All the Propaganda That's Fit to Print
Fish, Isaac Stone, Dokoupil, Tony, Newsweek
Byline: Isaac Stone Fish and Tony Dokoupil
Why Xinhua, China's state news agency, could be the future of journalism.
It had all the trappings of a globally significant confab: big-deal appearances (by Google, BBC), a weighty theme ("the digital age"), and speechifying by international pooh-bahs. Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp., even delivered a peppery keynote, vowing war on "content kleptomaniacs." But despite its name, the World Media Summit was itself a media bust, especially in the English-speaking press, which barely covered the three-day event held last fall in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. The problem? The conference was a propagandafest, a "media Olympics" hosted by the Xinhua News Agency, an official organ of the Chinese Communist Party. If China has its way, however, ignoring Xinhua won't be an option for long.
For decades Xinhua has been an unavoidable presence in China. It has a monopoly on official news and the regulatory power to complicate life for other media outfits. But as China has grown in wealth and international stature, Beijing has tired of feeling overlooked or maligned by the Western press. So Xinhua's role has been redefined, as a means for China to wield soft power abroad. In the last year alone, the 80-year-old outlet launched a 24-hour English-language news station, colonized a skyscraper in New York's Times Square, and announced plans to expand its news-gathering operation from 120 to 200 overseas bureaus and as many as 6,000 journalists abroad. Not to be outdone by its Western peers, Xinhua has also released an iPhone app for "Xinhua news, cartoons, financial information and entertainment programs around the clock."
With a price tag estimated in the billions of dollars, the new Xinhua is an expensive megaphone. But it's key "to breaking the monopoly and verbal hegemony" of the West, according to remarks released last year by Xinhua's president, Li Congjun, who often sounds like he's channeling Noam Chomsky. Xinhua declined to make officials available for this story, citing "holiday season." But clearly the effort has to do with the new rules of propaganda, too. Where the game was once about suppressing news, it's now about overwhelming it, flooding the market with your own information. Airbrushing photos is for amateurs.
The challenge is finding an audience for "news" that is best known for its blind spots. The typical Xinhua sentence is thick on the tongue ("out of which 20 percent were the HIV-infected persons") and often inaccurate by design. In Xinhua's world, the Tiananmen Square massacre never happened, Falun Gong is an evil cult, and the Dalai Lama is the Guy Fawkes of Tibet. Xinhua also gathers sensitive news--such as the full heads-rolling horror of the Uighur riots last summer--and releases it to Chinese officials alone. It's as if The New York Times were to stamp its scoops "internal reference reports" and file them to President Obama.
Nevertheless, Xinhua may be the future of news for one big reason: cost. Most news organizations are in retreat, shuttering bureaus and laying off journalists. But the former "Red China News Agency" doesn't need to worry about the inconvenience of turning a profit. As a result, it might do for news what China's state-run factories have done for tawdry baubles and cheap clothes: take something that has become a commodity and foist it onto the world far more cheaply than anyone else can. "It gives them an inherent competitive advantage" says Tuna Amobi, a media analyst for Standard & Poor's, who thinks Xinhua's cheap news "might fly." A subscription to all Xinhua stories costs in the low five figures, compared with at least six figures for comparable access to the Associated Press, Reuters, or AFP. For customers who still can't afford the fees, a Xinhua aid program offers everything--content, equipment, and technical support--for free.
It's an alluring deal in the Middle East, Africa, and the developing world, where newsprint sales are up and there's hunger for non-Western perspectives. …