China versus CNN

China versus CNN

Communication between the United States and China should be constructive, not combative, writes Tom Plate

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Los Angeles --- A noisy Trans-Pacific storm has blown up, starring the Chinese Foreign Ministry and CNN. That's a superpower squall if there ever was one. But it's hard to know for whom to root!

The story so far: Some Chinese officials and many Chinese on the mainland are steamed over Western media coverage of the Tibet demonstrations. Their complaint (and a whole lot of people elsewhere in Asia agree) is the usual Asian moan about our media: That we portray world events that are inherently complicated, nuanced and sensitive as if they were simple black and white morality plays.

When will we ever learn that the more accurate coloration is almost always a shade or two of gray?

And so Asian anger -- on a low simmer -- absolutely boiled over the other day when a CNN opinion-commentator offered highly opinionated and unflattering remarks about China and its tainted food exports and its policy toward Tibet. They won't be repeated in any detail here; you can simply ask your favorite search-engine to find you "CNN, Jack Cafferty, China, Tibet" and you will get more than you need.

But it must be noted for the record here that the last line of the aired commentary about the Chinese and their government sounded thusly: "I think they're basically the same bunch of goons and thugs they've been for the last 50 years."

So, what should be made of this?

The Chinese government in effect called for something approaching Cafferty's immediate guillotining, without sedation. In response, CNN, mid-week, issued a sort of half-baked, conditional apology: "It was not Mr. Cafferty's nor CNN's intent to cause offence to the Chinese people, and we would apologize to anyone who has interpreted the comments in this way." CNN added that its opinion columnist was, merely, offering his "strongly held" opinion of "the Chinese Government, not China's people."

Unfortunately, that ultra-carefully worded "apology" hit many Chinese as about as sincere as a spammed email offering you a million dollars from your winning ticket in the Irish Lottery.

There is something else that's unfortunate: Jack Cafferty himself. To know him may be to love him, and many do, especially for his taxicab-driver style rudeness that makes fun of virtually everything and everyone. But if you don't know him, and you think of CNN as aiming to be some kind of serious, sensible, objective and internationally respected news organization, you would probably be wondering why they would have on the air an "opinion commentator" who's a cross between an insult comic and a one-person prejudice machine?

Jack the Hack once memorably opined about an effort in the U.S. Congress to ban gay marriages: "This is all being done by the Republican majority in an effort to appeal to right-wing nuts in the Republican Party ahead of the upcoming mid-term elections. Ignore all of the pressing issues facing the country, and instead go grovel at the feet of the lunatic fringe..." Moderation in the pursuit of precise and balanced perception is not Cafferty's game, you see.

Personally, I sort of dig his in-your-face, chalk-on-a-blackboard brand of irreverence. The reason perhaps is that, for decades, I lived in New York City. That thoroughly inured me to rudeness and overt prejudice. Practically everyone in New York is an equal-opportunity insulter: No ethnic, gender or race group is ever exempt.

But if I am running a serious media organization, I'd put that kind of stuff on some cable comedy show. It's too easily misunderstood.

And the fact that Cafferty is being widely misunderstood across Asia is no reason to excuse the fact that CNN offered him the bullhorn on an issue like this in the first place.  The road to the Summer Olympics is obviously going to be -- and indeed has been -- bumpy enough without CNN throwing firecrackers into the street.

You might say, in response, that China has to learn and accept that our media culture is very different from theirs, that Cafferty spoke for no one but himself, and that half the things people sometimes say in the media they may not even believe themselves, they do it just for effect (especially talk shows).

But the truth is that the nation of China -- containing as it does almost one quarter of the globe's population -- doesn't have to learn anything unless it wants to, so that in the meantime perhaps we in the West need to learn more about China -- how it will think and how it will react to what we say and do.

Perhaps by being more cosmopolitan about them, they will become more cosmopolitan about us. Communication at its best is always a two-way street.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.