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Foreign media outlets in US merit bouquets, not brickbats

By Chen Weihua | China Daily | Updated: 2017-11-24 07:29

The recent move in the United States against foreign media organizations that receive government funding has raised serious concerns about press freedom and political bias against certain countries.

About two weeks ago, Russia's RT America was forced by the US Justice Department to register as a "foreign agent" under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, an outdated anti-Nazi propaganda law. Days later, Reston Translator, Sputnik Radio's partner in the US, also registered as a foreign agent, although it said the course was not taken on the Justice Department's instructions.

In apparent retaliation, the Russian parliament, or Duma, passed a bill on Nov 15 requiring all mass-media outlets in Russia which get overseas funding to register as foreign agents.

Back in the US, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, in its annual report to the Congress last week, recommended that FARA be strengthened to make mandatory the registration of all staff of Chinese State-run media outlets posted in the US, because "Chinese intelligence gathering and information warfare efforts are known to involve staff of Chinese-run media organizations and in light of the present uneven enforcement of the FARA".

China's Foreign Ministry denounced the commission's recommendation, with spokesman Geng Shuang saying: "The content in the relevant report is sheer fiction, and the viewpoint of the report reflects their bias and stereotype against China."

News organizations receiving government funding is not unique to China or Russia. It is a common practice in other Asian and European countries, too. For example, the NHK World and France 24 are fully financed by the Japanese and French governments.

The current row reminds me of a debate at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in early 2011 on whether news organizations should accept government funding. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, two students and I debated as the team in favor of government funding. Bollinger, a noted First Amendment legal scholar, argued that US universities, which more or less receive government funds, are still able to maintain academic freedom.

At the end of the debate, students at the school voted 28 to 17 in favor of government funding. And I remember saying that what matters is doing good journalism, rather than the source of funding. We have seen lousy journalism by privately funded media outlets and excellent journalism by media outlets that receive full or partial government funding.

NPR and PBS, the two US stations that receive some government funds, are widely seen as doing good journalism.

The truth is, international media outlets operating in the US, from RT, CGTN, TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Corp) to NHK World and France 24, are doing a far better job of informing Americans about the outside world than major US outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

The three US networks often cater to single news stories a day, focusing of late either on Russia and US President Donald Trump, or Russia and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, or Roy Moore, or Robert Mueller. Such disservice to the American people should be the real concern.

Indeed, Gallup polls in recent months have revealed such serious concerns among US citizens. A Sept 14 Gallup report showed Americans' trust in mass media has sunk to a new low, with only 32 percent saying they had a "great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in mass media, down 8 percentage points from a year ago. And in an April 5 poll, 62 percent said the news media favor one political party over the other.

So, for those US politicians and lawmakers who care about keeping US citizens well informed, they should stop demonizing international news outlets and, instead, start thanking them for bringing to Americans different perspectives.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily USA.

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