Montana Public Radio

Parsing The Press: How News Silos Mirror State-Run Media

Jan 29, 2021

Americans take a free press for granted, but what's it like in countries where the news is government-controlled? Butte-based journalist and former foreign correspondent Kathleen McLaughlin joins Sally and Gwen to discuss this and what "news silos" in the U.S. may have in common with the press in totalitarian countries. Listen now on Parsing the Press.

Sally Mauk The U.S. takes a free press for granted, but the constitutional protection is no guarantee without public support. And we have a special guest today to talk about what it's like to live and work in a country where the press is not free and independent.

Kathleen McLaughlin is a journalist who spent 15 years as a foreign correspondent in China, and she now lives in Butte, where she works as a contributor to The Washington Post and other outlets. And Kathleen, welcome to the program. Tell me what it was like living in China, where the news is controlled by the government, and what it was like trying to work as a journalist there.

Kathleen McLaughlin So, I would say it was an ever evolving situation, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. When I first got to China — the press is obviously controlled from the top down by the government, but there was a very robust contingent of investigative reporters in the country at that time who knew how to work around the rules. And so they were able to dig up important stories and get them out into the public. And so people had these kind of alternative sources. The central government started to crack down on that area. The rise of social media was really important to press control in China because that was another way that people managed to get unfiltered, uncensored information out. But the government has also managed to figure out how to censor that as well. I mean, over the scope of time that I was there, most people had a dose of cynicism or skepticism about what they were being told by official channels.

At the same time, they responded pretty clearly to signals for calls for nationalism on certain topics, anti-foreign-governments, anti-foreign-sentiments. And so there was cynicism, and people knew that they weren't getting the whole story from these big central government controlled outlets. But at the same time, the messaging still worked.

Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio, hosts of Parsing The Press

In terms of working as a foreign correspondent there, when I first got there, people were pretty cynical about state run media and pretty trusting of foreign correspondents because they had this viewpoint that we were the free press, that we were able to report about the hardships and the problems that the Chinese journalists weren't necessarily allowed to report about. By the time I left China, there was a very strong anti-foreign-journalist sentiment that had been, I think, whipped up by the Chinese government. And you've seen in the last couple of years a huge number of American correspondents and correspondents from other countries get expelled from China. Foreign journalists were able to work in a freer environment, although not free. I mean, I think I was detained by the police a dozen times while I was there. But the sentiment against foreign journalists also turned in the time that I was there. So it was interesting in that it was all coming from the top, but the pushback was coming from the ground level. And it's this constant push and pull between information and controls on information and public sentiment, and trying to direct public sentiment.

Sally Mauk Gwen, you've also reported from countries that don't have a free press. Is your experience similar to Kathleen's where some of the news the public got they trusted, and some they didn't? Or what did you find?

Gwen Florio Yeah, really similar. And I think especially to her point that the public had a pretty healthy awareness that they were being spoon-fed sort of happy news. I went back today and reviewed, just for comparison purposes, the English language Jordan Times, and it was exactly as I remembered when I was there; stories about a mosque renovation and olive oil production, very bland things. That said, there is sort of almost an underground awareness, I guess, of things that are really going on. I was always really happy to come back to this country where we do have a free press and a lot of lively back and forth. I missed that when I was in those countries. But people were pretty willing to talk to me and other foreign reporters at that time. Now, that's been a long time ago. I'd be really curious to go back and see what the atmosphere is now.

Sally Mauk It's no secret to that former President Trump wanted news outlets to only do favorable stories about him. And one channel, Fox News, gave him a lot of uncritical airtime. And now there are other channels, OAN and Newsmax, that have a conservative slant as well, and another channel, MSNBC, that has a decidedly liberal slant. I'm curious, do you both think these so-called news shows that preach to the converted, do you think they have anything in common with the state-run media you've experienced in other countries? Are there similarities there or am I making a false equivalence here?

Kathleen McLaughlin Oh, I think there absolutely are. I mean, the thing that really struck me in the last year was Fox News and conservative media coverage of the pandemic and promoting these anti-science ideas that the president was throwing out to the public, like hydroxychloroquine and other things, and viewing what he said — which was dangerous and anti-science — wholly uncritically. And, you know, those were the types of things that I did see in China over the years, that if the central leadership said something that was the truth. It didn't matter what the actual truth on the ground was or the pushback from science or the pushback from experts, it was the word of leadership that actually mattered. So it was stunning to watch over the last year American journalists working for these outlets just taking on blind faith what the president said is absolute truth.

Gwen Florio Something else we're seeing now increasingly is just, what, three weeks after the insurrection at the Capitol, what feels like almost a concerted push to downplay the seriousness of that. And I find that really disturbing.

Kathleen McLaughlin It's really disturbing because you see — and Gwen you've probably had this experience, too — you see something with your own eyes, you know what happened, you know what is true. And then you see this concerted effort to change the truth, and it works.

Gwen Florio And people are buying into it. I'm surprised at the level of acceptance so quickly. You know, when I watched that happen, I thought, OK, now no one can deny the seriousness of this. And it took about a second for that denial to start.

Sally Mauk Back in the old days before the growth of all this new media, newsmakers like politicians made themselves available to the mainstream media because they had to to get their message out. And now Gwen and Kathleen, they can pick and choose which media they want to talk to and boycott those they think won't give them a free pass. This to me, is a growing problem for free press.

Kathleen McLaughlin Yeah, it definitely is. Sally, you know before I went to China I was a reporter in Montana and covered the Legislature and I remember then that, you know, every legislator would talk to you because that was part of their job and that was how they communicated to their constituents back home. And I did a story a couple of months ago here in Montana where I was calling state legislators for comment about the ant-mask sentiment in the state, and not a single one of them called me back.

Sally Mauk Wow.

Kathleen McLaughlin It was just striking to me to know that it used to be how they communicated with their constituents and it was some measure of accountability, and they accepted criticism along with it. And now they just don't feel the need to talk to us anymore. It's really, really bizarre. And I assume what happens is they go on Facebook or some kind of social media or talk to right wing talk radio to get their messaging out.

Sally Mauk What do we do about that, Gwen? That's a huge problem.

Gwen Florio You know, that's an interesting one, because I think to an extent, politicians have always done this. You know, I remember covering campaigns years ago where for whatever reason, a politician would just decide he wasn't going to talk to me anymore. And to me, that was always the mark of an amateur. You know, the pros would talk to everybody, no matter how critical they felt you had been or that your story hadn't been fair or whatever. They would lob these accusations, but they keep talking to you because it's a way to control the message. And as Kathleen just pointed out, now, they don't need the — I'm putting quote marks in the air — "mainstream media" to get their message out. They've got Facebook, they've got social media, and increasingly they have a faction of the press that will echo their viewpoint and reach their supporters that way. So that's unsettling.

Sally Mauk Well, all we can do is continue to press them, I think, and hope that the public supports that they speak to whatever legitimate media wants to speak with them.

Kathleen and Gwen, I'm so sorry that we're out of time. Thank you both so much.