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Coverage of China lacks depth, hinders progress

The usual "he said-she said" cloud hung over the China-U.S. relationship last week. Beijing, immensely irritated (as always) by U.S. interference in the Taiwan impasse, issued its latest "white paper" on reunification.

The State Department, releasing its annual human-rights report, once again condemned Beijing for violating the rights of its usual suspects -- the perpetual, ham-handed practice that so undermines sympathy for China in the United States. Taken together, it added up to a less-than-propitious run-up to the vote in Congress on upgrading China's U.S. trade status. A close vote had already been predicted. Now it's too close to call.This weary sense of permanent but avoidable crisis also hovered over the aptly titled "U.S.-China Relations at the Crossroads: A Summit Dialogue" conference at UCLA recently. It was attended by Chinese and U.S. government officials, as well as by academics, business leaders and journalists from both countries. The conference's aim was to argue for a lower temperature in the China-U.S. debate and, to that end, a more responsible contribution by the mass news media. The chances of that happening may not be any better than China's chances with Congress.

"There are too many absolutist positions and not enough middle ground," observed conference panelist Orville Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a China expert. "If you're not for engagement with China, you're for isolation. If you're not for reunification of Taiwan, then you're for Taiwan's independence. But most of the sensible positions are in between, in the middle." That statement may well be the best single characterization of our China debate but, alas, not everyone wants to be sensible.

"Ideologues are resistant to corrective information even when it is plentiful. That's what makes them ideologues," said panelist Timothy Weston, a University of Colorado professor and co-editor of a new book, "China Beyond the Headlines."

The UCLA conference, said its director, Richard Baum, a UCLA professor, was an attempt to find a way toward a kinder, gentler dialogue about China that eschews mutual nationalisms. "Until the past few years, you could talk calmly about China," Baum said. "Now the discourse is so shrill." Baum, a widely respected China scholar, has little doubt that unless jingoism is put on hold, two of the planet's largest and strongest inhabitants will head for a major showdown.

While panels on the economies of the two nations made some admirable progress in toning down the harsh edges of the debate, a well-attended panel on the international media ("Demonizing the 'Other': The Role of the Mass Media") turned into one big steam room. There were those in the well-dressed audience who wanted the U.S. media to be less pro-American in its reporting; there were those who wanted it to be more so. Our media stereotypes China by reporting on jailed or freed dissidents over and over again, as if that were the only story there, some said. Others blamed China's U.S. media image on its own ingrown, clandestine character, which stifles efforts by Western journalists to report the China story even-handedly. And almost everyone agreed that the media could certainly do a better job, which would reduce tensions.

But not Seth Faison, the Shanghai bureau chief of the New York Times. He described the media's primary role more as a mass communicator of compelling human interest stories than as a systematic rectifier of imbalances and misunderstandings in the U.S.-China relationship. "When people talk about the role of the media in the Sino-U.S. relationship -- and how, if the media were just a little better, a little more responsible or a little more restrained, then things would be better -- I'm here to tell you, the media is not going to change; the media is a problem," he said.

Faison's direct and honest admission is rarely offered in so open a forum. Why can't the mass news media inject more common sense -- and sophistication -- into the China-U.S. debate by providing better, more nuanced, less ethnocentric coverage and commentary? It's true that the Western press is addicted to the negative, the superficially visible and the cliche story, repetitively reported. One recalls those endless predictions of terminal woe for Hong Kong once it left British hands.

It's also true that the Chinese press, mirroring the party line, needs to make a much more distinguished contribution. There is not much Western journalists can immediately do regarding the distorted images and misinformation about the United States that China's press spews up. Yet if our own media is to be the moral and ethical standard of excellence, it has the obligation to provide the basis for a calmer, more reasoned and better informed debate by offering journalism that's worthy of our democracy and our vaunted press freedoms. Otherwise, the case for the superiority of American ways may rest almost entirely on economics. Is that the only bottom line we want?

Tom Plate teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles.