Recently, I had an in-depth newspaper interview. The occasion was the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birthday and the interviewer was keen to find out what a foreigner thought about all of this.
Throughout the whole process, I had a strong sense of trust that the interviewer would do a proper job. The resulting publication justified this sense.
But the experience set me thinking. Why did I trust this particular interviewer and her newspaper? Why do I not trust other news outlets? How does what counts as ‘news’ and ‘analysis’ differ from context to context?
Let me give a little more detail. The news service in question was Xinhua News, the official government-funded media provider for China. Some would call it a ‘state-run’ operation, with the implication that it merely parrots what the Chinese government says. I would call it ‘state-owned’ and – as will become clear – am fully in favour of such operations. The interviewer, based in Beijing, was keen to find out why a foreigner is so interested in Chinese Marxism, especially on the occasion of Marx’s anniversary.
She managed to get clearance for me to enter the restricted space where they work. After a tour and explanation, meeting a number of journalists, seeing the hospital, school, accommodation and eating in the famous dining hall, we settled down in a quiet corner and spoke for about an hour. She asked many questions and we ranged over Marxism, Chinese socialism, the ‘reform and opening up’, Xi Jinping’s reassertion of Marx at the centre of China’s future drive, and so on. She recorded the whole discussion and I had no qualms whatsoever. I felt perfectly comfortable speaking about socialist human rights, socialist democracy, justice, and the poverty alleviation campaign. Much of this material made it into the published version of the interview.
To return to the question: why did I trust this journalist?
I have been a daily reader of Xinhua News (among other Chinese and DPRK outlets) for a number of years. After some time, I began to notice a pattern: they do not engage in ‘gossip’, which increasingly passes for ‘news’ in many corporate media outlets. To give a recent example, Xinhua News does not simply repeat Donald Trump’s latest ‘tweets’, nor indeed salacious stories about his dalliances with porn stars. I asked about this practice and I was told that they prefer to study and analyse what is going on. The conclusion: Trump uses this approach to keep his opponents wrong-footed. A deeper pattern can be ascertained, which enables a more sober and robust response.
Further – and this really answers the third question – journalists do not simply turn to various ‘experts’ for analysis of a situation, which gives media-hungry intellectuals too many opportunities for spouting forth their half-baked opinions. Instead, the journalists at Xinhua (or indeed the People’s Daily and the Global Times) are expected to study, read widely, and actually think. And when they do engage with intellectuals like myself, they come through as intellectuals in their own right.
The second question: why do I not trust other news outlets?
For some reason, I have recently been contacted by a few news outlets for comment. Let me be clear: I normally make a point of not engaging in such practices. The other outlets in question are corporate operations, seeking opinions on Xi Jinping’s focus on Marxism or developments in the DPRK (North Korea). My immediate reaction was to turn them down. But I did check with a few people in China, some of whom are rather critical of current situation in this country. They immediately responded that I could not trust these operations, but I could trust Xinhua News.
I am led to this conclusion: corporate media outlets, run by business conglomerates that need to make a profit and therefore engage in sensationalist gossip, cannot be trusted. They will twist your words and misrepresent what you say for the sake of their own agenda.
By contrast, properly resourced media outlets like Xinhua News can be trusted. More sharply: corporate media cannot be trusted; ‘state-run’ media can be trusted. They take you seriously, are careful to represent what you say accurately, and prefer in-depth analysis. This is their job and they do it well.