Why Xinhua, China’s state news agency, could be the future of journalism.
It had all the trappings of a globally significant confab: big-deal appearances (by Google, BBC), a weighty theme (“the digital age”), and speechifying by international pooh-bahs. Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp., even delivered a peppery keynote, vowing war on “content kleptomaniacs.” But despite its name, the World Media Summit was itself a media bust, especially in the English-speaking press, which barely covered the three-day event held last fall in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The problem? The conference was a propagandafest, a “media Olympics” hosted by the Xinhua News Agency, an official organ of the Chinese Communist Party. If China has its way, however, ignoring Xinhua won’t be an option for long.
For decades Xinhua has been an unavoidable presence in China. It has a monopoly on official news and the regulatory power to complicate life for other media outfits. But as China has grown in wealth and international stature, Beijing has tired of feeling overlooked or maligned by the Western press. So Xinhua’s role has been redefined, as a means for China to wield soft power abroad. In the last year alone, the 80-year-old outlet launched a 24-hour -English--language news station, colonized a skyscraper in New York’s Times Square, and announced plans to expand its news--gathering operation from 120 to 200 overseas bureaus and as many as 6,000 journalists abroad. Not to be outdone by its Western peers, Xinhua has also released an iPhone app for “Xinhua news, cartoons, financial information and entertainment programs around the clock.”
With a price tag estimated in the billions of dollars, the new Xinhua is an expensive megaphone. But it’s key “to breaking the monopoly and verbal hegemony” of the West, according to remarks released last year by Xinhua’s president, Li Congjun, who often sounds like he’s channeling Noam Chomsky. Xinhua declined to make officials available for this story, citing “holiday season.” But clearly the effort has to do with the new rules of propaganda, too. Where the game was once about suppressing news, it’s now about overwhelming it, flooding the market with your own information. Airbrushing photos is for amateurs.
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