Memo to U.S. media executives: If you do a photo op in the headquarters of China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, be prepared for some surprises.
Gary Pruitt, CEO and president of the Associated Press, learned that this week following a March 27 meeting with his counterpart, Xinhua President Cai Mingzhao.
During his visit, Pruitt shook hands, posed for photos and toured Xinhua’s social media operations center. On Monday, Xinhua published a story saying “the world’s two leading news agencies … have agreed to strengthen cooperation in social media.”
Xinhua’s story triggered a buzz in media circles. Some netizens were aghast that AP might use its social media platforms to promote content from a government propaganda organ.
The only problem? The story wasn’t true, at least according to AP.
“There is no social media sharing arrangement planned between AP and Xinhua,” said Paul Colford, the Associated Press’ media relations director, in a statement late Wednesday.
Colford didn’t respond when asked whether AP would be seeking a correction from Xinhua. He characterized the Beijing visit as part of a routine exchange between the two news agencies. AP executives, he said, “told Xinhua leaders that if they visited our headquarters in New York we would be happy to give a similar tour.”
How and why Xinhua announced a deal that wasn’t a deal isn’t entirely clear. Attempts to interview Xinhua’s Cai Mingzhao were unsuccessful Thursday. McClatchy was also unable to interview Pruitt, who previously had served as CEO of McClatchy.
The Associated Press, a not-for-profit news agency owned by U.S. newspapers and broadcasters, has been steadily growing its business in China. In 2012, AP signed its first commercial contract with Xinhua, allowing the Chinese news agency to sell AP photos in China, so it wasn’t unfathomable that new deals might be in the works.
Even so, some media observers in Asia were immediately suspicious of Xinhua’s report, given the Chinese news agency’s record of hyping its global stature and distorting other information.
“Xinhua News Agency is in a very difficult position,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, a longtime Chinese media watcher and founder of the Danwei consulting firm. “While their key directive is to promote the Chinese government view abroad and guide public opinion at home, they desperately want to be taken seriously as a global news organization.”
Goldkorn cited Xinhua’s sponsorship of the “World Media Summit” as an example of how it yearns to be recognized. When Xinhua hosted the summit in 2013, media watchdogs criticized several news agencies – including AP, the New York Times and Reuters – for participating in what they viewed as Chinese propaganda.
The Chinese government has long had a love-hate relationship with U.S. social media. While Beijing blocks its citizens from accessing sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Xinhua and other state-run media use those platforms and others to spread a benevolent view of China. In its news story Monday, Xinhua bragged that it had nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers, more than 900,000 likes on Facebook and more than 48,000 YouTube subscribers.
While in Asia, Pruitt delivered a headline-grabbing speech in Hong Kong on the risks that journalists face in war zones. In it, he called for new international protocols to make killing a journalist, or taking one hostage, a war crime.
Pruitt also highlighted how terrorist groups and repressive regimes use social media for their own purposes.
“Extremist organization don’t need us to get their story out – they can use social media and other means,” said Pruitt in his speech Monday to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club. “And they certainly don’t want an independent media to observe them. They want to control their message from start to finish.”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.