The last time an anchor from our favourite TV channel made it to the news, he created such a brouhaha that culminated in the eviction of one coffee company from the Forbidden City. In the news this time is New Zealand-born anchor Edwin Maher who for many years before arriving in China was a weatherman with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The Los Angeles Times published a profile of Maher that started it all off. It gives some interesting details into his background, describing him as “a sort of Aussie Willard Scott, an eccentric weatherman who ad-libbed his reports by using map pointers such as carrots, scepters and an ice cream cone”, and revealing that he “came to China on a whim after his wife died from a brain tumor in 2001”. It then dives quickly into the criticisms that’s been leveled against Maher:
He was hired in 2003 as the station introduced a Western face to shake its image as a stodgy government mouthpiece, famous among foreigners for its wooden presentations and sometimes-tortured English. Maher anchors the news up to four times a day for millions of viewers worldwide, including the U.S. Critics say Maher isn’t a reporter at all, but a shameless government yes-man who gives all Western journalists a bad name. Maher answers bluntly: He says he simply doesn’t care…
Al Jazeera has a team of English-speaking reporters from 45 nations, recruited from many of the globe’s major networks. In diversifying its news reports, CCTV officials say they hope their foreign reporters will help provide a more credible Chinese perspective on world affairs. Media experts call the move a public relations ploy.
“It sounds like an effort to lend a whiff of Western-style credibility to their news operations, in a superficial way, without having to actually adhere to high standards such as fairness, independence, balance, public service and accuracy,” said Neil Henry, a UC Berkeley School of Journalism professor.
“But a propagandist is a propagandist, no matter what one’s race or country of origin.”
Maher hears from his critics — from irate e-mail writers to the foreigners he meets. “One writer said there was no excuse for what I was doing. And Westerners on the street will ask how I feel about being a mouthpiece for the Chinese government.”
Taking umbrage with comments such as these, the Global Times (环球时报) came swiftly to Maher’s defence with a story entitled The West attacks foreign CCTV anchor, calls him a news sellout [translated by Black and White Cat]:
As this reporter understands it, these so-called Western media figures simply don’t understand Maher and they have never made any enquiries on this matter to CCTV. They see Chinese news through colored spectacles and their approach verges on bigotry. “Maher is absolutely not the kind of person they say he is,” a senior media worker told the Global Times, expressing intense indignation at the unreasonable attacks from certain Western figures in this report. This person believes that Maher is someone in the media who deserves respect, both for his character and professional ability. This media worker dismisses the criticisms of these so-called Western media experts, “Do they understand Maher? Do they know the facts?”…
A senior media expert told the Global Times that some media in the West are always assuming a role of “moral judge” as if they alone “understand news,” they alone are news experts, and only their reports can be the most objective. However, they are completely unaware that they themselves are seeing China through colored glasses. Some foreign experts have lived in China for decades and criticize their so-called western news experts, saying they simply don’t understand China, don’t understand the Chinese media, or that they have only seen things superficially. Who, then, has the most right to speak? Who, then, has sold out journalism? Certain so-called journalism experts have accidentally revealed their own ugly side.
The Zhongnanhai blog looks at both stories and came to this conclusion in a comparision between western and Chinese journalism:
What kind of person did the Times article say he was? Selfish? Dishonourable? A liar? A bad man? No, they criticized him for using his stature in the media business to help promote a Communist government which is unelected, has a horrendous human rights record, and continually threatens its neighbor, Taiwan. (There are those that will claim the previous sentence was a loaded one, however each of those points are factual.) Obviously those working under this system won’t appreciate this point of view, because it cuts a little close to home. But in an open media environment, I would submit, this criticism is fair game.
In addition, the LA Times article did talk about what kind of man Maher is, and also mentioned his long and distinguished career in the industry. These two quotes from the Global Times article are not only misleading, they are downright wrong, and an extremely poor example of the kind of Chinese journalism it claims to defend.
Obviously a western article that is overly critical of China, its government, or its media institutions without any rebuttal is biased. But one that shows criticism of China, and its defense, is fair. And in my opinion, the article on Edwin Maher in the LA Times lived up to that spirit.
At the end of the day, comparing western journalism with Chinese journalism is exceedingly difficult. They are completely different, and run in a completely different manner. When people complain that CNN is the “mouthpiece” of the US government, I ask them about the continual negative coverage of George W. Bush, the Iraq war, Afghanistan, the falling US dollar, and other US policies. Would CCTV 9 run similar criticisms of the Chinese government? Of course not, unless it was pre-approved by the party cadres who roam the highest floors of Xinhua News Agency.
Imagethief joins in the debate:
What is it about westerners who appear on television that attracts our particular ire? Anyone wanting to look deeper into this phenomenon need only consider Dashan. If there is a foreigner who elicits more widespread contempt from fellow western expatriates I’ve yet to encounter him (or her). One friend of mine attributed this to latent racism. It’s all very well to live and work in China, but to be seen acting ridiculous for the entertainment of the Chinese is taboo. My friend memorably referred to this as the “Dance, monkey!” syndrome.
Maher seems to have earned himself the same kind of contempt. Even Imagethief has written unkind things about him in past. But everyone who works in business in China is complicit with the Chinese government to some degree. We’re all doing our bit to prop up the State. An explicit part of my job is helping foreign companies to pander to the Chinese government. That’s why we’re always helping companies to talk about their “commitment to China”.
LA Times: China’s man at the anchor desk
Global Times: The West attacks foreign CCTV anchor, calls him a news sellout
Zhongnanhai: Edwin Maher controversy: which side is more balanced?
Imagethief: What to make of Edwin Maher?
Photo of Edwin Maher from China Daily.