BEIJING—Claiming the changed media landscape of the digital age has led to a marked drop in the depth and quality of party propaganda, veteran reporters in China expressed concern this week over what they see as the decline of traditional state-controlled journalism in their country.
As critics reflected on the proliferation of government-operated clickbait news sites, the emphasis on social-media-friendly propagandist content designed solely to boost traffic, and the pressure to disseminate the latest manipulative falsehoods with ever-greater speed, many questioned whether the state-run media was still living up to its responsibility to serve as the trusted mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China.
“Reporters used to have the time to sit down, read the day’s official press release from the Central Propaganda Department, and craft a carefully written 2,000-word article describing the government’s flawless response to a massive earthquake or deadly riot,” said Zhang Li of the People’s Daily, describing the great care she and her colleagues take in upholding censorship standards. “Now, we’re given 15 minutes to whittle down a party directive on the booming economy into a single paragraph that they’ll post on our social media page in the hopes it goes viral.”
“These days, being a journalist is more about getting pageviews than it is about actually scrubbing out all the information deemed too sensitive for the masses,” she added.
Veteran reporters said they rarely see the type of lengthy, in-depth cover-ups that were once the mainstay of state-controlled media, back when the collapse of a coal mine would send journalists marching directly to the source to ask pre-approved questions at staged press conferences, and to tour the few areas of the site the government had cleared for them to photograph.
Under today’s model, journalists explained, government newspapers are far more likely to settle for tweeting out the party’s official response, and then asking readers to sound off in their website’s heavily censored and sometimes entirely fabricated comment section.
According to sources, most editors believe the audience for long-form propaganda no longer exists, and so reporters spend their days producing slideshows that promote the government’s myth of complete religious freedom, or hastily writing top 10 lists that distort perceptions of Europe and the United States.
“I understand that we can no longer expect to tightly control the thoughts of our citizens with a newspaper they dutifully read every morning,” said Guangming Daily’s Wu Qiang, who admitted he is tired of lacing every feature he writes on Mao Tse-tung’s legacy of peace and prosperity with modern pop cultural references in an effort to appeal to millennials. “But we’ve swung to such an extreme emphasis on speed, interactivity, and mass appeal, that we’re content to post a breaking headline about the Tibetan people’s deep appreciation for our benevolent governance and simply update it every 15 minutes as more misinformation becomes available.”
“This certainly isn’t the type of journalism we learned when we were studying for our loyalty exams,” he continued.
Beyond their concerns with the quality of today’s government messaging, a number of veteran journalists have spoken of their fear of losing jobs to a younger generation more adept at promoting the Politburo’s objectives through social media.
“We used to have an entire division of seasoned reporters who, when rampant protests were taking place in Xinjiang, could write up dozens of puff pieces to fill out a morning issue that made no mention of the incident,” said Ma Jianzhu of the Liberation Daily. “But now, they’ve been almost completely replaced by a bunch of web analytics people whose job it is to make sure whatever we end up writing to downplay Uyghur unrest or the toxic levels of plastic in the water supply has enough of the right keywords to get us on the front page of Google.”
“It’s pretty shameless stuff, if you ask me,” he added.