Ten years ago this July, there was a riot in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the restive northwestern Chinese province that is home to the Muslim Uighur people. Beijing’s response to the unrest was brutal. Telephone and internet communications were shuttered across the entire province. More than 1,000 people were summarily rounded up and detained. Scores were executed.
The U.S. media, apparently exhausted from having extensively covered protests in Iran just weeks before, reacted wanly. News of the repression in Xinjiang was seemingly relegated to page C-36 or so, somewhere between the legal notices and the National Lacrosse League scores.
A decade later, Beijing’s campaign of repression in Xinjiang has ratcheted up. This time, though, the coverage from global print media has been nothing short of stellar. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and other outlets have done remarkable work chronicling Beijing’s systematic destruction of Uighur neighborhoods, the razing of mosques throughout Xinjiang, the installation of a vast surveillance apparatus, and even the construction of internment camps.
Cable news networks have been rather less impressive than their print brethren in their focus on this important story. Granted, I rarely watch cable news — as a millennial cord-never-haver, my exposure to CNN and the like is largely relegated to muted screens at the gym or an airport lounge. But what I do see out of the corner of my eye as I suffer on the stationary bike is almost always relentlessly parochial, with a big focus on all things Donald Trump.
Researchers for The Washington Times confirmed my suspicion. Examining transcripts, they found that between the beginning of this year and April 10, MSNBC and Fox News, to their discredit, mentioned “Xinjiang” zero times on air. CNN, with a much broader international reach than its competitors — it has nine domestic and 27 international bureaus — mentioned “Xinjiang” a mere eight times over the same period.
By contrast, CNN has mentioned Jussie Smollett 291 times this year. Mr. Smollett, you’ll recall, is the B-Minus-list actor who was accused of faking being the victim of a laughably implausible hate crime this winter. (I asked CNN senior news editor Samantha Beech if she thought this was a healthy balance of coverage. As this column went to press, she had yet to respond.)
To hear them tell it, the cable news networks have never mattered more than they do in what they insist on referring to as the “Age of Trump.” “CNN matters. … CNN matters in the United States and around the world,” network honcho Jeff Zucker said in a recent podcast interview. Cable news networks and their bosses often portray themselves as that last thin line separating the U.S. from despotism. Don Lemon stands between us and dictatorship.
Their comical levels of self righteousness aside, CNN and the others are perhaps more correct than they imagine. Sure, their ratings are minuscule — on any given evening, a mere 1 million people tune into the Atlanta-based network — but what they choose to focus on does matter.
That’s because, more than any recent president, Mr. Trump is allergic to the written word. (Which is ironic, given that he is himself a best-selling author.) Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton, whatever their faults, were voracious readers of books, magazines and newspapers. Mr. Trump prefers to settle in to a night of cable news programs. A quick perusal of the president’s Twitter feed confirms that he’s preoccupied by what he sees on the tube.
In that sense, the television news media’s blackout on Xinjiang matters. Not only is the story important in its own right, but covering it might encourage the president to raise the issue when, for instance, he holds his next summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Cable news assignment editors have never had more power.
Cable news networks are, of course, businesses. They face pressure from their corporate parents to deliver ratings. A piece last month by Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast looked at MSNBC’s ratings woes in the wake of the conclusion of the Mueller probe. “The release of Barr’s summary letter threw a wrench into the narrative that has driven the network’s coverage and called into question what the primary narrative would be for the network going forward,” Mr. Grove reported. Of course, journalistic enterprises don’t go casting about for a “narrative” to promote. They report the news. MSNBC, by Mr. Grove’s telling, isn’t a journalistic enterprise. It’s just show business.
In a harangue on his show “Reliable Sources” last weekend, CNN correspondent Brian Stelter bemoaned a “president who spends his time demonizing immigrants, spreading misinformation and accusing his opponents of treason.” Floating a hypothetical, Mr. Stelter asked, “How would we cover it if it were happening in another country?”
The answer is sadly, you wouldn’t.
• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.