Last October, as the world waited anxiously for one of the most important Chinese political events in a decade, a handful of Western news outlets were told their reporters would not be allowed to witness it in person. The BBC, the Financial Times, The Economist, The New York Times and The Guardian were all barred from attending President Xi Jinping’s announcement of his new ruling council, a defining moment for the legacy of China’s most important leader since Deng Xiaoping.
Unsurprisingly, the move led to accusations of hypocrisy, as press coverage of the party congress was touted by Beijing as an example of the country’s increased transparency. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said it was “a gross violation of the principles of press freedom.”
While ostensibly guaranteed in the Chinese constitution, freedom of the press is subordinate to other articles in the document, which also forbids committing acts that harm state interests. By Xi Jinping’s definition, the correct handling of news is an issue of vital importance to China’s national interests.
Properly doing news, the president has said, “concerns the cohesion and united spirit of the people through the Party and the country, concerns the fate of the Party and the country.”
Such a view of news, as a state-guided tool to maintain national cohesion, elicits outrage from observers in Western liberal democracies. The question of press freedom is black and white, so the narrative goes. China has none, while in multiparty democracies such as the United States the principle enjoys absolute protection.
But while leaders in Beijing are doubling down on party leadership as the “surname” of the media, the United States is undergoing something of an existential crisis with regard to how news is created and disseminated. The decentralizing and democratizing effect social media have had on the reporting of events has challenged the primacy of legacy news outlets. By some accounts it has also opened the door to foreign influence. The political left decries divisive and fabricated news items created by teenagers in Macedonia, while the right cries foul at misleading and sensationalized news reporting from a left-leaning mainstream press.
The degree of fragmentation in American news today reflects a dramatic change from recent history, but is not unprecedented. For 20th century, America’s news audience was presented with a more-or-less unified set of facts. As presidential administrations and congressional majorities swayed between advocacy of nominally conservative or liberal policies, the characterization of major events by national media followed a single script. The television news-watching public was presented with the same half-hour formula from the three main national networks, ABC, NBC and CBS – which is to this day strikingly similar to that of China’s state-run CCTV nightly news program.
But before advances in transportation led to more widespread national newspaper circulation, before radio and then television, America’s media landscape was a mess of local news outfits that printed hyper-partisan content.
A look back at the pre-Civil War period of newspapers, recounted in an article from the University of Illinois, shows two striking similarities to today’s Internet information ecosystem. Much like small sources of online news or social media platforms, “most newspapers had a small circulation and were staffed by a small number of workers. Division of labor in the newspaper publishing process – newsgathering and reporting, editing, and printing – was uncommon.”
“While modern-day newspapers claim to be impartial sources of fact-based journalism, antebellum newspapers were often explicitly affiliated with a political party, and focused on delivering that party’s point of view,” according to the university’s research.
Now step back for a moment and reflect on what came at the conclusion of America’s antebellum period of hyper-partisan, decentralized news reporting: The Civil War. It is hard to argue that a fragmented news landscape was somehow a cause of conflict and not another symptom of incompatible economic interests and ideology. But the fact that Americans may be further away from being able to agree on a set of facts than they have been since the lead up to the Civil War is prompting some Americans to rethink their enshrinement of a free Internet. Once thought of as a savior that would bestow democracy on the rest of the world, some now fear its democratizing power is tearing America apart.
Meanwhile, the Chinese public is kept abreast of world events through a single lens. While – in contrast to even the heyday of centralized national news in the US – there is no room for partisan dissent and decreasing room for policy dissent, it is also somehow reminiscent of those days in America. In those days the same events would be reported in much the same way at the same time.
Today, if you turn on MSNBC or CNN you will see negative coverage of some event relating to President Donald Trump. If you turn on Fox News you will see negative coverage of a separate event related to his detractors. If you turn on Chinese television news you will see Chinese leaders leading. It is easy to be enamored with this uncomplicated picture.
If the 21st century follows the script of the 20th, unchecked single-party rule will eventually lead to mass atrocities and the deaths of millions of people. But if it follows the script of the 19th century, the very existence of the United States will be put to the test.