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Media Struggles with the Ukraine Narrative

Mar 08, 2022

The CCTV-13 news report in question is about a war of invasion that cannot be described as a war of invasion. It varies sufficiently in quality and truthfulness to show the good, bad and ugly sides of state-run TV scrambling to cover a complex story under strong political guidance. I do not intend to disparage any journalist, and it's worth noting that the individuals reporting from inside Ukraine are brave and resourceful as well. 

Chinese TV news reports about world events vary from brief bulletins to in-depth presentations lasting ten minutes or more. There has been no round-the-clock reporting on Ukraine, but despite the inherent political sensitivities, and the necessity of taking back seat to domestic concerns, the Ukraine "situation" is being treated like the big story it is. 

The March 1, 2022, morning news report on Ukraine gave considerable play to the February 28 peace talks held in Belarus which accords with Xi Jinping's guidance that negotiation is better than fighting, although the Chinese leader, who signed a joint declaration with Vladimir Putin on February 4, has yet to speak out against Russia's blatant violation of international norms of sovereignty. 

The initial round of peace talks in Belarus was at the top of a news report about Ukraine that was book-ended by a story about the just-passed Beijing Winter Games and another story about the upcoming Paralympics. It was also the only feature of the news show that could be presented with a modicum of journalistic integrity, because it showed the Russian side's willingness to talk, in accordance with China's preference for peace, though in a stark contrast to the Western press, the word "invade" is never mentioned. 

CCTV staffers in Belarus did stand-ups, got establishing shots of the peace talks venue, before and after shots of the conference room, and acquired some dramatic footage from their Belarusian hosts showing the arrival of the Ukrainian delegation by military helicopter. The small amount of unscripted chatter was mainly about hopes for peace which is all within accord of the supreme leader's ardent "desire" for peace. 

The images projected on the studio background for the in-house announcers varied during the program, and I thought it interesting that the war seems to intensify between the cloudy urban skies of backdrop one and the smoke, fire and rubble of backdrop two which showed a bombed out war zone. 

In contrast, the previous day's green-screen background was a collage of the White House, the Kremlin and NATO headquarters, which is more typical of news in peacetime, though it gave Ukraine no agency at all except perhaps as the bystander or proxy in a tug-of-war between the more powerful forces represented in the picture. 

The nail-biting drama of the UN Assembly meeting where Ukraine's representative compared Putin to Hitler in a florid fashion was nowhere to be seen in CCTV’s report from the UN, though a great deal of CCTV in more normal times consists of detailed reporting about such meetings. It seems there might be a taboo of sorts on such meetings in which there is sufficient discord to provoke visible emotional display. 

CCTV’s coverage of the UN Human Rights meeting in Geneva on March 1, 2022, also showed signs of potential in-house censorship. The viewer would not know from looking at the CCTV’s coverage that nearly everyone in attendance protested when Russia Foreign Minister was beamed in on screen to join the conference remotely. There was a disruptive walk-out, but this did not make it to CCTV. 

The news show then moved on to a dramatic story that was widely reported elsewhere. It showed the bombing of the main television tower in Kiev, an act designed to strike terror in the heart of television journalists everywhere. This ought to be especially eerie in China which, having developed so much of its urban infrastructure under Soviet tutelage in the 1950s and beyond, has similar television towers in every city, and which, until recently, were the tallest structures in all of China's big cities.  

The Russian side admitted to the attack that China TV tried to minimize a few days later, saying the tower was hit directly in a way designed to minimize collateral damage, so the attempt to whitewash the news was futile. According to most reports, including the Russia-friendly ASB News, there were two rocket strikes; one a direct hit on the tower, and another in the vicinity of Kiev’s Holocaust Memorial. Five citizens died in the combined strike. 

The next section of the news represents the introduction of Russian military footage. This is significant for two reasons; the Russians realize they have lost the narrative and are trying to win viewers with images that bolster a pro-Russian point of view. The footage is reminiscent of the work of embedded journalists in other wars who work under the expectation that they won't bite the hand that feeds them. 

There are several shots of Russian generals in a command center with dozens of what look like live video feeds, emblematic of war in the 21st century, and the image of the stout Russian commander with the bemedaled chest sitting in a soft, oversized chair in the war room adds a comic Dr. Strangelove style vibe to tragedy that has mostly consisted of grim footage from the field. 

The footage supplied to China by Russia's foreign ministry doesn't begin to account for the horrific bombings and loss of life from the cross-border attack, but it does give a Russian point of view to some battleground scenes, especially the helicopter footage, in which rifle-toting Russian soldiers are seen flying low over the Ukraine flat lands and villages in an attack helicopter. At the end of the sequence they jump out of the copter, guns at the ready, in a way that's reminiscent of Hollywood's many helicopter-themed Vietnam War scenes. The single most ugly aspect of the news on March 1, 2022, was a deception designed to cast doubt on the victims and exonerate the perpetrator. 

The CCTV news chryon that accompanies the picture of the destroyed building below claims that the source of the bombing is unknown, but the voice-over cites an unnamed "Russian media source" saying that Russia didn’t do it, alleging that it couldn’t have been done by Russia because the strike approached the building from the unlikely direction of the northwest. 

The Russian “fake news” report went on to insinuate that the bombing was done by Ukraine, essentially blaming the Zelensky government for a false flag, a self-goal, but for what purpose is never explained. 

This odious interpretation gives comfort to the criminal invaders and makes a mockery of the Ukrainian people who are watching their cities get destroyed by a foreign power in real time.

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