Ah, propaganda. There's something almost endearing about it. Its self-righteous sincerity, its intrepid flouting of facts. You really have to admire the loyalty of those reporters who willingly regurgitate a one-note version of the truth, but are otherwise honest journalists.
I had never really witnessed such a steady diet of disinformation until I came to work at China Daily, China's biggest English-language newspaper. Sure, the US has Fox News and Air America, depending on how you swing, but ideological slants are not the same as institutionalized absolutes, or editorial content dictated from on high.
To be fair, China Daily is not strictly a propaganda machine. It does its best to present itself as a genuine newspaper, but one that is proudly pro-China. It maintains an unequivocal stance on "sensitive" topics like Taiwan ("an inalienable part of China") and Falun Gong (an "illegal cult"). But reporters are free to explore almost any other topic, so long as the story gives a positive and non-critical view of Chinese affairs. (It is also important to note that China Daily is not the same as Xinhua, the official news wire that really is a government mouthpiece, though a lot of the paper's content comes from Xinhua.)
On any given day, China Daily's inconsistencies with Western standards of journalism are not so obvious. It looks, feels and, at times, reads like any other substandard local daily. But in the wake of last month's deadly riots in Tibet and the surrounding areas — and with just four months to go before the more-important-than-you-can-possibly-imagine Olympic Games in Beijing — any pretense of accuracy or objectivity has been shelved indefinitely.
With a quick glance at the paper's first issue after the riots broke out, you might not even realize anything was amiss. There was a story on the front page condemning the "sabotage acts" of "a tiny number of people," but it was buried beneath the blanket coverage of the 11th National People's Congress, the rubber-stamp legislative body that "elects" all the country's leaders. Newsflash: Everyone was re-elected.
It's a fairly typical tactic used by China's media and their censors — pretend everything's cool and maybe it'll go away. It's the same thinking behind the laughable blockages of international outlets like CNN. It is really quite amazing to be watching CNN reports about Tibet, the Dalai Lama or Olympic protests when the screen suddenly goes blank for several seconds. It happens without fail and the only reason, I guess, is because they somehow believe that if they don't show it, the problem will cease to exist.
But, of course, the Tibet problem did not cease to exist, so China Daily was forced to go on the offensive. For the next several weeks, the topic was planted firmly above the fold, usually in articles railing against the blatantly biased and dishonest depictions in the foreign press. These stories skipped over the fact that China forbid any foreign journalists to enter Tibet once the riots broke out, choosing instead to send in scores of their own reporters to give a predictably one-sided account of events. The "criminals" in question were referred to mostly as "looters," "vandals" and "saboteurs," all acting out the master plan of the "Dalai clique" — "secessionists" bent on "inciting ethnic hatred." Story after single-source story described the brutality of the mobs without a single mention of the Tibetans' grievances or any indication that the violence was anything more than a group of lawless radicals working on behalf of the sinister Dalai Lama.
It was a controversial time to be a Westerner at China Daily. All of us who work there are copy editors, so nearly all of these Tibet stories came through us, for better or worse. (I was somewhat removed from the ethical struggles of my colleagues since I'm on the Sports desk, ostensibly an apolitical department, but a bastion of nationalism all the same. No Tibet stories for me, though.) Some people seemed to relish the role, eager to give reporters tips on how to strengthen the tone of their story's message. Some simply refused to be a tool of the machine — they don't last too long. Most just bit the bullet and did what they could to the stories to satisfy their consciences, understanding this is how the game is played and that the experience itself is more valuable than trying to alter the fundamentals of this state-run rag.
That the Chinese press churns out propaganda disguised as journalism does not mean the riots in Tibet were any less obscene, nor does it mean Western media do not have a tendency to spin China stories a certain way. The police "crackdown" was not nearly as bloody as some would like to believe, and the rioters share just as much blame as the police, if not more. There were examples of distortions in Western media, even if they paled in comparison to the tales spun in China.
The problem with propaganda is that once you start regularly producing it, even the truth starts to look like lies.