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Their Master’s Voice

From The Scrapbook

Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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If anybody doubts that our future will be mixed up with the People’s Republic of China, The Scrapbook invites you to take a stroll along New York Avenue in Washington, D.C., and gape at the big new office building going up within easy walking distance of the White House. It’s the Washington headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV), from which English-language news broadcasts with a Beijing twist will be coming soon to a cable service near you.

Apparently, the Chinese believe that their country doesn’t get favorable coverage in the world’s press because the world’s press is, of course, largely non-Chinese. The Scrapbook isn’t so sure about this (have they not been enjoying Thomas Friedman’s New York Times columns in Beijing?), but if it works for the BBC and Al Jazeera and Voice of America, why shouldn’t it work for the world’s largest Communist dictatorship? 

This sort of news is, of course, catnip to The Scrapbook. The Chinese seem to believe one of the enduring myths of modern democracy: namely, that the only thing a Great Power needs to succeed in the world is (a) power and (b) good public relations. It also proves that countless journalists can be bought, if the price is right. 

According to the Washington Post, CCTV’s new outpost has hired some 60 ink-stained wretches “from NBC, Bloomberg TV, Fox News, and other Western news organizations,” and all are committed to “report without fear or favor, free from government manipulation and second-guessing.”

They insist that the network will have autonomy from Beijing, and that its journalists are seasoned professionals who understand the difference between government propaganda and news.

Well, of course they are “seasoned professionals”​—​would the Chinese hire any other kind?​—​who know the difference between news and propaganda. But the question is: At the salaries CCTV is prepared to pay them, are they likely to act on that knowledge?

We think we know the answer. According to the Post, “CCTV wouldn’t permit any of its officials or journalists to speak on the record,” and after introducing Jim Laurie, the former NBC and ABC reporter who is now CCTV’s top adviser for American news operations, the Post noted that “Laurie referred questions to CCTV’s management.”

The Scrapbook is willing to concede that, with rampant unemployment in journalists’ ranks, it’s hard to blame those 60 new hires for signing on to a regular paycheck. But will CCTV’s Washington headquarters accomplish what Beijing hopes? Al Jazeera has a large, well-funded, and technically sophisticated news operation in Washington, and ostensibly enjoys a form of editorial autonomy from its patron, the government of Qatar. But while Al Jazeera successfully preaches to the choir in the Arab world, is there any evidence that it has had much effect on American public opinion? Not really.

The People’s Republic of China already gets treated generously in the Western media: lots of stories about robust capitalism and graduate students in America and the wonders of the Great Wall, and plenty of academic talking heads eager to defend Beijing’s policies. So are those 60 seasoned CCTV professionals going to mention the other China, the China of political repression, hostility to America, forced abortions, and regional bullying? 

Wake us up when they do.

Remains of the Day

The Scrapbook is a lifelong believer in the law of unintended consequences, and one of our favorite examples is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. This measure was intended to protect historic Indian burial grounds from plunder, and to assure that federally recognized tribes retain custody of “cultural items.”

But in the intervening two decades it has become a catastrophe for the scholarly study of prehistoric America. And the reason is simple: Certain tribes, and certain activists, are not so much interested in their cultural history as in being as obnoxious as possible to their fellow (non-Indian) countrymen. So they have laid claim to ancient skeletal remnants which they didn’t discover, don’t understand, and which, at 10,000 years old and older, haven’t the slightest connection to modern-day tribes. 

Yet federal courts and the Department of the Interior have generally sided with the tribes, and universities and other research institutions that have been studying the ethnography of North America for the past two centuries are now forced to surrender artifacts​—​probably for destruction. It is worth asking whether, in the near future, any prehistoric human artifacts on this continent may be legally preserved.

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