Our chapter on mass media looks at the ways in which government tries to influence news coverage. The Chinese government is intimidating outside journalists and thus limiting what Americans can learn about it.
The visa question has insidious ways of sowing the seeds of self-censorship,” Dorinda Elliott, the global affairs editor at Condé Nast Traveler, wrote on ChinaFile last month. “I am ashamed to admit that I personally have worried about the risk of reporting on sensitive topics, such as human rights lawyers: what if they don’t let me back in?” Elliott is a longtime China hand who worked asNewsweek’s Beijing bureau chief in the late 1980s. “My decision to not write that story—at least not yet—proves that I am complicit in China’s control games,” she continued. “After all, there are plenty of other interesting subjects to pursue, right?”
The most shocking thing about Elliott’s statement is its honesty. Western journalists are not supposed to make any concessions to China, and even when they do, they rarely admit it. Many people were thus horrified by recent reports that Matt Winkler, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, spiked an investigative piece about one of China's richest men out of fear of offending the government. (Winkler denied killing the piece and said it is still under consideration.)
People are understandably angry about the Bloomberg reports, but they shouldn’t be surprised. This is all part of a larger story. China may force some two dozen correspondents from The New York Times and Bloomberg News to leave the country by the end of the year, apparently in response to their investigative reports on the familial wealth of the Chinese leadership.
“Chinese officials have all but said that American reporters know what they need to do to get their visas renewed: tailor their coverage,” The New York Times wrote. On Thursday, Vice President Joseph Biden, who was visiting Beijing, said he had “profound disagreements” with China’s “treatment of U.S. journalists.” As China more harshly intimidates foreign reporters, incidents of Western self-censorship will only increase. Bloomberg is not the first case, and it will not be the last.