Sunday, November 27, 2005

# Posted 11:02 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

PBS TAKES A LOOK AT CHINA'S ECONOMIC MIRACLE: In a seven-part series that aired last month, PBS correspondent Paul Solman took an in-depth look at the Chinese economy. Yes, I know that last month may as well be last year in the media, but I just finished listening to the podcast version of Solman's reports, so I thought I'd put in my two cents on the subject. (Podcast URL, transcripts here.)

The first thing I'd say is that "in-depth" means something very different on television than it does in print. Although the 60+ minutes PBS dedicated to Solman's reports is remarkable for TV news, it still provides much less information than however much one could read in 60 minutes.

Of course, this isn't Solman's fault. It is the inherent nature of the medium. But I think it is also especially hard to cover such an immense subject as the Chinese economy in such a short-time frame and in a medium that is not friendly to non-visual subjects such as economic growth.

Often, one might argue that moving pictures are worth far more than a thousand words, or that television has an impact that one simply cannot compare to print journalism. To be fair, I can't take an informed position on this subject in regard to Solman's reports, since the podcast only provided an audio-track, not a visual one.

Even so, most of what I listened to were interviews. It's not as if China's economy is something you can see. I guess you can get some good footage of high-end shoppers in Shanghai or at the newest Walmart in the PRC, but that doesn't seem so important. The image of Chinese men and women as hard-working, affluent and successful is not terribly foreign to us.

Now, if there were some city of millions in Africa where you could see black-skinned Africans surrounded by skyscrapers and malls just like the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, that would be shocking, because we have no images in our head of prosperous black societies. Instead, emaciated children with missing limbs are what we associate with Africa.

But getting back to our subject, the value of Solman's reports is inconsistent, often because some of them take an innovative look at a much-discussed issue, while others simply recycle the conventional wisdom. My favorite piece of the seven was Solman's look at financial markets in China and his examination of whether the widespread misallocation of capital may represent an Achilles' heel of the Chinese economy. For example, how often do we hear that
[The Shangahi Stock Exchange] opened with great fanfare in 1989 and Chinese citizens poured in their savings, in large part because the government wouldn't let them invest anywhere else.

Sixteen years later, the Shanghai Exchange has lost half its value and looks to be in a coma. Basically deserted, it's been the worst-performing major exchange in the world for the past decade, while China was the best performing economy.
Although I won't pretend that I pay close attention to media reports about China, my sense is that very important data points such as this one don't get much attention if they conflict with the standard narrative of "China's Rise: Miracle or Meance?"

I also liked Solman's report on the challenges of innovation in a repressive society. But instead of focusing like a laser on that one issue, Solman also began to explore whether economic growth will result in political reform. Both subjects are well-deserving, but together they are just too much for one 10-minute segment.

My sense is that television journalism accomplishes the most when it focuses intensively on a subject that hasn't been covered as much it deserves. This kind of accomplishment is very intellectually demanding. Given how little information one can provide in a few minutes on the air, it isn't hard to fill the schedule with summaries of the day's headlines.

But if TV correspondents develop a broad knowledge not just of their subject of how it is portrayed in the American media, they have the potential to focus their spotlight on something truly unusual and informative. Often, Solman's reports accomplish just that.
(1) opinions -- Add your opinion

mr saloman is a lightweight thinker and economic analyst.his pbs stuff is really just fluff most of the time. There is little real independent transparencey when looking at china in most if not all sujects and in my view most of the data they report needs to be taken with great grains of salt. no independant audits of what they report and what they say about economic topics. i read about many severe banking problems including very bad very substantial internal loans that will never be paid, lots of ecological problems that are never reported. a real problem with a rapidly aging population that has not been appreciated by a lot of pundits and on and on and on.. some reporting about all of this on the blogs but not that much. the spinning of china as both an economic and miltary threat to the region is in my view not justified. Im more interested in the return of japan to the economic world and how it too will deal with an aging population.
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