Medical workers pose for photos after seeing cured patients off at the Wuchang temporary hospital in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, March 10, 2020. (Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu)
By RJ Thomsen
Every year the tax-payer funded Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) receives over $26 million dollars from Congress through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In return, PBS pledges to “serve the public interest through content that informs, educates, inspires, and entertains.” In addition to this, PBS “content must be responsive solely to the needs of the public—not to the interests of funders,” which would include Congress. Yet PBS appears to be allowing the influence of one of its funders, the U.S. government, to control what makes it on air and what doesn’t.
In order to fairly serve the needs of the public, PBS should stop censoring Peter Getzels’ "Voices from the Frontline: China’s War on Poverty," which could serve to educate people in the U.S. on important strategies and policies for successfully combating poverty. It would also serve as an important perspective on China that diverges from the overtly biased Frontline episode “China’s COVID Secrets.” Taken together, this blatant censorship and overt bias call into question PBS’s journalistic integrity, editorial credibility, and their overall mission as a professional broadcasting service independent from undue government influence and propaganda efforts.
The Frontline episode “China’s COVID Secrets,” uses framing, editing, and musical cues that emphasize its contributors' most critical conjectures about China’s handling of COVID while downplaying and ignoring less sinister yet more logical interpretations. The episode consistently frames China’s caution around spreading misinformation as a repressive series of cover-ups rooted in Chinese culture and history. This framing demonizes and pathologizes Chinese culture as naturally repressive and authoritarian, which becomes the underlying explanation for any mistake made by Chinese officials or citizens.
This frames the rational caution and typical confusion of an epidemic as a sort of sinister malfeasance, like in the parts of the episode focused on Dr. George Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. While one of Dr. Gao’s closest contacts in medicine in the U.S. tells Frontline, “I don’t think he was duplicitous, I think he was just wrong,” the episode digs further, suggesting that he was acting carelessly or maliciously by not releasing the sequences of the virus sooner. Yet just a minute or two earlier in the episode, they detail an instance where a lab identified the virus as SARS itself; while it turned out the lab had just made a mistake, “the results quickly started circulating among doctors at Wuhan Central Hospital.” This very story shows how misinformation can rapidly spread, illuminating the benefits of Dr. Gao’s caution in verifying the results from labs sequencing the virus before sharing the information with the public and the global community.
While Dr. Gao is criticized for his caution and initial restraint in releasing information, members of the media who spread similarly inaccurate views that downplayed the potential significance of the virus, like New York Times writer Sui-Lee Wee, are not criticized and are presented in the Frontline episode as experts, despite showing less restraint by quickly pushing out unverified information to the masses.
As the episode continues, Chinese authorities’ caution and restraint is again distorted, this time as a lack of transparency with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the global community. Frontline makes these claims despite the fact that the WHO publicly praised China for their transparency, choosing to frame this praise as the WHO trying to “coax them to cooperate.”
In fact, the dark and ominous tone of the episode, along with the extreme judgement of Chinese officials’ private communications, illustrates why China would be cautious in sharing information. Any information China shared would be scrutinized not just by scientists but by pundits, biased journalists, and politicians like Donald Trump, who relentlessly used the virus to spread violent Sinophobic propaganda and misinformation in an attempt to extract concessions in his trade war.
The argument on China’s lack of transparency hinges on a 6-day period from January 5th of 2020 to January 11th of 2020. In this window of time, Frontline claims that virologist Zhang Yongzhen obtained the full genetic sequence of the virus but was prohibited from publishing this data. The episode summarizes six days’ time in one sentence, highlighting that China did announce that it was dealing with a novel coronavirus but emphasizing that Zhang was still prohibited from publishing data on the virus. Yet according to Time magazine, “Zhang insists he first uploaded the genome to the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) on Jan. 5,” an assertion Time corroborated. This meant that for the entire 6-day period, the United States already had access to the genetic sequence, and could have shared it more widely even sooner. In addition to having the genetic sequence, the head of China’s CDC Dr. Gao had already informed the U.S. CDC that China was dealing with a very serious virus on December 31st of 2019.
Instead of acknowledging this, the Frontline episode doubles down on fearmongering against China, never mentioning that the U.S. had access to the genetic sequence and simply failed to act on it in a timely manner. While China is lambasted as “absolutely ridiculous” for taking the time to verify findings, the U.S. ignorance and misinformation about the virus is simply ignored. Dr. Dale Fisher, head of infectious diseases at Singapore’s National University Hospital thought the delay from China was not malicious but an “appropriate verification” period, calling the timeline for the sequence release “outstanding compared to outbreaks of the past.”
Once again, perspective and bias seem to be a factor in Frontline’s storytelling as Zhang Yongzhen is never interviewed; instead, his Western counterpart Edward Holmes presents the story, with himself as the heroic savior figure who convinced Zhang to overcome China’s supposedly repressive prohibition and share the genetic sequence publicly.
Zhang’s perspective seems to be a key piece missing from Frontline’s investigation and one that could debunk some of the episode's more sinister claims. In the Time magazine article, Zhang is presented as setting the record straight about misinformation; some of that is misinformation that Frontline presents uncritically. For instance, Zhang’s decision to release the sequence publicly is framed as a response to China’s repression in the Frontline episode, but in Zhang’s account it was a response to the U.S.’s inaction after he submitted the sequence to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Interestingly, when contacted by Time magazine, Edward Holmes deferred to Zhang’s version of events, calling into question the veracity of his account to Frontline.
Additionally, Zhang’s account adds important context to Frontline’s framing of the temporary shutdown of Zhang’s lab following the release of the sequence publicly. The Frontline episode mentions the shutdown in an ominous tone, stating only that authorities shut the lab down for “rectification.” Without further context or information about the lab shutdown, viewers are left with the episode's initial pathologization of Chinese culture as repressive and Chinese leaders as authoritarian as the explanation. In Zhang’s account to Time magazine, this lab closure was a normal procedure to double-check lab protocols and verify that their data was accurate. In fact, “Zhang denies reports in Western media that his laboratory suffered any prolonged closure, and instead says it was working furiously during the early days of the outbreak,” screening more than 30,000 samples for the virus after it released the sequence.
Beyond simply having an intrinsic Western bias from being a U.S.-based organization, PBS’s Frontline episode on COVID in China devolves into Orientalism and exotification at times, particularly in its coverage of the Hunan Seafood Market. By simply regarding wet markets as a characteristically unhygienic, dangerous, and inferior alternative to Western food practices, this episode exposes its Western bias and inability to fairly portray China due to preconceived notions that position Chinese culture and people as backwards and “Other.”
These subtle instances of bias act as racial and ethnic microaggressions throughout the episode, reinforcing cultural differences as the root causes of China’s struggles with COVID without ever examining how these same mistakes with COVID and more were made in the U.S. and other Western nations — nations that have embraced neoliberal capitalism at the cost of public health infrastructure and most other forms of collective well-being.
RJ Thomsen is a staff writer, organizer, and activist with CODEPINK.