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.