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?"
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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.