These are unsettling times to be a journalist. I spent part of my Sunday afternoon watching "Page One," a movie documenting the funereal mood inside The New York Times newsroom, while highlighting the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing "Western" media in general.
Then on Monday, this "tweet" from a China-based acquaintance travelling in Italy floated up my computer screen: "China Daily is the only English-language paper available at my hotel in Milan," wrote Jeremy Webb, a well-known public relations consultant and blogger.
Fourteen words that capture the seismic shift underway in the global media scene, one with the potential to change mainstream thinking – and challenge the value system – of the world we live in. As Western newspapers and broadcasters close bureaus, cut staff and erect paywalls, the emerging media companies owned by the Communist Party of China, the Emir of Qatar and Vladimir Putin's Kremlin continue to expand their influence and reach.
I first noticed it a few years ago while I was based in the Middle East. English-language newspapers there started relying less on reports from the proven likes of the Associated Press and Reuters, a decision presumably motivated by cost. In their place were (cheaper) English-language stories from the Xinhua newswire, articles that subtly or unsubtly inserted the Communist Party's take on global events into an otherwise anodyne news story.
Now the China Daily – the voice of official Beijing, which reached only the trickle of Westerners who came to China when it launched in 1981 – has also gone global, doing so at times with the help of cash-strapped Western media brands like The Globe and Mail (which in 2010 printed a co-produced special section marking the 40th anniversary of Canada-China relations) and the Washington Post (which publishes a "paid supplement" called ChinaWatch that is entirely produced by China Daily staff ). Newspapers across Asia frequently carry something called the "China Daily Asia Weekly" inside their pages. The China Daily, which also offers US, European and Hong Kong editions, is free, hiring, and there's no paywall anywhere on its websites.
It's not just the Communist Party of China that wants to tell you its version of what happened in the world today. Many hotels in Southeast Asia have taken to including RT (Russia Today) News in their cable packages, often as the only English-language news channel available. As with Xinhua and the China Daily, the reporting is fine until you get to the part where the sponsoring government (in this case, the Kremlin) has something to tell you.
(The often-controversial al-Jazeera – controlled by the Qatari royal family – was famously the first to challenge Western media dominance, notably giving needed voice to Arab outrage at the Iraq war and Israel's occupation of the West Bank. But the Arabic-language satellite channel, which played an important role in the Arab Spring, grew noticeably silent as the protests moved closer to its home base in the Persian Gulf.)
This isn't about who rakes in the advertising dollars – there's precious few of those these days for anyone – it's about the global conversation, and who gets to frame it. A tourist in Milan who may have spent their morning reading about international outrage over Syria shooting down a Turkish fighter plane, was instead presented with the China Daily's version of events. The paper mentioned the downed Turkish jet only after earnestly reporting on how Bashar al-Assad was shuffling his cabinet following the introduction of a new constitution and the "election" of a new parliament.
The new constitution and parliament are viewed by most observers outside of Damascus, Moscow and Beijing as cosmetic efforts aimed at giving the impression of reform while in fact entrenching Mr. al-Assad's Baath Party dictatorship. But no one at Mr. Webb's hotel in Milan was offered that dose of skepticism.
The China Daily takes the same view of the Syria crisis as its political masters in Beijing. "To overthrow the disobedient Syrian government is a necessary step for the U.S. to topple the current government in Teheran, and also part of its global strategy to control the world's oil and the US dollar's world currency status," read one recent editorial.
There are those who argue this is all fair play, that the Western media played a cheerleading role in the Arab Spring (and before that, the U.S. invasion of Iraq). After all, the China Daily is only giving a different take on world events, something it's clearly entitled to do. The danger is that it and other state mouthpieces are in ascendance at precisely the time the Western media, with its traditions of independence and objectivity, is in deepening crisis.
Even during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war – the greatest recent failure of the Western media in its role as a check on power – there was always an attempt to be objective. Dissenting views were printed and broadcast, even if they were arguably marginalized. It's a rare day when you can say the same about the pages of the China Daily, or the newscasts on RT News.
New media utopians will tell you that bloggers, Twitter and Facebook will rush in to fill the growing void, and will do so better than the supposedly stodgy old newsrooms of New York, London and Toronto were ever able.
I hope so. (Not least of which because The Globe and Mail is among the media companies that is moving to introduce a paywall, also having asked employees to take unpaid furloughs this summer). But look more carefully at the conversations on Twitter, or much of the blogosphere. They often begin with content produced by professional journalists, sent at considerable expense to far-flung locations, and more than occasionally into harm's way.
Social media contributes those debates, simultaneously augmenting and challenging the mainstream media with eyewitness evidence and unique perspectives. That's all for the better. But no truly independent blogger can afford to spend months (or dare incur the legal fees that might follow) investigating allegations of corporate fraud. Nor would it be advisable for an untrained, under-equipped and uninsured Twitterer to venture out to the scene of the latest fighting in Sudan or Afghanistan.
Throughout the recent crisis in Syria, and before that in Libya and Egypt, Xinhua and RT News have thrown unprecedented money and resources at reporting from the scene, even as Western media scale back on their own efforts. It's not too far-fetched to imagine a near future where it's Xinhua or RT, rather than the Associated Press or BBC, that have the only correspondents on the scene of an international crisis, meaning the world will only get Beijing or Moscow's version of what's happening.
You only have to look at the trickle of news coming out of Tibet, where Western journalists are banned, to see what happens when it's only the state-run media and a few brave bloggers getting the news out. There has been an unprecedented spate of more than 30 self-immolations on the Tibetan plateau over the past year, hinting at the desperation and isolation many Tibetans feel, but there have been few in-depth reports other than the usual attacks on the Dalai Lama offered by the Chinese media.
"I'm not paying for this, I can get my news elsewhere," was the response many gave when The Globe and Mail announced it would follow The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times by introducing a metred paywall on the website this fall. Information is free all over the Internet, the argument goes.
That's true – if we're only talking about money.