Sorry for the long layoff, I have just returned from China. This was my fifth or sixth trip to China, and the second in just over two years. The country never ceases to amaze. The rich in the country appear to be super rich. A walk along Nanjing Road or in the French Concession reveals half a dozen auto dealerships. I saw an Astin Martin dealership, a Maserati dealership, a Jaguar dealership, and the cheapest car I could see to buy in downtown Shanghai was a Land Rover.
In the big cities the people you see on the street are for the most part very smartly dressed. There are far fewer beggars than I would see on the Danforth in Toronto.
According to the people I met and talked to, mostly guides and middle class family people, things are just terrific in China. Yet on two occasions I had conversations that amazed me. They were both about the same thing. I was asked what I do for a living in Canada. I said I was a retired journalist. The people asking the question seemed overly interested in this fact. The next question I was asked is whether as a journalist I could write the truth. They wanted to know whether I could write about what I see or whether the government tells me what to publish.
Interestingly, the Chinese were actually surprised that the press was basically free to tell the stories they wanted to tell, and more important to them, the truth. It is a concept that they can get their heads around logically, but something they have never seen, or at least believe they have never seen.
When asked to describe their television news or their newspapers, the Chinese people I spoke to said there was no point in watching or reading. There was too little truth in their media and everything was censored. They went on to describe their news media as a propaganda arm of the government, telling me that Chinese journalists garner no respect from the populace at large. Of course they are correct.
I was not surprised by the lack of free press in China. Heck we all know the regime is tyrannical and controlling. What did surprise me was the fact that everyone seems to know the situation. I have never lived in a totalitarian nation so I have nothing to compare it to. Hey, but most Chinese have never lived in a democracy with a free press. So how did they become so savvy to their own situation? This is a question nobody could answer. I got shrugs and remarks like: everyone knows what’s going on. I guess it is the equivalent of an underground economy, in this case an underground information system that passes on the truth to better informed citizens.
What this experience and these discussions raised in me was the strong realization that we in Canada and the West take our press freedom for granted. We seldom give it a second thought. Perhaps that’s a good thing. It speaks to the freedoms we do have. But it also makes me wonder when outlets like Fox News in the U.S. and now Sun TV in Canada play fast and loose with the facts. How much does this demean our system and worse how does it affect the perception of the people who were raised to believe in the facts presented by a free press. And to be fair, it’s not just the Fox’s and the Sun’s. The Iraq War was a textbook case of the major U.S. networks refusing to report the facts of both the political and the military situation leading up to and during the conflict.
The bottom line question all journalists should ask themselves is whether we are killing a good thing and where that will lead in the future. While I was away I actually got to see the now infamous Sun TV interview that Krista Erickson did with the Tory Heritage Minister James Moore. The minister made minced meat of Krista mostly because she would not let the facts get in the way of her story idea. The best line for me in the interview was when Moore said to Erickson that she had very different ideas when she spoke to him as a CBC employee and all she could do was blubber for 20 seconds about where she works today. Had she had her facts right, she might have been on the way to making a reasonable point about the CBC’s dumbed down programming initiatives, but she was far more concerned about spreading misinformation to make a stronger point. It reminded me of Donald trump and the “birthers.”
Two things are happening at the same time and neither one is good. First, journalism is being subverted and dragged down by manipulative practitioners who are only interested in using the media to spread a point of view. If this continues it will bring all journalism into disrepute. Second, an increasingly ignorant population is being fed false information and accepting it as fact. This results in a vicious cycle of increasing ignorance that allows the purveyors of misinformation to be more and more effective.
I wish all of those so-called journalists who refuse to cherish fact based reporting could spend a little time in places like China and Cuba. If they could see how valuable and important free journalism is, perhaps they would be less inclined to subvert it.