The recent move in the United States against foreign news organizations that receive government funding has raised serious concerns about press freedom and political bias toward certain countries.
Just a week ago, Russia’s RT America was forced by the US Justice Department to register as a “foreign agent” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), an outdated, 1938 anti-Nazi propaganda law.
Days later, Reston Translator, Sputnik Radio’s partner in the US, also registered as a foreign agent, although it said the registration was not made at the request of the Justice Department.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has talked about countermeasures. In retaliation, the Duma, Russia’s parliament, passed a bill last Wednesday requiring all mass-media outlets in Russia that receive overseas funding to register as foreign agents.
In its annual report to the US Congress last Wednesday, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission recommends that Congress strengthen FARA to require the registration of all staff of Chinese state-run media entities, claiming that “Chinese intelligence gathering and information warfare efforts are known to involve staff of Chinese-run media organizations and in light of the present uneven enforcement of the FARA”.
For long, news media outlets have been exempt from FARA.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry quickly denounced the fear-mongering about Chinese news media. Spokesman Geng Shuang said “the so-called committee has always been full of prejudice on China-related issues”.
“The content in the relevant report is sheer fiction, and the viewpoint of the report reflects their bias and stereotype against China,” he said.
News organizations receiving government funding is certainly not unique to China or Russia. It is actually a common practice in many European and some Asian countries.
The NHK World of Japan, and France 24, both doing a good job in international reporting, are fully financed by their governments.
The current controversy reminds me of a debate I participated in early 2011 at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University over whether news organizations should accept government funding.
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, two students and I debated as the team in favor of government funding. Bollinger, a noted First Amendment legal scholar, argued that US universities, which more or less receive government funds, are still able to maintain academic freedom.
At the end of the debate, students at the school voted 28 to 17 in favor of government funding.
I remember saying at the time that what matters is doing good journalism rather than the source of funding. We have seen lousy journalism by many privately funded news outlets, and we have seen great journalism conducted in news organizations with full or partial government financing.
NPR and PBS, the two US stations that receive some government money, are widely considered to be doing excellent journalism.
International broadcasters available in the US, whether RT, CGTN, TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Corp), NHK World and France 24, are doing a far better job informing Americans about the outside world than major US outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
The three US networks often indulge in single news stories a day, either Russia and US President Donald Trump, or Russia and Hillary Clinton, or Roy Moore, or Robert Mueller. Such disservice to the American people should be the real concern.
Gallup polls conducted in recent months have indeed revealed such serious concern among the American people.
A Sept 14 Gallup report showed that Americans’ trust in mass media has sunk to a new low. Only 32 percent say they have a “great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in mass media, down 8 percentage points from a year ago.
In a June report, only 27 percent say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers; 24 percent have confidence in television news; and 16 percent have high confidence in news on the internet.
In an April 5 poll, 62 percent say the news media favor one political party over the other.
So if those US politicians and lawmakers truly care about keeping the populace well informed, they should stop demonizing international news outlets and start thanking them for bringing different perspectives.
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