Our Complicit Media

By Aaron Kliegman

Last week, CNN literally published Chinese propaganda. That’s bad. But what makes CNN’s actions utterly shameful is that the network “reported” the propaganda as hard news, presenting Beijing’s spin and disinformation as objective fact.

Specifically, CNN wrote that China’s military “has done a much better job controlling” the coronavirus than America’s armed forces because, well, the Chinese military’s website and Chinese experts speaking to state-run media said so. Talk about some credible, totally unbiased sources! Either the journalists behind the story, which the editors were forced to overhaul, displayed laziness and stupidity, or they had some unsavory agenda. There is no other explanation.

CNN’s recent blunder was hardly an isolated incident. In fact, it follows countless examples of the American media echoing Chinese Communist Party talking points and propaganda about the coronavirus.

Perhaps most egregiously, reporters and television hosts passionately reinforced the allegation that it’s racist to refer to the virus by its country and city of origin. Press outlets were also quick to tell the world that America passed China and Italy as the country with the most cases of, and deaths from, the virus, yet failed to note that China has surely concealed the extent of damage caused by the virus inside its borders. The situation got so bad that the Chinese Communist Party even cited American journalists in its propaganda.

Fortunately, now some journalists are looking into, and shining a light on, the possibility that the virus originated in a Chinese lab – not a wet market. But in the big picture, the media has tied itself into knots trying to praise, defend, and absolve China for its response to — and responsibility for starting — the coronavirus pandemic. Even if the media’s message changes, we can’t forget this same press initially helped push Chinese propaganda — almost reflexively.

This problem — journalistic complicity in spreading propaganda — is not just about China and the coronavirus; it’s part of a broader, disturbing trend of American journalists publishing talking points and propaganda that they get from foreign governments as objective news — even if the foreign governments are hostile and dishonest.

This trend really became egregious in 2015, when Ben Rhodes, then-President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, created an “echo chamber” of experts and journalists to drown out opposition to, and mislead Congress and the American public about, the nuclear deal with Iran. But at least those talking points were from Washington. Now the media is parroting talking points from adversarial capitals such as Beijing. The specific contexts are different, but the overall point is the same.

In the age of Trump, this journalistic complicity is often about making the 45th president look bad to hurt him politically. It is clear, for example, that both the media’s coverage of China supposedly beating the coronavirus and its eagerness to report on America becoming the country with the most infections were meant to imply that President Trump has handled the pandemic poorly.

Another example is the media parroting Turkish propaganda and disinformation about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In 2018, Saudi agents killed Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The Turkish government proceeded to use leaks to the American press about the killing as a political weapon to undermine Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the US. It was remarkable to watch American journalists — and even experts at august think tanks — repeat as unassailable fact anonymous leaks from Turkish officials with an agenda, some secondhand, and treat press reports from Turkey’s media, which the government has effectively “cleansed” of dissent, as infallible journalism.

Lee Smith described the American media’s failures quite well at the time, noting that, to the press, Saudi Arabia was an “instrument” to damage President Trump (and preserve Obama’s pro-Iran policies). Indeed, the Trump administration made restoring America’s partnership with Riyadh an important part of its agenda and stood by the Saudi government amid the Khashoggi affair. So, making Saudi Arabia look terrible was a way to hurt the president — even if it meant echoing foreign propaganda. (To be clear, the killing of Khashoggi was wrong, but it was clear the press had made up its mind about the story after receiving the first Turkish leak).

Not all of these journalistic wrongdoings are intentional or meant to damage President Trump. Indeed, at best, journalists are simply racing for a deadline. At worst, they are ignorant, have a lapse in critical thinking — or are just being lazy. Perhaps one or all of these explain CNN’s story from last week on the Chinese military and the coronavirus. But clearly, the media is, to paraphrase Smith, more interested in shaping political outcomes than reporting facts.

Regardless of intentions, though, the most disturbing part of this journalistic trend is that American journalists have settled into their role as political assets, weaponized by operatives, government officials, and others to achieve their aims. Just think of the echo chamber, the Khashoggi affair, and even Chinese propaganda about the coronavirus — how is the media not an exploited weapon that reports so-called news to satisfy competing political agendas?

And now we return to China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, hailed his country as the champion of economic globalization — even the new global leader for the 21st century — at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2017. The American media ate it up, not so subtly reporting that, amid President Trump’s return to “primal” nationalism, China was ready to captain the “liberal international order.” Of course, there was little mention of China’s predatory and exploitative economic policies that kill foreign competition, or of China’s barbaric abuses of human rights, such as imprisoning perhaps a million or more Muslims in concentration camps. How is this not an example of pushing Chinese propaganda to make President Trump and the US look bad?

Some of the media’s propensity to echo talking points that they get from governments and report them as fact is driven by Trump Derangement Syndrome, but not all of it. Indeed, there is a deeper rot inside the American press, right at the core of journalistic standards, that is here to stay after President Trump leaves office. And we as a country need to address the problem. A press comprised of political assets all too ready to be exploited is not a free press — even if this form of censorship is self-imposed.

Aaron Kliegman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Previously, he was a staff writer and news editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where he wrote analysis and commentary on foreign policy and national security. Aaron’s work has been published in a range of publications, and he has a master’s degree in international relations. Aaron is now writing regular columns for the Inner Circle as a contributor, and I am excited to have him on the Gingrich 360 team. — Newt