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
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."
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.