The past week’s flurry of stories and opinion pieces chronicling President Barack Obama’s fortunes in the Far East made much of the global recession and China’s role as a major investor in the U.S. In almost every analysis of the trip, Chinese officials were portrayed as optimistic and newly emboldened to stand up to American interests and Obama was cast in the role of the meek debtor, standing with hat in hand. The line is that little was achieved and Obama was stifled, literally by state television and figuratively by the Chinese upper hand in the power dynamic.
Former New York Times Shanghai bureau chief Howard French says that negative narrative failed to take several things into account: the strict Chinese image control that doesn’t allow the sort of media celebrity that Obama enjoys elsewhere in the world; progress made in backroom diplomatic discussions; Obama’s stated objectives; and his quiet diplomatic style that doesn’t produce the kind of sound bytes that a scorekeeping-focused press Washington press corps feeds on. French lived in China for five years. He returned to the U.S. last August as a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches a seminar on reporting on China. The second part of this interview can be found here.
“I don’t think that [the press] have gotten it right, to put things very simply. I think that part of the problem is not especially China-related but strikes me as a reflection of something that’s happening in the culture, particularly in the news culture, partially in response to the habits of television coverage and the increased pressures that come from digital media. There’s a growing reflex of instant punditry and reflexive reaction that works counter to more meaningful analysis. We’re in a state where we’re very often privileging the gut or the knee, as in knee-jerk, rather than thinking more meaningfully about things.
“The piece that really relates directly to China, I think, and the signals I get from this coverage are equally distressing. The unstated element for me in all of this coverage of Obama’s visit is a kind of hysterical insecurity in the American mind about the possibility—or reality, depending on how you look at it—of American decline. China being the most obvious and immediate symbol of American vulnerability and decline. You put these two things together, the hysterical insta-pundit on the one hand and the hysterical anxiety on the other hand, you end up with this kind of coverage that says essentially that Obama goes to China and doesn’t get instant, public, overt gratification on issues A through Zed and therefore it was a failed trip, or we’re losing ground to China or we have no more standing or we have no more clout or the Chinese moment is upon us—any number of variations on this decline-related theme.
“A great irony of this, and I’m making generalizations about the coverage, but one great irony is that the fact the Chinese had to pack an audience in Shanghai with Communist party youth and people who were trained to ask very anodyne questions or to ask very obvious political questions. You can look at this on the one hand as a sign of American lack of influence with China, as many people were quick to do, or you can look at it on the other hand as a sign of, ‘Hey we’re talking about China like the next great thing and they’re so insecure they can’t even allow a Q and A with the president?’ That to me is a more interesting interpretation.
“Obama went into this trip saying beforehand that he planned to do things a bit differently, that he was going to try to establish some mutual confidence and trust with the Chinese and to work in the long range sense on achieving things on a variety of different issues. This was pretty much declared prior to the trip and made explicit and it’s consonant with a number of things that we know about Obama’s style in other areas. So then to see the trip having almost not even been completed and people becoming very excited that he ‘Didn’t say this’ or he ‘Didn’t do that,’ meaning that he didn’t say this or do that publicly, strikes me as being rather forgetful of the premise that the president himself had tried to establish for his approach in this aspect of his foreign policy.
“I find that the Washington reporters tend to be typically the most subject to this instant scorekeeping. This is part of the game of Washington reporting. They’re at the bleeding edge of this phenomenon that I think is distressing in terms of the approach of the press to serious questions. Everything is shot through this prism of short-term political calculation as opposed to thinking seriously about stuff. You can’t be an expert on every question, and so you’re part of the Washington press corps and if you’re really good and really diligent, you’re going to be expert maybe in a few things and one of those things might not be China.
“And now you’re in China on a three- or four-day trip and all of a sudden you’re having to weigh in on in important things and you don’t speak any Chinese and you don’t know any Chinese people and you’re in the security bubble of the president and you’re traveling from stop to stop on a stopwatch with the guy and being pumped all the time by the president’s aides—and this is true of all presidents—and subject to their spin and you’ve got these short deadlines and you’ve got to write these things. So they operate within those constraints. It’s a very difficult process, so I’m being critical of the press but I don’t see any obvious ways around that particular piece of things. “
In Part II, hear French’s analysis of common misperceptions about China, Chinese media image control, and the most overlooked story from the trip.Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.