Sunday, May 18, 2008

Yet More on the Sichuan Earthquake and the Media

A bright spot in this tragedy is the free flow of information about the disaster. It's been hard to get here, but I hope it's harder to turn back.
—Peter M. Herford, Professor of Journalism, Shantou University; The Washington Post, 2008 May 17

The openness of the Chinese authorities to the media both foreign and domestic continues to be a story in itself. Peter Herford, a Western professor of journalism in China (a marvel in itself), writes an op-ed, where he credits the Internet. He also thinks that China has learned lessons from the Myanmar authorities’ response to the monks, as well as its own dealings with the outside world regarding the Tibetan uprising.

The Internet I can understand, but Tibet? Try this thought experiment: What if the earthquake had occurred first, followed by the Tibetan uprising? Would the Chinese authorities have responded any differently in either case? Here’s another one: What if an uprising broke out in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region? Would the Chinese authorities treat the incident any differently from the Tibetan incident? The cyclone was a natural and human disaster for the Burmese and a media disaster for the junta, but the trajectories of the two nations over the last three decades are so different that it’s hard to imagine China, indeed any nation other than North Korea, finding any takeaways either way from the Myanmar authorities’ behavior.

Having said that, I do not think Mr. Herford’s hopes are groundless either. I’m going to keep an eye on this for the long-run.

The New York Times comes in today (May 18) with a more detailed story (and more interesting as a work of journalism, frankly) on how the media subplot unfolded on the domestic front. It contains many interesting facts and comments from the Chinese media, illustrating the sensitive give-and-take between the media and the authorities, including a Central Propaganda Department caught wrongfooted at the onset, then changing its mind and going with the flow. This is a dynamic process that will continue to have many twists and turns over the coming years.

CNN, May 16 is merely competent, but this one came earlier in the game. BBC has not done any of this meta-reporting yet. Surprisingly, the Financial Times has yet to consider it either. Expect FT, as well as The Economist, to chime in soon. If anyone knows any good media reports and blog posts on this, let me know.

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