China expels American journalists at the worst possible time
By Jon Allsop
In mid-February, the State Department designated five Chinese state news outlets operating in the US—Xinhua, CGTN, China Radio, China Daily, and the People’s Daily—as missions of a foreign government. The move, officials said, wouldn’t entail restrictions on the outlets’ journalism, but would require them to report personnel and other details to the US government. The following day, China expelled three reporters from the Wall Street Journal—a step that the paper called unprecedented in the post-Mao era. Ostensibly, China was punishing the Journal for a headline, in its opinion section, dubbing the country “the real sick man of Asia.” Many observers—including dozens of staffers at the Journal—agreed that the headline was offensive, but as Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote afterward for CJR, the timing of the expulsions, so soon after the State Department designation, seemed “like more than a coincidence.” Simon criticized the Trump administration’s decision; as a result, he warned, more American journalists in China risked facing restrictions which, among other things, would hinder valuable ongoing reporting on the coronavirus, which originated in the country. US officials didn’t heed his words. In early March, they capped the number of Chinese citizens allowed to work at the same state-run outlets in the US. Roughly 60 of their staffers were affected by the order. The State Department denied that it was expelling journalists, but in effect, it was.
Yesterday, we saw the retaliation to that retaliation. The Chinese government effectively expelled American journalists working for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Journal; banned their employers from reassigning them to Hong Kong or Macao, despite the supposed autonomy of those territories; and designated all three papers, as well as Time magazine and Voice of America, which is funded by the US government, as foreign missions. (For now, at least, it doesn’t look like Time, VoA, or any other US outlet will face staffing restrictions in China.) Announcing the clampdown, China’s foreign ministry accused the outlets in question of “making fake news through the so-called freedom of the press.”
In the US, backlash was swift. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who hardly has a glowing recent record on the so-called freedom of the press—said China had “further foreclosed the world’s ability to conduct free-press operations that, frankly, would be really good for the Chinese people.” Dean Baquet, Marty Baron, and Matt Murray—the editors of the Times, the Post, and the Journal, respectively—all condemned China’s decision, as did the editorial boards of the Times and the Post; that of the Times wrote that the move was “an unfortunate echo of the Cold War, and it couldn’t come at a worse time.” (Both boards suggested, contra Simon, that the State Department was justified in regulating Chinese state media operations in the US.)
Gerry Shih, a Post reporter affected by the expulsions, tweeted a story about them, adding the caption, “Great Beijing sublet available with sweeping views.” Shih said he’ll continue to cover China from afar. “Thinking back, reporting conditions have become so difficult that much of the China stories I’m most proud of were in fact reported outside,” he wrote. “China is now a huge sprawling international story. It can cut off access inside the country to limit scrutiny, and maybe one day it can even shut down critical reporting all over the world. But that day isn’t here yet.”
China has an atrocious record on press freedom, and has, in recent weeks, applied its past form to vital, fact-based reporting on the coronavirus. The New York Times is not the same as the People’s Daily; as Simon noted last month, Chinese state media operations in the US certainly do propaganda and, it seems likely, espionage, too. Nonetheless, Simon’s warning—that the US crackdown on Chinese media would “turn journalists into diplomatic pawns and provide a framework that favors Chinese censors who are already seeking to control the work of the international media”—has proven prescient.
The free flow of information is (mostly) a moral good—especially right now. China bears far more blame than the US for curbing it, but diplomatic tit-for-tat always has two sides, and the State Department’s cavalier recent moves have caught outstanding American journalists in their crossfire. And, as Simon noted, it’s a deeply counterproductive fight to have picked. “I keep coming back to my last trip, to Wuhan, where people were so willing to talk,” Amy Qin, of the New York Times, tweeted yesterday of her impending expulsion from China. “They wanted the world to know what was happening to them and to hold their government accountable.”
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- The backdrop: China’s expulsion of American journalists comes amid tensions between the two countries on numerous fronts, not least the coronavirus. Last week, an official in China’s foreign ministry accused the US military of implanting the virus in Wuhan, where it originated; in the US, President Trump and his allies in Congress and the news media have taken to calling the virus “the Chinese Virus,” and variations thereupon. The World Health Organization and other observers stress that such framing is stigmatizing, yet it abounds in conservative circles. Yesterday, Weijia Jiang, White House correspondent at CBS News, said a White House official referred to the virus, in her presence, as the “Kung-Flu”—a term that’s gaining traction on the far right.
- Back channels: Trump and members of his coronavirus task force held another lengthy briefing for members of the news media yesterday. Asawin Suebsaeng and Erin Banco report, for the Daily Beast, that since the crisis started, members of the task force have also been giving private briefings and information to conservative media personalities and influencers, including Fox News pundit Dan Bongino, Sinclair commentator Boris Epshteyn, and Newsmax host (and former White House press secretary) Sean Spicer. Elsewhere, Matthew Collette, a former Justice Department staffer, writes, for Just Security, that the Department of Health and Human Services has been classifying meetings on the coronavirus—a situation Collette finds “legally troubling.”
- Traffic gains: The coronavirus has led to “a huge bump in overall traffic for media publishers,” Axios’s Sara Fischer reports; according to data from Parse.ly, between March 6 and 12, coronavirus content was viewed 15 times more than stories related to the 2020 election. Virus stories have rocketed around social media in recent weeks. Yesterday, Facebook started marking legitimate articles about the crisis as spam, The Verge’s Jay Peters reports; the platform blamed a bug. Relatedly, Facebook announced yesterday that it’ll offer $1 million in grants to local newsrooms covering the crisis, in partnership with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Local Media Association.
- RFH: With the coronavirus disrupting audio production, Nicholas Quah’s Hot Pod newsletter has some advice on how to get a good sound while recording from home. (Slate’s Mary Harris has been taping her daily podcast from inside a closet; NPR’s Rachel Martin has been broadcasting from her basement.) And Jeff Towne, of Transom, has a list of guidelines to follow if you’re still recording interviews in person, including around cleaning mics and staying at a safe distance.
- Not sheltering in place, I: Yesterday, authorities in the Bay Area told residents to “shelter in place,” though “essential businesses,” including the news media, were allowed to continue operating. Some people in San Francisco were out and about regardless. They came in for some harsh criticism on CNN—Jake Tapper called such behavior “enraging,” and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the network’s chief medical correspondent, said he still has the impression that “people in many places aren't taking this seriously.”
- Not sheltering in place, II: In Iran, Dr. Afruz Eslami, a state TV journalist who is also a medical doctor, warned on air that millions of people in the country could die if they continue to ignore health and travel guidance. The AP has more. Also in Iran, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe—a British-Iranian woman who was imprisoned in the country on espionage charges that she has strongly denied—was temporarily released, following diplomatic pressure citing the spread of the coronavirus in Iran’s jails. (Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s plight worsened when, in 2017, Boris Johnson, who was then Britain’s foreign minister, said, wrongly, that she had been “teaching people journalism” in Iran.)
- In brief: In the absence of goings on about town, the New Yorker has stopped publishing Goings On About Town. Charlie Warzel, of the Times, spoke with a group of rafters who “were some of the last people on the planet” to find out about the coronavirus because they’d been cut off from the world on a trip through the Grand Canyon. And on a similar note, the stars of the German edition of Big Brother, who I mentioned in yesterday’s newsletter, now know about the virus, too.
Other notable stories:
- Despite the coronavirus, three states—Illinois, Florida, and Arizona—held their Democratic primaries as planned yesterday. (Ohio postponed its primary at the last minute.) Predictably, turnout looked to be down, though election officials believe that with mail and advance ballots taken into account, the results are valid, the Times reports. Joe Biden won all of the contests convincingly, dealing three more blows to Bernie Sanders’s flagging campaign. Progressive Democrats did have a result to cheer in Illinois, however, as Marie Newman, whom Sanders endorsed, ousted US Rep. Dan Lipinski in a primary.
- For CJR, Emily Atkin, author of the climate newsletter HEATED, writes that as her career has progressed, she’s found an angrier voice in her work. Following Trump’s election, Atkin decided that her reporting “would be driven by passion, not obligation.” Over time, Atkin writes, “I felt increasingly confident about being a moral arbiter as well as an information gatherer. As I developed my voice, my climate grief regenerated as rage.”
- The Dispatch, a center-right outlet launched in October by Jonah Goldberg and Steve Hayes—alumni of National Review and the Weekly Standard, respectively—made more than $1 million in revenue in its first six months of existence, Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez writes. The Dispatch, which launched on Substack, recently instituted a paywall.
- For CJR’s Year of Fear series, Charles Richardson has an update from Macon, Georgia. The state is home to several competitive election races this year, but the local newspaper, the McClatchy-owned Telegraph, is “unable to invest in much coverage,” he writes. “There are too many local races for the newspaper’s meager staff to follow.”
- And Gale L. Mastrofrancesco, a Republican state lawmaker in Connecticut, has been serving as editor and publisher of Wolcott Community News, a monthly paper that she acquired last year. “People probably thought, ‘Oh no,’” she told the Republican-American of her takeover. “But it’s a non-political newspaper and my intent is to keep it that way.”