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