Watch this space: a day at CCTV America

If one were to explore the upper reaches of the cable television universe between the hours of 7 and 9pm Eastern, they might be mistaken for thinking they had stumbled upon a public television broadcast of BBC World News. They would see the same modern, red graphics; an international ensemble of anchors and guests; and a stately presentation free of soundbites and focused on the hard news that never quite make American nightly newscasts at all or with any real appreciation of their complexity. But it wouldn’t be the BBC’s logo that one would see, but that of CCTV: China Central Television, live, in English, broadcasting from Washington, and with every intention of not only superficially modeling the BBC, but ultimately rivaling its influence in every corner of the globe.

In February 2012, CCTV America began broadcasting two hours daily from its headquarters on New York Avenue, a few blocks east of the White House. Today, at the entrance to CCTV’s second floor office, Wang Guan, the network’s chief politics correspondent sat waiting for me. Guan, a Chinese national in his late twenties, is strikingly younger than his American counterparts. A 2007 graduate of Beijing’s Communication University, he is considered one of China’s very best television journalists. Before joining CCTV News, he spent several months as an intern producer for the Associated Press in China. For CCTV, he has he reported from Tibet, Pakistan, and North Korea before making the jump to CCTV America.

Guan does double duty for CCTV, reporting for both the English and Mandarin sides. In all, nearly some 100 work out of Washington for CCTV America, with dozens more scattered in smaller bureaus across the United States, including New York and Los Angeles, and soon to be Seattle and Atlanta. A contingent of about 20 correspondents is based throughout South America. An additional thirty-five or so, who serve CCTV News’ Mandarin operations, are also based in Washington. On the English side, Guan is mostly featured on the network’s BizAsia and general news programming.

For Guan, there is a real chance with CCTV America to provide a more balanced view of world affairs. “I’m a little disturbed, you know, because if you watch Fox News, you are very scared of China. Even CNN, one day they show a dissident and the next day environmental degradation and on the next day food safety. They are real concerns that need to be addressed and as journalists we should expose these problems, but if these are the only issues that they cover, that does not offer a fair picture of what China is all about.” But does CCTV America’s conception of balance ultimately consist of a comprehensive international outlook or like, Fox News, a balance defined by stridently pushing against the rest of the media landscape?

There is a sincerity and earnestness about Guan and his belief in his work that that stands in stark contrast to the American perception of journalists as the ultimate cynic. He acknowledges the inherent skepticism that a Chinese state-backed news operation will evoke. “For me personally, I think it is more important to show the Western audience that we can present balanced coverage, that we are in the fact business, that we can do better than they expect.”

No broadcasts were planned for this August evening while the station was on a summer hiatus. The studios were dark and the control rooms mostly empty with the exception of a few Chinese staffers who had come from Beijing to upgrade the equipment.

At the time of my arrival, most of the network’s senior leadership was huddled down the hall in a meeting to review demos for the next phase of the network’s expansion. With the exact timing contingent upon approval from Beijing, CCTV America this winter is scheduled to expand from two hours of daily broadcasts to five, with both revamped and new programming.

At its launch, the new channel attracted a brief flurry of press from the likes of Foreign Policy and The Atlantic as the next wave of China’s soft power push, but has otherwise been ignored. That lack of attention, for now, appears to be just fine for the staff at CCTV America. The theme of the past year for the network has been about learning. The Washington outpost is less concerned with reaching an American audience as it is with getting the back-end right. CCTV America is first and foremost a testing ground where the network’s leadership will package the lessons learned here and apply them as it expands around the globe. For the Chinese, learning to manage an international workforce has been one of the greatest lessons of the past year.

CCTV also envisions Washington as the premier training center for its Chinese reporters, whom officials acknowledge currently lack the journalistic professionalism and creativity of their peers. The network has hired a host of Western journalists and other staff, who bring with them experience at networks including Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera. “It is fair to concede that journalism education was few and far between in the past twenty years” in China, explains Guan. “Journalism education was really not there … it was mostly propaganda education even ten years back.”

As my time with Guan wraps up, Jim Laurie, who was ensconced in the new programming meetings, joins us. Laurie, a former print and television journalist who covered the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and most recently a professor at the University of Hong Kong, serves the network as an executive consultant. In this role, he is primarily the person who engages with media seeking to cover the network. Laurie first began consulting for CCTV in 2007 when he was invited to a training program CCTV was organizing for its journalists prior to the launch of the London and Washington bureaus for the Mandarin service. For CCTV America, Laurie has been instrumental in advising on the hiring of Western journalists and making coverage of Latin America a priority.

Laurie thanks Guan and leads me to the office of CCTV America’s director general, Ma Jing, who permitted me to speak with her for twenty minutes on the condition that her comments be off the record. Ma, as a brief video of her on the CCTV website shows, is a soft-spoken contrast to the typical American network executive, with the hint of a British accent from her time as a graduate student at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Ma has spent her entire career with CCTV after graduating from the Communication University of China (then the Beijing Broadcasting Institute) in 1994. She rose to the level of CCTV English News managing director before volunteering to take on the CCTV America assignment in 2011. She is the primary interface with Beijing and must balance the tricky course of personally learning how to lead an international staff and make decisions in the best interest of the network, even if it challenges the more conservative leadership in Beijing.

“I am a great fan of Ma Jing. She has made a number of autonomous decisions here. Things have been done here that would not have been done in Beijing,” says Laurie. An example of CCTV America’s autonomy was its decision to establish a YouTube channel. Laurie and some of the Western staff pushed for such a presence, a move that would be obvious for most networks, but a sensitive one for CCTV America given that the website is blocked in China. A compromise was reached in which a channel was created but managed not by full-time CCTV America staff, but American college interns.

The full review process is local and overseen by Ma Jing, and the network’s principal and deputy editor, all Chinese women. For a self-described “old-timer,” Laurie characterizes the presence of three “very powerful women” at the helm of the network as “remarkable.”

What is unmistakably clear from my time with Ma is her commitment to making CCTV News a respected voice in international journalism. The goal for CCTV America is straight-forward: build quality, gain respect, and, finally, have impact.

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CCTV America is neither the first nor the biggest new foreign news operation seeking to have a global impact. Qatari-based Al Jazeera, which first rose to prominence in America for its broadcasts of video recordings of Osama bin Laden after 9/11, is joined by Russia’s RT and France 24, which both started up in the past decade. “I think it’s fair to say that the Chinese have felt for many years that it was the Western media that was setting the news agenda” before deciding to set an alternative agenda of their own, Laurie explains.

Each network is an attempt by their host governments to shape global opinion and support their nation’s soft power. All except for RT share presentation styles that mirror the BBC or CNN, although RT appears most fond of indulging in special effects out of place even for Fox News.

In an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine, RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, told the newspaper that “there is no objectivity, only approximations of the truth by as many different voices as possible.” This summer, the network became the new home for former CNN interviewer Larry King.

Al Jazeera, which earlier in 2012 acquired the cable channel Current, and RT are both lavishly funded. Since 2005, RT’s annual funding from the Russian government has grown from $30 million to $300 million, supporting a global staff of 2,500 employees and contractors, with 100 in Washington. Exact figures for the American operations alone are not available. According to Laurie, Al Jazeera is on track to have 800 people throughout the Americas, far and above CCTV America. Laurie tells me that CCTV America, which operates commercial free and is funded by CCTV’s mostly commercial-generated revenues from China, is running on a budget considerably less than that of Al Jazeera but more than Russia’s RT America operations.

The rapid rise of state-backed media and their near endless source of funding has alarmed US officials, not so much for the impact they may have in an already crowded American media landscape as abroad. In 2011, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ‘73 warned a Congressional committee that the United States was “engaged in an information war, and we are losing that war.”

In the search for global influence, reaching Africa is an unmistakable priority for the Chinese in particular, whose economic and cultural presence on the continent has exploded in the past decade. Last year, CCTV also began broadcasting locally from Nairobi, Kenya, its second regional bureau alongside Washington. Xinhua, China’s equivalent of Reuters, is getting in front of African readers by giving its content away for free to African newspapers. China Radio International, which is also quietly expanding in the United States, goes head to head with Voice of America and BBC on the continent. “Africa is quite a success story really,” says Laurie.

Back in the United States, CCTV America is just one pillar of a soft power push that includes radio and print, with ubiquitous China Daily newsboxes in major cities and paid weekly inserts in most major American papers.  Xinhua currently holds the most prominent advertising space in Times Square. Tellingly absent, skeptics point out, is a digital presence. Writing for ChinaFile, Beijing-based American commentator Bill Bishop says, “China’s soft power push is likely a boon to Western media consultants, cable channel and radio station owners, and advertising sales people, but currently the strategy may be flawed … can you really win hearts and minds of current and future generations when you are known as a country that blocks Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter?”

The BBC is the unmistaken standard against which Beijing is measuring itself against. “Interestingly enough,” Laurie tells me, “CNN would come a poor third” to Al Jazeera. Partly this is because CNN is commercial, but they also feel “Al Jazeera has achieved something different. They have an internal slogan to be the ‘voice of the voiceless’ and that is very attractive to the Chinese. That they can offer an alternative agenda is very important to the Chinese.”

Four programs make up the current CCTV America line-up. The marquee is BizAsia, a nightly world business and affairs program co-anchored from Washington by Phillip Yin, formerly of Bloomberg and CNBC, and from the Nasdaq market-site in New York by Michelle Makori, formerly of Bloomberg.

The flagship program is rounded out by two weekly news and current affairs programs, The Heat, and Americas Now, a newsmagazine focusing on Latin America. The latter was launched under the leadership of former 60 Minutes producer Barbara Dury, who left CCTV America earlier this year to return to independent consulting.

Instead of the BBC, the look and feel of the broadcasts actually resembles a somewhat more youthful – and clearly wealthier – take on PBS’ stately Newshour. Unlike the BBC, which covers the world with incisive breadth, CCTV America’s segments seem to run on longer than necessary. The live broadcasts lack the energy of the BBC or the sense that it is truly a global operation on which the sun never sets. The fall relaunch is designed in part to create a greater sense of energy.

Despite the considerable attention that CCTV America’s poaching of international talent from other networks has drawn, the long-term focus is on leveraging CCTV’s “going out” strategy to reshape the Chinese journalist corps. “They have to reach a certain production standard, a certain writing standard. One of the issues they have is the unevenness of their correspondent talent,” says Laurie.

“Perhaps I take a long view because I have been watching since the 1970s. If you take the long view you see a great deal of change, a lot more pushing of the envelope. There are quite a number of stories in the past 18 months that we’ve been on the air that would not have been told two years ago.” But on the stories most sensitive to the Chinese government, such as the scandal of convicted former politician Bo Xilai or human rights activist Chen Guangcheng’s escape from house arrest to a US consulate, CCTV America has been conspicuously silent.

While the full review process is local, Laurie acknowledges that Ma Jing and her deputy editors “know Beijing. They have lived in Beijing. They are employees of Chinese state television, but having said that, they are very deliberative and they are able to make the decisions on the ground” without direct interference from Beijing.

* * *

“I miss the food back home,” Guan tells me as I ask about the personal experience of being a Chinese journalist, but the understandable remove from one’s native culture and friends aside, the experience has been positive.

The hardest story he has covered by far, he says, was covering Jack Abramoff, the disgraced former Washington lobbyist. “It was hard for me because I knew for Chinese back [in China], it reinforces the stereotype that a lot of aspects of capitalism are inherently corrupt.” Trying to strike a balance that showed that lobbying can be a legitimate part of the political landscape was a hard sell to editors in Beijing for the Mandarin service.

Working relations at CCTV between Chinese and Western journalists are characterized on both sides as excellent and one of mutual learning. The collegiality extends even beyond CCTV. “When I cover breaking news at a local level, local reporters at the scene are very helpful,” according to Guan.

What has the past year been like from the vantage point of a Western journalist at CCTV America? Several days after touring the studio, I reached out via email to Mike Walter, the anchor of the current affairs program, The Heat. Walter, who had spent his career mostly in local broadcasting, wrote that being associated with CCTV “was never a concern of mine. I have always tried to charge headlong embracing the next big thing in journalism.”

Walter felt that local television was “stagnant and dying” by the time he had left it. “In the last few years at WUSA [the DC CBS affiliate], I felt like I was incessantly talking about Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Charlie Sheen… It’s very rare in the business that you can create something new.”

The attraction of a start-up, says Laurie, was an important selling point to attracting the network’s Western staff. So too was the strategic decision by some journalists to be on the “ground floor” of a shift in global power in favor of China. But no less important, is the recognition that “if it weren’t for the decline of American media, this place would have a much harder time” attracting talent.

According to Walter, the biggest frustration over the past year was initial equipment issues. “We married Western equipment with Chinese equipment and that produced some hiccups.”

Do Western journalists at CCTV feel respected by their peers in the Western media? “Some yes, some no,” writes Walter. “Larry McQuillan, who covered the White House from President Ford to President George W. Bush, sent me a note after our election coverage saying that we did a great job.” On the other hand, “I did a panel discussion at the National Press Club and a guy from the Washington Post teed off on CCTV, ripping us for not covering this or that … I don’t mind journalists asking tough questions about CCTV but I do have a problem with people regurgitating the same old stories over and over again.”

“No one asks the question [of respect] in reverse – and they ought to. I think I’m really surprised at my peers in the Western media. I think the picture that is painted of China by Western journalists is really very one dimensional.” ‘

I think what we are doing is important,” says Walter. “If you believe in the First Amendment, what greater job can you have than the job of extending your journalistic tenets to China?”

As CCTV America heads into its second year, it is anxious to begin earning the markers of respect and legitimacy, measured in no small part by the prestige of the guests on its air. Like any network, it operates with the dilemma of attracting a sizable audience which requires major guests and sources, but attracting major guests or features requires a sizable audience. Unlike most networks, it must also navigate suspicions that it is nothing more than a propaganda vehicle, albeit a sophisticated one.  Those I spoke with at CCTV America were insistent upon the sincerity of their desire to practice journalism at the highest professional standards.

And indeed, it does appear that CCTV America’s breadth of coverage, at least of the world beyond China, is done with more depth and nuance that than what CCTV will run from Beijing. It is hard, for example, to imagine CCTV Beijing running more than a fleeting reference to the Egyptian protests. Coverage of domestic Chinese news itself, however, remains notably opaque. When the US and China meet, such as during the high-profile summer meeting between Presidents Obama and Xi, there is a heightened enthusiasm, but also a heightened sense of pressure to deliver. While the coverage significantly exceeds the attention paid by the American media, the American media’s relative lack of coverage is arguably a more realistic reflection of the limited results the most recent US-Chinese encounters have produced.

To date, the network has attracted several high profile guests, including former ambassador to China and Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman and former NBC News anchor, Tom Brokaw. Yale’s Stephen Roach, who is a faculty adviser to this publication, has also appeared. Most nights, however, BizAsia fields a fairly unremarkable roster of guests who would not even be a back-up for a scheduling assistant at CNBC or Bloomberg.

For a network that seeks to provide a Chinese perspective to Western viewers, the near total absence of Chinese government officials is somewhat curious. Laurie notes that beyond the Chinese ambassador to the US, the deputy finance and foreign ministers have also appeared, but no one of Politburo-level rank. Their absence reflects several dynamics. The first is the general aversion of Chinese leadership to press coverage domestically or abroad. Second, even if Chinese leaders were willing to go on camera, CCTV America must then balance the sensitivity that their appearance would appear to only confirm the network’s existence as a government mouthpiece. Laurie thinks the day when they appear on CCTV America will eventually come.

Until then, the focus is less on satisfying curious China watchers with direct access to leaders or China itself, then, than it is on providing coverage of everything but China from a Chinese lens. Guan acknowledges that access and source development has been mixed. In some areas, CCTV has made considerable inroads, such as being the first Chinese network to be embedded with the Navy’s RIMPAC military exercises in 2012. Elsewhere, “I think it’s relatively hard. I feel like the [government] press people here in the United States are very polite, they are very helpful. I’m not sure how much they trust us. Perhaps we need to try harder.”

The network had scheduled to meet Secretary John Kerry ‘66 for an interview on the sidelines of the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, before he had to cancel at the last minute when his wife fell ill. Kerry would have been the most senior American official to grant an interview to the network, which Laurie said would have been a “coup” for the network. The blow of his cancellation, and the dashed chance for CCTV America to make the next step in its search for legitimacy, remains strongly felt around the studio weeks after.

“I think when they know we are for real, they [US government officials] will cooperate more. What I mean is that we can influence the Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, for example,” Guan tells me. It appeared to be a throwaway comment reflecting upon the near impossibility of all foreign journalists to get called on during White House press briefings. But it spoke to the possibility for a far more aggressively targeted, and thus, potentially effective, strategy.

Where it is not uncommon in lecture halls at Yale to see students occasionally flicking through Al Jazeera’s website as one of many news sources, CCTV would seem to be ways away from reaching that level of currency, although CCTV America officials indicate that making a more concerted attempt to reach out to college students and a richer, online presence were in the works. CCTV America’s YouTube channel has 917 followers, compared to Al Jazeera’s half million and RT’s million.

David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University, also writing for ChinaFile, casts doubt on the enormous expenses undertaken by the Chinese government to further its soft power. China’s image is better served by “reflecting on the kinds of activities that give China a negative image abroad than simply investing in programs for cultural exchange. At the end of the day, if the ‘message’ isn’t sellable, no well-resourced ‘messenger’ can sell it.”

For now, the irony is that more eyes are watching CCTV America’s broadcasts from China and, indeed, given the sheer differential in population, may always will. Laurie tells me that the total potential audience for the network’s broadcasts in China is capped at about 10 million of the country’s best English speakers and is limited further by its broadcast during China’s morning hours.

There is something tantalizing about the prospect that CCTV America, could in time, by presenting a more balanced perspective than CCTV’s Mandarin news, actually be more valued by and influential with an educated domestic Chinese audience. Could the instrument designed to influence the West from a Chinese perspective ultimately do more to influence Chinese from the world’s opinion?

Guan tells me that during his reports for the Mandarin service during Xi and Obama’s June meeting, he tried to explain the difference between conventional intelligence gathering and cybertheft of corporate intellectual property, a distinction that the Chinese government does not acknowledge publicly and state media dismisses as American bullying. Many Chinese are not aware that the bootlegged DVDs they buy at stands on the street constitutes intellectual property theft, something he has also sought to elucidate in his reports back home.

“I think it would be irresponsible not to tell the Chinese audience the fine differences. It’s time for people to realize that there are merits in the US arguments and it’s time for us to improve our capacity to innovate because it’s in our interest of our education and our R&D. For us to rise as a nation, we cannot counterfeit our way up, we need to innovate and create.” It is a sentiment similar to many Chinese who have spent time in the United States. What makes Guan different is that more than a billion Chinese are hearing him say it.

CCTV is leaving no doubt that it is playing the long game. Laurie says that CCTV America is planning on hiring an additional forty staff over the course of the next year to support its expanded reporting. Next year, a bureau in London will join its sisters in Nairobi and Washington.

It is too early to assess whether CCTV’s international ambitions will succeed. In environments such as Africa where established international broadcasters have broadly neglected a large and increasingly affluent audience, CCTV’s decision to move first in a big way could mean the game there has already been won.

As our interview wraps up, Laurie, while emphasizing that nothing was in the works, slyly notes that the studious watchers back at CCTV headquarters in Beijing couldn’t help but take note of the muted reaction to Al Jazeera’s purchase of cable TV channel Current. The implication, like everything involving China’s rise, is that such a move is inevitable. When it happens, odds are good that a large part of the world will be watching.

This report originally appeared in Yale’s China Hands magazine.