What to make of Edwin Maher?

Imagethief found the LA Times article on CCTV9′s western anchorman, Edwin Maher, quite interesting. I didn’t have time to comment on it when it first appeared, but in general I found the story balanced as it presented both criticisms and defenses of Maher’s choice to work for Chinese state-owned media. It was, thus, interesting to see some of the subsequent discussion that emerged, especially at Black and White Cat, which translated aGlobal Times article excoriating the western press for criticizing Maher.

Rather than rehash old ground, I will point you to Cam MacMurchy’s latest post at Zhongnanhai, which, I think, does a very good job of answering the Global Timescriticisms and analyzing the original story. It’s well worth a read.

I will, however, add a few other thoughts.

What is it about westerners who appear on television that attracts our particular ire? Anyone wanting to look deeper into this phenomenon need only consider Dashan. If there is a foreigner who elicits more widespread contempt from fellow western expatriates I’ve yet to encounter him (or her). One friend of mine attributed this to latent racism. It’s all very well to live and work in China, but to be seen acting ridiculous for the entertainment of the Chinese is taboo. My friend memorably referred to this as the “Dance, monkey!” syndrome.

Maher seems to have earned himself the same kind of contempt. Even Imagethief has written unkind things about him in past. But everyone who works in business in China is complicit with the Chinese government to some degree. We’re all doing our bit to prop up the State. An explicit part of my job is helping foreign companies to pander to the Chinese government. That’s why we’re always helping companies to talk about their “commitment to China”.

It’s true that anything having to do with propaganda or censorship touches a particularly raw nerve in people from liberal democracies (including Imagethief), but there are plenty of other westerners working in the Chinese media. Imagethief has met many bright people who work or have worked for Xinhua, China Radio International and the China Daily.  One of them, Xinhua polisher Chris O’brien, writes Beijing Newspeak, one of the best China blogs around. The now defunct Positive Solutions gave us an entertaining inside look at the China Daily for nearly two years. (Positive Solutions author Charlie has since gone on to more glamorous things, like many other western veterans of Chinese media.) Cam himself is a Chinese media veteran.

But both Chris and Charlie also excelled at taking their employers down a peg, and giving the rest of us amusing glimpses of the mechanisms driving state-owned English language media. I believe they were forgiven because they were seen as our spies inside; people who obviously didn’t buy into the product. And, of course, neither of them was in a publicly visible or bylined role.

And this is where Maher is different. He is very visible and in the LA Times piece he is unapologetic. I believe that’s what leads those of us who don’t know him personally to dismiss him. We observers of China’s state-owned media have perfected our airs of cynical dismissal. We know how it works. We know the agenda. We can read between the big and clumsily drawn lines. We’re always happy to ridicule its amateurism and censorship. Armed with our prejudices, when confronted with someone who publicly buys into the mission of China’s English language media we are forced to see them as either dupe or collaborator. And also, if you want to be incendiary, as race traitor. None of those labels allows much room for nuance or charity.

I don’t know Edwin Maher and I don’t think it is fair for me to judge him as an individual. On the other hand, I think it’s perfectly fair for me, or anyone else who watches CCTV9, to judge him as a media professional. Other than as a crude barometer of the Chinese government’s agenda I don’t have much time for CCTV9, or any of the state-run English language media. Their failure isn’t in presenting the Chinese government’s point of view, but in doing so spectacularly clumsily. Maher shouldn’t be criticized for helping the Chinese government to tell its story. If anything, he should be criticized for not helping them to tell it better.

See also:

Inside Chinese state TV (Informed Comment – H/T ESWN)

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