ANALYSIS: MEDIA WATCH - Media: Bush stayed right 'on message' inChina crisis

When the US spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter collided off the

coast of China, a major international incident was sparked. Newspapers

from coast to coast followed events closely, producing heavy coverage of

the event and its aftermath. The US government and the media frankly

admitted the plane and its crew had been spying on China. There was no

attempt to hide its activity. There was also little discussion of events

from the Chinese point of view; i.e., having spy planes just off their


In the early days of the crisis, the PR battle was already heating


There was frequent coverage of the finger pointing regarding who was

responsible for the collision and debate as to whether the incident

occurred in international air space or in China's air space. The

Baltimore Sun (April 4) wrote, 'foreign policy analysts said (the two

countries' conflicting legal assertions) are attempts to claim the moral

authority in the eyes of world opinion.'

The Boston Globe (April 3) summarized the US government's position in

the early days of the crisis. 'Bush appeared to have a clear strategy:

to exhibit calmness and restraint, in an effort to end the standoff over

boarding the plane without an escalation of tension on either side.' The

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 4) credited Bush for keeping his Cabinet

and himself 'on message.'

There was also coverage of the broader context of events. The US media

frequently listed the number of ways the crisis was happening at a bad

time in Sino-American relations: the new Administration isn't fully up

and running yet; China has detained US scholars as spies; a Chinese

colonel recently defected to the US; the US is set to decide whether to

sell arms to Taiwan; and China is still angry about the bombing of its

embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

One foreign policy expert told the San Francisco Chronicle (April 2),

'This comes at a terrible time ... If you wanted to choose a crisis,

this is absolutely the last place and the last time you would choose.

And to add to it, you now have American servicemen on the ground in


Other reports focused on the presence of our most sophisticated spying

equipment inside the US plane in China. The media provided widespread

coverage of US assertions that the plane has 'sovereign immune status.'

Bush, the State Department, the Defense Department and the US Pacific

Command all stressed the sovereign status of the plane and announced

that the US 'would consider it a severe breach in diplomatic protocol

for the Chinese to board or search the aircraft without American

permission' (The New York Times, April 2).

Interestingly, no one in the media picked up on the fact that CIA

Director George Tenet was on the front page of USA Today (April 3),

saying that the US would not honor the same diplomatic protocols if the

situation were reversed: 'I anticipate that they will get on the plane.

If we were in a similar situation, we'd probably be on that plane, too.'

These comments appear to fly in the face of the united front that the

Bush Administration was trying to present to China. To win over public

opinion, the Bush administration should make sure they are speaking with

one voice.

Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found


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