The Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo has a great item out this morning on the Washington Post’s advertising partnership with the Chinese Communist Party. Apparently, a Chinese government-controlled media outlet has purchased its own news supplement – complete with Washington Post masthead – that is published in the Post’s print and web editions. Ostensibly this is considered an “advertisement,” and is handled by the Post’s advertising department, but critics say the supplement is so poorly labeled that many readers likely believe they’re reading the Post’s own reporting – but are actually reading Chinese government propaganda.
Kredo spoke to journalism ethics experts who explained why the relationship is problematic:
“They need to address the proverbial elephant in the living room—why are you carrying a Communist government-sponsored publication?” asked Lois Boynton, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“It raises some ethical issues for the Post,” said Boynton, who criticized China Watch for intentionally obfuscating its origins.
“There are issues of transparency associated with who publishes China Watch,” she said. “The ‘about’ blurb doesn’t provide that detail. Although many people may know that China mainstream media is government-controlled, it may not be clear for all readers.”
“Readers go right through this section as if they’re moving through the hard news to the more in depth reporting, never realizing that they’re being inundated with Chinese government propaganda,” said Stephen Yates, a former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. “It doesn’t hit a person that they’ve arrived at an ad supplement filled with things that have passed Chinese Communist Party filters.”
In addition, Kredo reports there are questions about whether the partnership violates the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The law requires agents being paid by foreign governments – i.e. lobbyists or political consultants – to register their affiliations in a database and disclose them publicly. But there is a gray area here when it comes to FARA. For example, while a lobbyist may have to register under FARA if he has a financial relationship with the Russian government, news organizations controlled by the Russian government that are aired in the U.S. (i.e. Russia Today) do not have to register in the same fashion. It’s a loophole that allows foreign governments to duck the rules.
While FARA violations are rarely prosecuted, this could still increase pressure on the Post to rethink its current partnership. Considering the Post editorial page’s typically exemplary coverage of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, it would be nice to see the advertising department update its standards to follow suit.