By Joan Maltese

Special for

Tuesday July 8, 2003


It's no surprise that our writers don't know what a story is. There are very few Chinese over the age of 30 who do, thanks to China's four-decade intellectual retreat after 1949.

Most of our writers are in their 20s and have no journalistic education or experience. But CCTV-9 offers no training for new hirees or interns and no rewards for initiative or self-development. Incoming Chinese staffers pass an English test that might consist of reading three sentences out loud, which starts them off as deskbound writers. From there, they can move up to directing, anchoring or field reporting. The third and final rung is the position of producer/censor.

Communist Party membership, highly coveted and hard-won, is helpful for the first two rungs, essential for the third. The executive tier is a sort of Mount Olympus populated by entrenched party members who have attained their status through sheer longevity.

The "Olympians" are our greatest obstacle to change, according to a consultant I spoke to who has been advising CCTV-9 on competing in the global media market. With virtually no experience as correspondents, no presence in the newsroom and no production duties despite their "Producer" titles, they provide no accumulated experience and no example of professional advancement. They have no standing in the community as professionals or achievers and no status outside CCTV-9.

They function mainly as two-way filters, tediously reviewing tape after tape of every broadcast and attending endless meetings at which they take directions from higher officials to pass down to newsroom staff.

It is said that they hate their jobs. One of them sadly remarked at the time the business writer departed that no global news organization ever came after him; he'd be lost in a real newsroom.

As prominent as these people are in the hierarchy, they're devoid of basic management skills. They've established no system to reward quality, no program to recruit or cultivate talent, no channels to air gripes or disseminate information, and no chinks in the language barrier between techies and editorial types.

As for shaping a team, forget it. There are no regular meetings, with two exceptions, which I'll get to. When I was first hired, I asked the informally elected leader of the Foreign Experts why our group, at least, didn't meet once a month. He explained that management would view this as "organizing," something labor is forbidden to do in a country whose political philosophy is grounded in workers' rights. So story consults, brainstorming sessions, editorial reviews, and God knows what else goes on in a real news organization, are nonexistent.

Another gap in this picture is our audience. CCTV-9 has created no community of producers and consumers. I've stumbled across feedback (critical) in the Chinese and the Western press, but it was never discussed.

Because we get a free ride from the state, we don't bother with money issues such as advertising revenue and marketing surveys. And because we haven't done our homework in this regard, we function under the vague assumption that most of our viewers are foreigners living in China and Chinese who want to improve their English. Those outside China are assumed to be "affluent and educated," because after all they have satellite television.

Where Ignorance Is Bliss

With the stakes so limited and advancement so unrelated to performance, ignorance and incompetence are not issues at CCTV-9. When one asks Chinese staff to clarify an ambiguous point in a story, the immediate and final response is typically, "I don't know."

We don't do follow-up. We don't do phone calls. We don't keep card files or directories of business or political leaders. We don't subscribe to any online information services except the wires. There's a buggy database of our news scripts that goes back a few months and a room where tapes of the current year's evening broadcasts are stored, but no searchable catalog, print or electronic, of our footage.

Lacking contacts, a reference library or an internal database, we turn to the Internet when we need answers. Because we don't have the technology to bypass the state's Internet censorship, we sometimes simply have to get by without answers.

It's really too bad the Voice of America's Web site is blocked, because we have no guide for foreign pronunciations except the BBC and CNN broadcasts we watch in the newsroom. (I consider our access to these shows one of the job's best perqs, because it is an intellectual luxury in China that barely exists outside of five-star hotels and pricey apartments traditionally occupied by foreigners.)

Our business and financial coverage is especially blind. Almost no one who works on our "Biz China" has any notable expertise in business or economics.

I attempt to copyedit an item that refers to Chinese rural land ownership, which puzzles me. "Is rural land ownership legal in China?" I ask the writer. She stares at me in bewilderment. I repeat the question in increasingly simple iterations, and her answer is still a frightened stare. I don't know if it's because this 19-year-old business writer doesn't know the answer to the question or because she doesn't know what "land ownership" is.

In the end, the censor ends the confusion by ordering me to strike out the sentence. I'm confronted with an item on auction house scandals that concludes, "Christie's escaped by being the first to give crucial evidence." I want only to know what Christie's escaped: indictment, prosecution, fines? When I query the writer, she responds in some confusion: "It says Christie escaped. He fled the country." I consult her wire copy and get the facts. I'm too sober an individual to let the anchor say on the air, "Sotheby's was fined, but Christie's fled the country."

Footnote 2: This situation changed a little during the Iraq war, when more people were tuned in and management realized we'd better improve our image. One day an executive producer dashed breathlessly into the newsroom and announced that we couldn't use the word "coalition" anymore in reference to the British, Australian and U.S. forces. He had just gotten off the phone with "a foreigner" - credentials, profession and native language all unasked - who complained that "coalition" connoted to him, personally, a large number of countries, and that "allies" was the preferable term. That's all it took to set a new editorial policy for our Iraq war coverage.