Back in October, we looked at an article in China’s Global Times newspaper arguing that U.S. media coverage of the presidential race had exposed the ills of Western media and their disingenuous claims to professionalism and independence. As we argued then, this sort of criticism can be found in newspaper articles going back to the earliest days of the Chinese Communist Party press.

Since Donald Trump’s victory in those elections, as the press and pundits in the West continue to contemplate the ills of the media in the “post-truth” era, China’s official media have pursued with gusto the theme of American media dysfunction.

Earlier this month, an article in the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper concluded that American media are “seriously ill,” and that they had, through a downward spiral of “liberal bias,” lost touch with the country’s mainstream — epitomised, apparently, by the Trump voter.

People’s Daily. Photo: David Bandurski.

The piece, written by Zhang Tianpei, is something of a grab bag. In discussing the problem of liberal bias, it drags out the 2008 Jim A. Kuypers study at Dartmouth College. And of course it tosses in the obligatory paragraph about the dominance of the U.S. media industry by six massive companies — News Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner, Columbia Broadcasting and Comcast.

But it is a prime example of what has become, over many decades in China, a stock genre for Party journalists — the broadside against American media. And so we include a translation here.

Detecting the Disease of American Mainstream Media
Zhang Tianpei / People’s Daily / December 4, 2016 (page five)

The American mainstream media did not at all anticipate that the 2016 US presidential election would make a “reverse” and defy all media predictions. The very day that voting began, the Huffington Post reported that “Hillary Clinton has a massive advantage” and was likely to win the election. A bit later that same day, the New York Times revealed the latest opinion poll results from 10 or so authoritative media, reporting that the vast majority of the numbers supported Clinton’s lead over Trump. Nevertheless, the election results ultimately came as a shock to the mainstream media.

CNN Centre Studios. Photo: Wikicommons.

More ironic still was the fact that American media have utilised ever more complex and advanced polling tools with apparent “precision,” the results constantly in peoples’ ears. These opinion polls are now regarded as little more than political and commercial tools serving to mislead the public. John King, a journalist for the CNN news network, said: “It seems that none of the predictions made recently in the mainstream media were based on real facts.” Throughout this presidential election, the American mainstream media and American democracy were scrutinised under a microscope, and many people asked: Why are American mainstream media so sick?

Losing Popular Support Through “Liberal Bias”

In the American media, the problem of “liberal bias” is an old one. A study by Jim A. Kuypers at Dartmouth College [in 2008] looked at 116 mainstream American newspapers, and his results showed that the liberal bias in American media was widespread. Journalists felt that if they voiced moderate or conservative views in their work they would be tagged as “minorities.” On issues such as the legality of guns, the issue of homosexuality, and the discussion of minorities, there was in all cases as clear liberal bias. In the choice of think tanks [as sources], there was also a bias toward inviting liberal scholars and government officials to express their views. Research has shown that searches of the New York Times archives reveals that members of liberal think tanks [quoted in stories] are double the number of those at conservative think tanks. According to a 2014 Gallup poll 44 percent of Americans believe their own media is “too liberal.”

The damage caused in terms of the credibility of American mainstream media by “liberal bias” is plain to see. During the 2016 presidential election, the “liberal bias” of the mainstream media was even clearer, with agendas that average middle and lower class voters care about rarely appearing. The loss of objectivity lessened the quality of the news, and also intensified the distrust of the American public toward the mainstream media. American mainstream media are now in the process of losing the halo they have always claimed, that they represent “mainstream public opinion.”

Speaking for the Elites an Obstruction to Democracy

In recent years, the relationship between American mainstream media and those few wealthy elites who have decision-making power [in America] has grown closer. On major political decisions, in order to accommodate the demands of elites and protect the interests of elites, the media packages particular issues in a certain way, and only then presents them to the public, creating a so-called objective and true news view. This method deprives the public of its right to know, limits the scope within which the public can discuss agendas, and to a definite degree restricts public participation in democratic politics.

For some time, the American mainstream media has advertised itself as capable of truthfully and accurately capturing and reflecting the public will, but in fact the social reality as it appears in the media varies greatly from the “public will” and the demands of the ordinary public. The mainstream media focuses on the vision of America’s preservation of its global hegemonic status, on the development of cultural diversity and on the future of globalisation. But the working class that has a low level of political participation cares more about is the fact that America is “a country where social mobility and employment mobility are essentially zero.” Over the past few decades, their situation has grown more and more difficult, and the gap between their quality of life and that of the elite classes has grown steadily larger. Moreover, the power over the news enjoyed by the elite classes has managed to control the source of the news. News reports by the mainstream media have focused on the elite in the case of both report topics and sourcing, and the elite classes have a greater right to speak regardless of the question involved or at what stage. These filtering mechanisms are such that the voices of ordinary people have no way of becoming mainstream discourse in society, or of having an effect “outside the circle.”

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Photo: Wikicommons.

During the 2016 presidential election perhaps no mainstream media was willing to predict that “there is a probability that Trump will become US president.” American media elites forgot that they should go to America’s interior and listen to the voices of the public. Instead, they used phrases like “racists and bigots” to describe Trump supporters. So enamoured of their tools of statistical prediction, they again and again discussed the probability that Hillary would win the election. It is difficult for media of this kind to reflect the real situation in America, and it is worth questioning what contributions they can make to the development of American democracy. Under the protection and support of mainstream media, the American social system can create in its pursuit of elitism nothing more than a democratic mirage. Journalists have become “insiders” in the political conglomerate.

For the American public, politics is to a large extent nothing more than a kind of second-hand reality glimpsed through the media. The American political scientist Murray Edelman once said that for the ordinary people politics is just a series of pictures in their minds, and these pictures are the products of television news, newspapers, magazines and other media channels.

There is an extremely subtle relationship between the White House and current affairs news journalists in America. In order to satisfy the joint demands of obtaining information and transmitting information, they are no longer content with the role of documenting alone, but must become involved in the action and perhaps even orchestrate it. They grow closer and closer to the White House, and sometimes even start seeing themselves as members of Washington’s political elite and “insiders” in the political conglomerate.

Photo: Darron Birgenheier via Flickr.

Some have called the White House “the world’s foremost manufacturer of the news,” and the media have been reduced to links in the production chain of American government news.

As important channels for the release of information about the presidential election, mainstream media played an important role during the American presidential election. Mainstream media are, on the one hand, channels through which candidates in the American presidential election may interact with voters and share their policy platforms. But on the other hand, the American mainstream media are seeking to translate their massive capital into power and intervene in politics.

During the 2008 presidential election, 1,160 employees at the three major American television networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, made more than one million dollars in campaign donations to the Democratic camp.

Standing for Big Capital Has Alienated the Authority of the Media

The Western news profession has always boasted that its journalists can monitor the government and expose the darkness and corruption in society, serving as the “watchdogs.” But as Western media groups have capitalised, and as media groups have used their discourse power and influence to guide mainstream public opinion and preserve the interests of capital, a clear trend of alienation has occurred. In reality, as American mainstream media have manipulated public opinion, the wild ambitions of the public have grown steadily, and the abuse of the “fourth estate” has led instead to the pillaging of the public’s freedom to understand the facts and express their own views.

Thomas Jefferson, a past US president, said that the media are “a fourth estate placing checks on the executive, legislative and judicial [branches of government].” [Note: In fact, Jefferson never used the term “fourth estate,” which was not popularised until after Thomas Carlyle’s reference to the idea in 1841, well after Jefferson’s death in 1826]. The First Amendment of the US Constitution lays out the media’s position of relative independence from the government, and emphasises the media’s monitoring power and its special social function in reflecting public opinion. But along with the large-scale influx of capital, the American mainstream media has moved farther and farther from this original intention, and its reporting is routinely called into question by the American public.

Fox News. Photo: Wikicommon.

As the American media industry has become more and more centralised, its influence ever greater, the alienation of media power [from the American public] has become ever more obvious. American media today are monopolised by six massive companies — News Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner, Columbia Broadcasting and Comcast. The concentration and monopolisation of the media has resulted in growing uniformity of discourse, and there are fewer and fewer media that transmit diverse points of view. The American public has gradually become a puppet controlled by big capital. In his book News: The Politics of Illusion, the American scholar Lance Bennett puts it more directly, saying that “the primary driver of the news is economic benefit, not democracy.” Advertising and sponsorship are the principal revenue sources for American media, and whether or not they can receive the favour of capital directly determines the survival of the media. Under these operating conditions for the media, the question of whether or not a news event is reported, and from what vantage point it is reported, in fact depends on the position of the media owner and the holder of capital.

On the surface, American media are financially independent of the government, and they are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, meaning they might be capable of becoming “a sacred and inviolable realm,” “a pure land in defence of social justice.” But this is in fact just a pretty illusion. If we can say that before the 20th century American media were “independent, widely respected and full of strength, well then, after the 20th century American scholars and the ordinary public are inclined to believe that the American mainstream media, so full of “liberal bias” and elitism, are seriously ill.


David Bandurski

David is the co-director of the China Media Project, a research and fellowship program with the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. A frequent commentator on Chinese media, his writings have appeared in Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, Index on Censorship, the SCMP and others.