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For Relevant Environmental News, Give China a Try?

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A few weeks ago, I wrote in this space about the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera America, discussing how its coverage of environmental issues puts U.S. network television to shame. Now here’s a point of comparison that in some ways is even more damning: CCTV-America, as in China Central Television.

For environmentalists, President Obama begins his second term with two issues of monumental importance. One is the showdown over the (increasingly likely) approval of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, dramatized by last month’s mass protests outside the White House. The other is the use of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants, dramatized by the president’s nomination last week of Gina McCarthy, former head of the agency’s clean air division, to replace Lisa Jackson as EPA administrator.

So how did the U.S. networks perform on these two big stories? The Keystone protests generally got 15- to 20-second spots on the evening news shows. Visuals of milling demonstrators waving banners; two-sentence voiceovers of the “supporters say … but critics claim …” variety. McCarthy (and the simultaneous nomination of Ernest Moniz as head of the Department of Energy and Sylvia Burrell as budget director) got similar treatment: president stands at podium, quick soundbite, smiles, applause. And with that dull stuff out of the way, on to the day’s other top stories:

  • “A groundbreaking day at the NFL Combine on Sunday, the testing ground for wannabe pro football players. A woman tried out -- and ABC’s John Schriffen was there.” - ABC News Good Morning
  • “The story everyone’s been talking about today is the 911 recording of a nurse refusing to give CPR to an elderly woman in Bakersfield, California.” - CBS Evening News
  • “Queen Elizabeth is being treated for the stomach flu at a private hospital in London. It’s the same hospital where Kate Middleton was treated for morning sickness.” - Fox and Friends

And so on, ad nauseam (if you’ll pardon the pun). No substantive discussion of carbon emissions or clean air, no details of what McCarthy might actually do, unless one counts tidbits like the American Energy Alliance's statement, reported on MSNBC’s News Nation, that after Lisa Jackson, “the EPA will look as different under Gina McCarthy as Cuba looked when Uncle Fidel passed the hammer and sickle to little brother Raul.”

And then there was CCTV-America. This is a new initiative from China Central Television (it’s barely a year old), and it comes with the same high-tech bells and whistles as Al Jazeera. Like the Qatari network, it’s cultivating anchors and reporters with impressive pedigrees. Two of the CCTV-America’s five anchors come from Bloomberg, one from the Washington, D.C. affiliate of CBS, one from an NBC affiliate, and one, Anand Naidoofrom a five-year stint with Al Jazeera English, preceded by 10 years at CNN International. (Naidoo’s distinctions include a Peabody Award for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina and a Dupont for reporting on the 2004 Asian tsunami.)

It was Naidoo who covered the Keystone protests, using the event to key up a four-minute-plus segment on U.S. energy and climate policy. The meat of it was an interview with a bona fide academic expert, Dan Fiorino, director of the Center for Environmental Policy at American University. Naidoo asked intelligent questions; Fiorino gave low-key, fact-based responses, walking us through Obama’s remarks on climate change in the State of the Union address, the strength of congressional opposition, the feasibility of a carbon tax, the ability of the EPA to regulate emissions, and so on. We might have been watching the Newshour with Jim Lehrer.

Even so, I was a bit skeptical: after all, this was CCTV, the state broadcaster, and its content is closely monitored by the Chinese authorities. So perhaps this new initiative, being aimed solely at American viewers, was being given a little extra leeway. The true test of a TV network’s independence and professionalism is how it deals with contentious issues within its own society, and in China no issue is more sensitive than airborne pollution from coal-fired power plants -- especially after this winter, when the U.S. embassy described pollution levels in Beijing as “crazy bad.” (The EPA’s Air Quality Index is on a scale of zero to 500; in mid-January, the reading in Beijing was 755.)

To get a sense of how the Chinese media are dealing with this, I looked at CCTVs domestic English-language service, and its half-hour flagship talk show, Dialogue. In terms of production values, it’s a more wooden affair than the shows that air on CCTV-America, definitely more C-SPAN than Newshour. However, it broadcasts daily in prime time, is available to viewers across China, and claims a worldwide audience of 80 million.

Seeing that its January 31 edition had devoted a whole half-hour to the air pollution crisis, I settled in to watch, expecting to hear from Communist Party hacks assuring us that the problem was overstated, that the authorities had matters under control, or that, as one official had famously remarked, data from the U.S. embassy was “not only confusing but insulting” and could lead to “social consequences.”

But the show turned out to be a revelation. There was not a hack or a flack in sight. Instead, there were two earnest policy experts -- Xue Lau, the dean of the school of public policy and management at Tsinghua University, and Ma Jun, the outspoken director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs and recipient of the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize. The program seemed to assume that viewers would have a high level of environmental literacy (at one point, the scroll at the foot of the screen read “Car Emissions: Main Contributor of PM 2.5; I had to wonder how many Americans would know that this referred to fine particulates less than 2.5 microns wide.)

For a full half-hour, Xue and Ma hammered the government on one point after another. It was no good for the authorities to say they were issuing regulations unless there was proof of rigorous enforcement. Air pollution was a public health crisis, and as such it would never be solved without vigorous and informed public input. Why were the data being suppressed? Why should the authorities think that it was enough to promise that the 100 worst polluters would be fined? Which coal-fired power plants were principally responsible? Name them, shame them.

Think of it: a full half-hour on prime time. So if you want to track Gina McCarthy’s tenure at the EPA, or take an in-depth look at Obama’s eventual decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, you can probably skip ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and their cohort and instead tune in to one network that is funded by Gulf state oil money and another that is run by the world’s biggest carbon polluter. If, on the other hand, you have an appetite for women in helmets and shoulder pads, or want to keep abreast of the latest developments in Queen Elizabeth’s GI tract, you know where to go.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
Several million Chinese must be desperately ill from breathing such heavy pollution for so long.
Several hundred million is more like it.