual question. Does the present administration understand the dynamics of China? If not, what’s a reporter covering them to do?

Gifford: Ha, what a question. how much do any of us (even those of us covering China for years on end ) understand? But…yes, this is the danger, sometimes what the White House says is reported as fact, not as….’what the White House says’. So you simply have to present it as ‘the White House says X’ and get the other side of the argument. The Chinese Embassy should always be consulted, even if we happen to agree with what the White House said. It’s pretty basic journalism really – consult both sides, present both sides, and THEN allow the listener, viewer, reader to make up their own mind…On top of that, of course White House reporters must ask difficult questions. If the White House spokesman/president makes a comment that needs challenging, it must be challenged – the weird thing is that it is all so basic, such basic journalism. Is it just since 9.11 that some of the basics of journalism have gone out the window? Or was it happening before that ?

Witt: Please amplify on the last part of your answer.

Gifford: Well, I am not in Washington day in day out reporting, so it is easy for me to say, AND I am not an American citizen, so it is even easier for me to say, but it touches on the ongoing tension between journalism and patriotism – you have to ask the tough questions – just because the nation is under attack/ at war/ whatever, doesn’t mean we all have to roll over and take what any nation’s leaders say at face value.

Witt: Have we rolled over? What do you hear from your colleagues from outside the US?

Gifford: I’m not saying we have, I’m just saying we shouldn’t, and there is evidence that some of us have – I think all of us abroad were a little surprised at how few questions were asked by the media in the US in the run up to the Iraq War.

Witt: I want to go back to an earlier answer. You said “relatively unbiased foreign reporting (is) perceived by some to be the ‘liberal media’ and (is) treated as such.” How did you deal with this? What’s you advice to other reporters?

Gifford: My advice is always to just go on reporting the facts – you can’t stoop to the level of people who politicize the news and say that because you say, for instance, the Chinese government did something that many Chinese people support (Shock Horror!!) that you are a communist…the main thing is to make sure you are CORRECT in your reporting – then they can’t stand up their allegations, and they are exposed (though not always) for the ideologues with their own agenda (left or right) that they actually are – the problem is though, of course, that there are lots of pre-disposed ideologues in their audience who will simply believe them…there’s not much you can do about that.

Witt: So, you probably know as much about China as any Westerner. What’s your advice to editors everywhere and I, might add, to the audiences?

Gifford: Not sure I know that much, but my advice to editors is not to play down what their reporters should be reporting (I can’t believe I even have to say that) and just to let reporters say the truth, the facts, even if that doesn’t fit with our stereotypes – otherwise we might as well all pack up and go home, we are simply not doing our jobs as reporters and editors. To audiences, of course, I would also say, think for yourself, and be aware that the media (sadly) is not always objective – and CERTAINLY don’t always take what your government says (whatever nationality you are) as gospel.

Witt: So much of the world’s future depends on the West’s relationships to China. However, given our biases, and theirs, and the complexities of the story, can Western journalists ever hope to get it right? And if they don’t, what are the consequences?

Gifford: Well, journalists are of course all human beings and very imperfect – we all have our own prejudices etc, which we try to minimize in our reporting. But China is a singularly difficult story to tell because there is SO MUCH good and SO MUCH bad all happening simultaneously – so which is real? Answer: they both are – we should of course be asking the questions such as ‘Is China a threat?’ but the problem is when we cross the line from putting forward the views of both sides and clearly tilt our reports one way or the other – certainly, if we keep going on about China being a threat in our reports, many people (including in government) will believe it, and act accordingly with government policy, and there is a danger of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy -maybe it is true. But we need to assess that from the facts, put objectively, not from some skewed reporting that some editor has determined must add up to a report that presents China (or anywhere) in a particular light.

Witt: This has been a great interview. One final question. What makes you feel pessimistic? What makes you feel optimistic when you think of the US and China relationships?

Gifford: Pessimistic: The propensity of people on both sides to believe the worst about the government of the other – too much nationalism (sometimes stoked by the media) is dangerous.

Optimistic: The fact that it is in the interests of neither side to have a war or to allow disputes to escalate , and hopefully that mutual need will keep the two sides getting along – not necessarily sharing values or goals, but realizing that war or anything approaching that is not in the interest of anyone.

Witt: Excellent. Can’t wait to read your book. What’s the working title?

Gifford: China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Superpower – but I think it is definitely going to change – that is not quite good enough!

Editor’s note: Gifford emphasizes these comments are solely his and not those of NPR. Words that are all uppercased are the way Gifford wrote them.

See more Leonard Witt Restoring the Trust interviews here.

4 Responses to “NPR Reporter Frets about Media’s China Coverage”

  1. suzanne Says:

    Rob Gifford is such an exemplary reporter because he always offers both sides of a story, presents the facts, and adds a special magical story-telling skill to his NPR reports. He has great vision, diplomacy, and a good sense of humor. KSU was fortunate to have made his friendship.

  2. suzanne Says:

    Rob Gifford is such an exemplary reporter because he always offers both sides of a story, presents the facts, and adds a special magical story-telling skill to his NPR reports. He has great vision, diplomacy, and a good sense of humor. KSU was fortunate to have made his friendship.

  3. Bingfeng Teahouse Says:

    Is China “good” or “bad”? NPR Reporter Frets about Media’s China Coverage

    Is China “good” or “bad”? NPR Reporter Frets about Media’s China Coverage

  4. Simon World Says:

    Daily linklets 1st December

    For World AIDS Day, the cover-up in Henan. As I said a couple of days ago, AIDS/HIV is the killer virus already in China. Start worrying more about that and less about bird flu. Fons reports on Shanghai's first AIDS themed restaurant. Does society…

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