Lessons From a Forgotten War

How America’s first foray into the modern Arab world can help solve its current entanglements.

U.S. troops to North Africa ... Fighting in Benghazi ... Scandal over the president's handling of crisis in the Middle East ...

These themes sound like they were lifted from the presidential foreign-policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. In fact, they are echoes of events that occurred 70 years ago next week, when American forces, along with their British allies, launched Operation Torch, the largest amphibious assault in history at the time and America's first foray into the uncertain terrain of the modern Arab world.

Circumstances were, of course, very different from what they are today. The world was at war and North Africa was a critical front in the global conflict. France, the region's main colonial power, held sway in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Its collaborationist Vichy government, headed by Marshal Philippe Petain, worked closely with Nazi Germany. To the east, Fascist Italy controlled Libya, where Benghazi was a key target of back-and-forth fighting between Italian and British troops.

Torch, an operation few recall today, was the beginning of the end of World War II. Until that point, the allies were on defense; Torch was the first major U.S.-led offensive operation of the war. U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided that the effort to defeat Adolf Hitler, smash the Axis, and free Europe would begin on North African shores that had not seen U.S. troops since the days of the Barbary Corsairs in the early 19th century. The result was that from November 1942 to May 1943, the most important territory in the European theater of war was in Arab lands. This is where hundreds of thousands of Americans -- led by generals named Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and Clark -- had their first taste of real battle.

Today, there are few reminders left that American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines once crisscrossed the region. Moreover, today's Middle East politics -- the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood, the emergence of vast numbers of salafis, the spread of jihadist cells and the still unfinished conflicts between rulers and ruled -- owes little to that brief but pivotal moment of American dominance. Still, decision-makers looking for solutions to the problems that confound the United States in the Middle East today would be wise to consider these five lessons from an American military engagement in the Arab world that was both among our most consequential and our most fleeting.

The importance of strategy: To many people, it made little sense to attack Casablanca, Algiers, and Oran at a time when it appeared as though the real fight was with the Germans across the English Channel. But Roosevelt and Churchill had a grand strategy to win the war. They understood that sound tactical decisions often meant that the shortest distance between two points was not a straight line, and that expending blood and treasure in North Africa so that Allied troops could cross to Italy and attack the soft underbelly of Axis-controlled Europe might be the most effective way to achieve victory.

Today, the urgency of defining a global strategy -- and determining where the Middle East fits within it -- still applies. Despite all the talk about the need to tilt America's strategic attention to Asia, it is impossible to wish away the threats and dangers emanating from the Middle East.

The contemporary Middle East analogue to Roosevelt and Churchill's strategy of using North Africa as a gateway to eventual victory in Europe is the Syria conflict and its link to the strategic competition against Iran. Like snatching North Africa from the Axis, toppling President Bashar al-Assad is likely to be an effective, if indirect, way to strike a blow against the ayatollahs. Achieving that goal has strategic consequences for which the United States should be willing to invest more assets -- and take more risks - than it is doing today.

The certainty of unintended consequences: The allies took less than four days to secure their objectives in Torch, quickly silencing Vichy guns along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts and roaring overland toward Tunisia. However, the North African campaign did not end with that swift and decisive Allied victory. To the contrary, the Anglo-American success convinced Hitler that he needed to stop the enemy advance before the Allies could make the leap across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. The result was the German invasion of Tunisia on Nov. 8, 1942. Within days, this led to a full-fledged Nazi occupation -- including the dispatch of thousands of Jews to forced labor camps -- and a grinding six-month battle between Allied and Axis forces for control of that tiny country at the northern tip of the African continent.

In today's Middle East, unintended consequences abound. Success against "al Qaeda central" did not end the threat of violent Sunni extremists, it only triggered a transformation that has seen al Qaeda affiliates sprout up from Mali to Benghazi to Sinai. And the heady optimism of Tahrir Square, praised by American leaders as an echo of the ideals of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. was the prelude to the Islamization of Arab politics, not the coming of a new Arab liberal age. The lesson -- which is not limited to the Middle East, of course -- is that one celebrates the first signs of triumph at one's peril. Real success takes time and persistence, and is often littered with losses and setbacks along the way.

Prioritizing is messy and even sordid -- but essential: Operation Torch had its own explosive political scandal -- the agreement ironed out by U.S. commanders and diplomats with the ranking Vichy officer in Algeria, Adm. Francois Darlan, to leave the pro-fascist, virulently anti-Semitic regime in place in exchange for safe passage of Allied troops across North Africa. Under this agreement, U.S. officers watched in silence as Vichy officers jailed the leaders of the largely Jewish underground network in Algiers who had risked their lives to make possible the allied entry into the city.

Roosevelt came under a barrage of criticism, especially from within his own party, for cutting what was derisively termed the "Darlan Deal," but he stayed the course. The president said he would "walk with the devil" himself to enable Allied troops to take the battle directly to the Germans in Tunisia, thereby shortening the war and saving American lives.

Prioritizing competing interests -- which in practice often means maintaining distasteful double standards -- is a fact of life for great powers, especially in times of war and conflict, as is the case in the Middle East today. While principle should define policy whenever possible, expediency is often deemed necessary. The key is not to let expediency become the "new normal." After Torch, it took a long, agonizing year, but Vichy's anti-Semitic laws were finally repealed in North Africa. Roosevelt's Pentagon famously decided not to bomb the railways to Auschwitz, but uneasiness with the Darlan Deal may have played a role in the decision to seek unconditional surrender from Nazi Germany.

In today's Middle East, for example, the United States opposes the spread of radical Sunni extremism. However, Washington still supports the radical Sunni extremists who govern Saudi Arabia and Qatar because of our larger interests in energy and the need to counter the threat of a hegemonic Iran. A lesson from Torch is that this emphasis on security interests should not forever trump the need to speak up loudly and forcefully on issues of principle, such as the values of personal freedom, free speech, and religious tolerance. America needs to find a time, a place, and a way to assert all its interests.

Gratitude will be fleeting, if it exists at all: Seventy years ago, Allied troops roared through North Africa and ended the occupation of local countries by the Vichy French, Nazi Germans and Fascist Italians. The cost was thousands of American dead, including the 2,841 laid to rest in the pristine grounds of the 27-acre U.S. military cemetery near Carthage; the names of another 3,724 are chiseled in stone as "missing." Some locals -- especially those who suffered personally under Axis rule -- were grateful for this sacrifice. However, the views of most were summed up by a Tunisian historian who I once asked to describe the scene in Tunis on the day the city was liberated. "Liberated?" he asked caustically. "What liberation? We went from German occupation back to French occupation."

Times haven't changed very much. U.S. forces saved Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's stranglehold, but the desert emirate votes against the United States at the United Nations about two-thirds of the time and has been among the most miserly Arab states when it comes to responding to American requests to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Iraq today has a chance to build a functioning democracy thanks to the United States, but it's hard to find a pro-U.S. politician in Baghdad -- let alone a nice word for what America did on behalf of the Iraqi people. And it is easier to find a ham sandwich in Mecca than a "thank you" for the billions in development assistance that the United States has provided Egypt over the past three decades.

But gratitude is not the metric of a wise policy. Americans didn't make the greatest sacrifice 70 years ago to win the love of North Africans, and that shouldn't be the goal of our policy in the Middle East today. National interest -- not high poll numbers, warm embraces or polite thank yous -- drove policy then, as it should now. Again, that doesn't mean America should be indifferent to Arab goals and aspirations. To the contrary, should Arab countries and their leaders succeed, with American help, at developing well-functioning economies with representative, inclusive, transparent systems of government, this is, in the long run, a big win for the United States. We just shouldn't expect a thank-you note.

We came, we fought, we went: American troops raced across North Africa in World War II as fast as they could because their goal was to jump across the Strait of Sicily to begin the long march to Rome and, eventually, Berlin. They had little interest in transforming politics and society along the way and therefore set up no post-conflict military governments, organized no U.S.-style elections, and handpicked no local leaders to hand the reins of power. The Pottery Barn rule -- "you break it, you buy it" -- did not apply; the first store didn't open its doors until 1950, anyway.

Today, in contrast, the United States is deeply involved in the political life of countries across the region -- sometimes because of our direct presence, aid and support; sometimes because of the lure of our culture; sometimes only because the conspiratorial nature of local political thinking inflates the role we play into a phantom reality which takes on an absurd but very real life of its own.

To be sure, there are places where the United States should embrace this connection as an opportunity and other places where we can't run from the responsibility even if we wanted to do so. But if there is a lesson to be drawn from America's experience seven decades ago, it is that Washington should, at times, be willing to hew more closely to the Torch-era model of defining interests, achieving objectives, and then saying à bientôt.

In the "Arab spring" states of Egypt and Tunisia, for example, new leaders have a sense of entitlement that America owes them billions of dollars in assistance as compensation for our past support of pro-U.S. autocrats. In turn, some in Washington appear to have a breathless passion to "get on the right side of history" by rushing to "educate" oppositionists-turned-politicians who spent a lifetime condemning America, and to provide them with substantial support without a clear understanding of the quid pro quos involved.

While the era may have passed when America could have the strategic equivalent of a one-night stand -- close intimacy followed by a swift, no-regrets farewell -- our standing in many countries is likely to improve the more we expect local governments to win us over, not vice versa. This means projecting less eagerness and enthusiasm and more restraint and coolness.

* * *

Learning from history has its limits: Torch and its aftermath do not provide all the answers for the many facets of America's current involvement in the broader Middle East. After all, the North African campaign was essentially a two-dimensional military affair -- Allies versus Axis -- whereas today's Middle East is characterized by a multiplicity of actors in a complex and highly politicized environment. But the lessons this forgotten chapter of American engagement in the Arab world does offer -- from the importance of defining strategy to the prioritization of competing interests to the most effective way to engage local actors -- continue to resonate. Indeed, preventing the next American deaths in Benghazi could depend on learning from the legacy of the 2,841 buried in Carthage.

AFP/Getty Images


Coming to America

China wants to buy its way onto your TV screen. Will it work? 

Last November, Michelle Makori, a business reporter formerly of Bloomberg News, joined a small group of seasoned Western television journalists for a whirlwind tour of China. The trip, arranged by China Central Television (CCTV), the world's largest broadcaster, culminated in a visit to the network's two headquarters: on the quiet, far west side of Beijing, a drab campus that sits in the shadow of a giant space needle, and, in the frenzied Central Business District, the new digs -- a twisted pretzel of steel and glass dreamed up by Rem Koolhaas's architecture firm, an engineering marvel that manages to look both muscular and terribly fragile.

Makori and her soon-to-be colleagues had come to China to learn about CCTV America from their new employers, who had plucked them from other networks to develop another peculiar headquarters: a roughly 100-person bureau in the center of Washington, D.C., producing a slick news channel aimed at delivering China-centric news to a U.S. audience. "China has a place in the world economy, so it's only befitting that China has a place in the global media platform," a senior CCTV executive told them, according to Makori. "The reason you people are before us is because we want to be recognized as a legitimate, objective journalistic force," he continued. "The idea is for this to be not a Chinese mouthpiece, not a Chinese propaganda tool, but a global channel produced with a Chinese flair.'"

Nearly a year later, that vision is coming into focus, and it offers a curious indication of China's search for soft power. Despite the promise of wider editorial latitude, CCTV America's coverage of China is largely scrubbed of controversy and upbeat in tone, with a heavy emphasis on business and cultural stories in places where Beijing hopes to gain influence. Reporting on topics sensitive to Beijing, like unrest in Tibetan regions of China or the Tiananmen Square Massacre is off limits. Coverage of scandals involving disgraced Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai and dissident legal activist Chen Guangcheng -- topics that dominated U.S. and European headlines over the summer -- were confined to reports that echoed official government statements. (CCTV America broadcast a stern-faced anchor in Beijing reading the statement "China has called on the United States to apologize over the issue of a Chinese citizen entering the U.S. embassy here in Beijing in late April," after Chen escaped to the U.S. embassy there.)

"Foreign audiences expect to hear stories about China from Chinese media, and CCTV has nothing to say about the two most important stories of the year?" asked Michael Anti, a Chinese blogger and free speech advocate. "Why would an American audience want to listen?"

Since the U.S. bureau began broadcasting in February, CCTV's fresh cast of reporters and producers have been struggling to answer that question. Based out of a sparkling new office in Washington, the service comprises a block of news on CCTV News, the network's recently-revamped 24/7 English-language channel, and covers a range of U.S. and international stories with a cast of 60 reporters, producers, and technicians who have experience at established news organizations like CNN, CBS, and the BBC. Long news pieces, Western accents, slick graphics, live stand-ups in foreign locales, and prominent guests (the likes of Thomas Friedman and Tom Brokaw have appeared on a weekend evening talk show called The Heat), emanate a feel of credibility that has long been absent in CCTV's dull, starchy news coverage. "They were saying ‘we want you to be doing breaking news and investigative pieces' and this was the first time a lot of the senior people in China had heard this," Barbara Dury, a former 60 Minutes producer who now runs CCTV's Sunday newsmagazine program Americas Now, said of initial discussions with top CCTV officials. "And they were asking, 'how's this all going to play out?'"

In a turbulent and uphill battle for the world's hearts and minds, and in an effort to stem what it sees as anti-China coverage in the Western media, Beijing's global television gambit -- part of a multi-billion dollar propaganda push by the Chinese government -- is its most ambitious yet. And CCTV America is one of the main beneficiaries of Beijing's largesse. With heavy emphasis on coverage of under-reported places in Latin America and Africa, the network aims to be what some at CCTV call "China's CNN." But it takes its biggest cues from Al Jazeera, the state-funded upstart from Qatar that, despite distribution challenges, has won many supporters in the United States.

"CCTV's strategy is to find niches where other people have let down the global TV audience in the English sphere," said Jim Laurie, a two-decade veteran of ABC who has consulted for new broadcast ventures around the world, and who is helping CCTV develop its American service. From the new U.S. headquarters on New York Avenue, less than a mile from the White House, Laurie and a team of producers and editors, as well as three Chinese managers who have relocated from Beijing, oversee 16 bureaus in North and South America, supplementing hundreds of Chinese and African reporters working at offices in Africa, Europe, and Asia. On another floor, some 40 Chinese journalists and technicians prepare reports for the domestic service.

In one corner of the bustling, glassy newsroom, a giant central desk is surrounded by a phalanx of screens carrying CNN, Fox, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, and CCTV's other news channels. Seen together, CCTV's broadcast looked buttoned-up and serious next to CNN's unceasing parade of graphics and heavy emphasis on pop culture. (And yet CCTV America surprised The Atlantic's national correspondent Jim Fallows, who spent three years living in China and estimated he's watched "thousands" of hours of CCTV, as he channel surfed. Compared with CNN, "I've generally heard a lot more, and in a lot more detail and less tendentiously and cutesily, from, gasp, CCTV America," he wrote on his blog in April.)

Currently, the bureau produces seven hours of English-language content per week split across three shows, but plans to grow to over 20 hours by next spring, and to add over a dozen more producers and correspondents. "The mentality is expand, expand, expand" said Dury. Half of the service's new coverage will emphasize business, Laurie said, "because the Chinese believe that the business of China is business."

Thanks to government investment and growing revenues from big advertisers in China like Procter and Gamble and Coca-Cola, CCTV's own business is booming. The network now boasts international channels in five languages and claims a total global audience of about 125 million. In January, the company opened a studio in Nairobi, Kenya, and has plans to increase the size of its overseas staff dramatically by 2016. New production centers in Europe, Asia-Pacific, and the Middle East are scheduled to open by the end of 2015. The eventual idea, Makori explained, is to rely on a continuous flow of reports from outposts around the world, "a global 24-hour news operation -- we come to America during its relevant hours, go to Kenya, and China."

Beyond CCTV, China's news media reach now extends from mobile phones in Nairobi to newsstands in London to the radio dial in Boston, where WILD-AM, formerly home to the city's "home for classic soul and R&B," now hosts the state-owned broadcaster China Radio International. Cut-rate prices on syndicated articles and news footage have made Chinese outlets a popular source for media organizations in developing nations. CCTV has also formed partnerships with Western media organizations, inking syndication deals with Reuters, the Associated Press, and NBC.

Even as China deals with a decline in exports and a softening economy, the global economic tumult has also given Beijing a new opening to lucrative resource-for-development deals in Africa and Latin America, and boosted its confidence in promoting a "China model" of development. The same holds true in the media industry. With budgets shrinking and bureaus shutting among major news outlets, the tumult has left room for new entrants. CCTV America claims to have more television correspondents in Africa and Latin America than either Al Jazeera, CNN, or the BBC, and is one of the only major services to boast of a bureau in Havana (one October story by former BBC correspondent Michael Voss even examined Cuba's "democratically questionable" upcoming elections). "Global TV news competition has only gotten stiffer over the past 10 years," says Dave Marash, Al Jazeera English's first American anchor, and an ABC veteran. "It's broken the mold of Western dominance of news media, and who gets to define 'current affairs.'"

The rise of state-funded English-language television outlets from places like France, Iran, and Russia has made the State Department anxious, and led a frustrated Hillary Clinton in March of 2011 to praise Al Jazeera for its "real news around the clock instead of a million commercials," while lamenting the de-funding of Voice of America. "CCTV already has a tremendous influence on Africa and certain parts of the Middle East, too," says media scholar Ying Zhu and author of Two Billion Eyes, a book-length investigation of the network published in October 2012. "It's building its empire in regions where Western media are having trouble."

In 2011, two years after President Hu Jintao announced a $7 billion plan for China to "go out" into the world, a shake-up at CCTV landed Hu Zhanfan at the top of the media empire's hierarchy. The former editor of Beijing-based intellectual newspaper Guangming Daily, CCTV head Hu had cautioned journalists against placing the truth above Party loyalty, reminding them that news must always reflect "our party and country's political stance."

Even as reforms meant to loosen state control over the media industry began in 2009, CCTV was not among the companies chosen for reorganization. Right now, weeks away from a once-in-a-decade leadership transition on Nov. 15, thinking outside of the box is not encouraged, said political scientist Joseph Nye. "There are some people in the system who clearly get it. But right now is not the time to stick their heads above the fox hole."

While a near-monopoly on advertising in China earns CCTV over $2 billion in revenues each year, CCTV is still funded by the government, which still exercises editorial control, just as it has since its launch, as Beijing Television, in 1958. "They've got the mechanics down to a ‘T,'" says David Shambaugh, director of George Washington University's China Policy Program. "But the substance is another story. You have Western faces with unstilted English reading off teleprompters. The key question is, what's on the teleprompter?"

* * *

For an hour each weekday at 9pm Eastern time, a program called Biz Asia America -- anchored by Makori and Philip Yin, both veterans of Bloomberg News -- features top national and international stories. Aside from business and political news in Asia and the Americas, the service includes reports from correspondents in cities across Europe and the Middle East, delivering dispatches on stories like Spain's growing reliance on Chinese trade, Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Turkey, and volunteer medical centers in Greece.

The day begins with a morning pitch meeting, where the evening's prospective stories are discussed. Nothing is off limits, but editorial decisions ultimately fall with Chinese news managers, led by Director General Ma Jing, who have relocated from Beijing. (Ma Jing and all Chinese staff contacted declined to be interviewed for this story.) "There's vigorous debate about what stories will be covered on that day," said Laurie. "It's a process you see in every newsroom, wherever you are. But when there's a lack of decision, then the managing editor who's Chinese will step in."

The roughly 10,000 people that work at CCTV around the world produce over 20 channels, from sports to entertainment to news, all intended to serve the network's ultimate mandate: promote the values of the Communist Party. Still, Laurie believes that CCTV's newest foreign broadcasts have arrived at a critical juncture for China, amidst an embryonic debate about further loosening foreign media from the restrictions that dictate domestic broadcasts. "The people that I have learned to know since 2007," he said, "have been bright, sometimes courageous, young journalists who, just like journalists in Europe and America, want to do good journalism, want to push the envelope, want to be responsible people."

"Our operation has to be guided in the end by the limits that Beijing would allow," said Laurie, who speaks in the tidy sentences of a seasoned television correspondent. "There's no getting around that." Still, Laurie likes to urge skeptics to stay tuned. The idea with CCTV America, he said, was "to do broadcasts that would be able to push the envelope in ways that weren't possible before on China's domestic television."

Laurie's relationship with CCTV is in many ways as complex and puzzling as the media conglomerate itself. While he began working with the company in 2007, his first encounter with CCTV was in the late 1970s, on a black-and-white television across the border in Hong Kong. As a young reporter for ABC News when China was still in the thrall of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, Laurie and his colleagues would gather over bottles of beer and study CCTV's 7:00 p.m. domestic news broadcast for clues to the current ranking of Communist officials. "We'd take a stopwatch and measure how many seconds each leader had [on screen]," he said, referring to a longstanding practice on CCTV of allotting screen time to officials according to their standing in the Party. The more airtime officials receive the more in favor they're seen to be. The young journalists would then trek out to the border between Hong Kong and China and look longingly across. "I remember thinking," said Laurie, "‘shit, why can't I be in there?'"

A few years after winning a Peabody Award for his reporting for NBC in Vietnam in 1975, Laurie landed in Beijing as one of the city's first Western correspondents in decades. In 1989, when students began gathering in Tiananmen Square, ABC sent Laurie, who was then chief of its Moscow bureau, back to Beijing to cover the protests.

In the late morning hours of June 5, 1989, after witnessing soldiers shoot at dozens of civilians as they fled for safety in and around Tiananmen Square, Laurie and a producer turned down a side street. In the crowd they spotted a tall man in a sport coat named Xiao Bin, frantically ranting about what he had witnessed and overheard from others. "The bastards killed thousands!" said the man, a factory worker from the northern city of Dalian, when they interviewed him. "Tanks ran over people. Crushing them." While no official death tally exists, estimates of the dead, including soldiers, now range from the hundreds to the thousands.

As Chinese officials rushed to cover up the events of the previous night, Laurie and his colleague managed to send their footage to Hong Kong for transmission by satellite to ABC's studios in New York. But somehow, someone in Beijing was watching.

"The Chinese -- and its unclear to me this day how they actually did it -- intercepted the outgoing signal," said Laurie. The unencrypted signal from Hong Kong had been hijacked. Around the time that ABC's audiences in New York listened to Xiao Bin's testimony, so did 200 million Chinese viewers of CCTV, with a subtitle underneath: "This man is wanted," it read. "'He is a rumor-monger and counter revolutionary. Please turn him in to your nearest Security Bureau office.'"

A few days later, Xiao was turned in, and in a public hearing also broadcast on CCTV, accused of "hooliganism" and forced to apologize for spreading "rumors." He was sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp.

Laurie was horrified. "The Xiao Bin story is probably the most traumatic journalistic event in my life," he said. "Very rarely in a career as a journalist do you, in effect, send someone to prison. The story is very complicated, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, you can always say ‘that could have been prevented if you had done A, B, and C.' But in the context of the day after the Tiananmen massacre, it was almost unavoidable, in a way."

Laurie returned to Moscow to witness the end of the Soviet Union, and in 1994 reported on South Africa's democratic transition under Nelson Mandela, earning more plaudits along the way. But the memory of Xiao Bin lingered. In 1997, he returned to Beijing, and learned that Xiao had been released after five years. "He was living quietly, but I can't say happily, back in his hometown of Dalian." Through a friend, Laurie sent a few hundred dollars. "Once you go through the Chinese prison system, your life is pretty messed up."

Laurie, who taught journalism at Hong Kong University from 2005 to 2011, acknowledges the irony of his consulting for the network that once turned his reporting against an innocent man. But, now 65, he points out, mustering a chuckle, that the current group of CCTV America's Chinese editors "were all four years old in 1989." And given his experience, he sees his role as nudging the network in a more open direction, an approach he said some elements at CCTV have tried to embrace. "There are limitations, and they're constantly trying to find ways they can work around those limitations. They absorb some ideas [from me], adopt some and not adopt others."

* * *

Despite the challenges, a tough economy with dwindling prospects for television journalists can make the attraction of a job at a place like CCTV hard to resist. Western staff at CCTV like Laurie and Makori have been lured by the promise of highly competitive salaries, bigger responsibilities, and ample resources for travel and production. And it's a chance to be on the ground floor of China's first big foray into Western media.

"China is the emerging/emerged superpower, so it was a no-brainer for me," Makori explained after a taping of her show in April at the NASDAQ site in Times Square. A few blocks away, the square's tallest billboard was cycling through a bucolic slideshow of Chinese landscapes -- an advertisement for Xinhua, the state-owned wire service that's another beneficiary of Beijing's media push.

"It's like getting on the ground floor of Facebook or Google. You already know that China's going to be a huge player," she said. "It's exciting, it's innovative. China's obviously pegged to be one of the global leaders, if not the global leader. So for me as a journalist to develop expertise in China, that's not a bad career move."

Makori told me that even though Chinese editors in Washington and Beijing vetted all stories, censorship was not an explicit policy, and said she was surprised that her reporting on more sensitive issues, like trade disputes, hadn't been a problem.

"Honestly, a part of me thought that these would be taboo topics, but on the contrary, we highlight them," said Makori, in her light South African accent. "We really try to have a balanced view of both sides, but we make sure to also show the Chinese side of the story." Asked if there were omissions, she said that editorial freedom was greater at CCTV than at a previous employer, SABC, South Africa's state broadcaster. "I can tell you that CCTV, in my experience, has not been controlling at all from an editorial point of view, from a content point of view -- certainly not more so than any other news channel that I've worked at."

Nina Donaghy, who left her job as a reporter at the BBC to work as the network's Washington correspondent, insisted that her coverage was not done "in coordination" with Beijing. "Otherwise I wouldn't be here, frankly. With my kind of background, I wouldn't."

Censorship isn't the network's only challenge. Distribution remains a hurdle. While CCTV already has greater reach in the United States than Al Jazeera, finding the channel on your television can be difficult, and the network hasn't generated much buzz among viewers or critics. Like some other foreign broadcasters in the United States, there are no public ratings for CCTV America. Its clunky, often poorly translated website occasionally descends into accidental comedy ("Egypt's Mubarak in comma, but 'not clinically dead'" [sic]), and its live stream is often broken. It was only after Barbara Dury's lobbying, she said, that CCTV agreed in June to launch its first channel on YouTube -- a service, she noted with a chuckle, that's banned in China.

Laurie is hoping to solve CCTV's distribution problem in the United States by getting the channel into hotel rooms, a tactic that helped CNN gained traction among business travelers during the 1990s. For now, the hopes of CCTV America's journalists are pinned on emulating the success of that upstart from Qatar. "I remember when Al Jazeera started, people called it 'the terror network,''' said Walter. "But now, years later, they're producing really quality stuff that's being recognized. That's what I hope for CCTV. I think it will just get better."

Still, CCTV's Western employees are taking their new jobs in stride. Donaghy complained that the CCTV label can be an annoying liability. "You get some comments. Running from, 'I'm sure you're paid a fortune!' to 'Do you speak Chinese?'" When The Heat host Mike Walter, a former anchor at the CBS affiliate in Washington, interviewed for his CCTV job, the station's chief Ma began by reading him a newspaper report skeptical of the new network. "The argument was, it's basically going to be a puppet for the Chinese government, basically a propaganda instrument, and she said, 'what do you think of that?'" recounted Walter. "I said, ‘obviously it was a concern of mine. I don't want me working for CCTV to change the circuitry in my brain.'"

"Personally, I think their mission is to learn as much as they can," said Donaghy. "And to open up, and to look to the United States to see how to run an international cable network. They're very open. It's very early days yet."

Being on the ground floor also means the chance to do good reporting on topics that can't offend government sensibilities -- and, perhaps, on topics that might. "The wall is always shifting," said Walter, whose TV anchor affability seems to belie an eagerness to probe some boundaries. "It's always good to bump up against a wall and see how strong it is, and whether there's some softness. I think we are going to chart new territories."

With broader distribution, the network may have a chance to woo audiences in Latin America and Africa, where television reporting has dwindled in recent years. To make inroads in the United States, CCTV will continue to focus on business stories, coupled with a greater emphasis on cultural documentaries about Chinese history, culture, and nature -- programming that projects a "cute" image of the country, says Ying, the media scholar. As for its news content, "CCTV won't change until the government changes."

Marash, Al Jazeera English's first American anchor, cautioned against writing off the network just yet. If it can manage to loose itself of Beijing's grip, gain wider distribution, and sway audiences with marquee interviews and exclusive coverage of the Chinese economy, for instance, it might find a foothold on Wall Street, if not on Capitol Hill. "And it's almost certainly going to get better."

But Walter said that pushing the envelope, even a little bit, was a challenge for the network's newest journalists, and for the Chinese producers who serve as a middleman with Beijing.
"You got all these Western journalists who want to push this further, and then you work with the other side which says, ‘wait, don't push too much.' They have to find a happy balance and operate within these confines. That's not easy."

"American journalists have the attitude that it's better to ask forgiveness rather than permission," added Walter. "In China, it's better to ask permission than forgiveness. We've run headlong into that. The approach is very different. It's something that will be a struggle here."

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Laurie and a camerawoman reported on the Tiananmen Square Massacre together. In fact, it was a producer. Foreign Policy regrets the error. 

Clarification: In an earlier version of the story, Jim Laurie recounted an incident about his reporting during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Laurie later said he misspoke when describing that incident; the latest version of this story has been updated with that quote omitted.