Some of the Same News Outlets Warning About 'Disinformation' Are Taking Millions To Print Chinese Propaganda

(Time magazine cover)
February 21, 2024

When U.S. news outlets' lucrative peddling of Chinese propaganda was exposed in 2019 and 2020, it was a scandal. Human rights groups condemned the practice, and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal swore off Chinese Communist Party money.

In the years since, however, a number of major U.S. newspapers and magazines have kept at it—accepting hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars from the Chinese Communist Party in exchange for publishing content by China Daily, a state-owned English-language paper. China Daily's Foreign Agents Registration Act filings show that between October 2020 and October 2023, the CCP mouthpiece paid outlets such as Time, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune a total of $8.2 million.

The mainstream media's ongoing promotion of Beijing's propaganda has come amid growing U.S.-China tensions and fears of full-scale war between the two superpowers. Meanwhile, China has poured billions of dollars a year into a global disinformation campaign meant to promote its image and favored political outcomes.

"Beijing's information manipulation spans the use of propaganda, disinformation, and censorship," the State Department reported in September. "Unchecked, [China's] efforts will reshape the global information landscape, creating biases and gaps that could even lead nations to make decisions that subordinate their economic and security interests to Beijing's."

The same outlets taking China Daily's money were among those warning most vociferously about the dangers of misinformation.

"WA Elections Officials Need Rapid Data To Match Misinformation Age," Seattle Times, Dec. 15:

America's elections—and the workers who conduct them—face an ever-changing barrage of threats that will certainly intensify as the nation heads into another presidential election year.

"Corporations Are Juicy Targets for Foreign Disinformation," Foreign Policy, Dec. 5:

Online slanders may become a new vector for economic warfare.

"Poll: California Voters Agree Political Disinformation Is a Big Problem. But How To Fix It?" Los Angeles Times, Aug. 16:

Misinformation can spread rapidly on social media, leading to violence such as the attack on the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). It can also have an impact on local elections.

"How Data Literacy Can Keep America Safe," Time, June 29:

Put simply, our faith in data (paired with our poor data literacy) creates fertile ground for misinformation to flourish. And, with the explosion of new tools to generate and spread misinformation, this growing problem becomes a threat not just to our communities, but to our national security.

"Disinformation Is a Midterm Elections Threat That Could Keep Millions of Voters at Home, Analysts Say," USA Today, Nov. 4, 2022:

Disinformation lies target communities of color to influence elections and spread to millions of people in seconds. The truth is often told through one Sunday sermon or barbershop at a time

"Election Disinformation Targeting Latinos Is Spreading, and Experts Say It's Only Going To Get Worse," Houston Chronicle, Oct. 14, 2022:

It was a preview of what experts say is a wave of misinformation and disinformation targeting Latinos online ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, as they are poised to play a prominent role in deciding major Texas races, and potentially which party will control Congress.

"Misinformation Expert Warns About 'Terrifying' Implications for Future Elections," Boston Globe, Sept. 29, 2022:

Americans are awash in misinformation, basing their conclusions on different worldviews and information systems, and the implications for democracy are "terrifying."

"Disinformation Scams Are Becoming More Aggressive as Election Day Nears. Here's What Illinois Voters Should Know," Chicago Tribune, Sept. 15, 2020:

One of the most widespread challenges facing modern elections is false information. In Illinois, officials say misinformation and disinformation schemes are getting more aggressive.

In many cases, the outlets raised the alarm about China's nefarious influence campaign even as they willingly participated in it.

"'The Long Game.' China's Online Influence Campaign in Latin America," Time, July 11

"Can Fact-Checkers Save Taiwan From a Flood of Chinese Fake News?" Los Angeles Times, Dec. 16, 2019

"Russian, Chinese, and Iranian Election Meddling Could Lead to Violence, Report Warns," Boston Globe, Dec. 14

"U.S. Rep. Jayapal Returns Campaign Contributions to Couple Pushing Chinese Propaganda," Seattle Times, Aug. 25.

"China Is Tweaking Its Propaganda for African Audiences," Foreign Policy, March 16

"WhatsApp, WeChat Are Hotbeds of Political Misinformation Targeting Houston's Asian Communities," Houston Chronicle, Nov. 3, 2022

"China Targeting US Voters With Anti-Democracy Narratives in Election, Analysts Warn," USA Today, Oct. 27, 2022

The Washington Free Beacon reported in 2019 that China Daily had "published hundreds of propaganda articles designed to look like ordinary news stories in some of America's most influential newspapers. While foreign agents may place ads in the United States, the propaganda outlet has repeatedly violated the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) by failing to provide full disclosures about its purchases."

Under pressure from congressional Republicans and the Trump administration, China Daily revealed details about its payments to U.S. media for the first time in June 2020, showing that between 2016 and 2020 it paid the outlets a total of about $19 million.

"Newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post ended advertising deals with China Daily," the Free Beacon reported. Human rights groups criticized the companies for publishing China Daily articles that "tout the Chinese Communist Party's policies in Tibet, Hong Kong, and other disputed regions."

Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, urged news outlets in 2020, "If you care about the truth, then don't participate in the Chinese government's machinery of propaganda, censorship, and repression."

Yet, according to the China Daily's latest FARA filings, over the next three years, the CCP mouthpiece paid $3.55 million to Time, $1.84 million to the Los Angeles Times, $478,950 to the Boston Globe, $419,459 to the Houston Chronicle, $390,433 to the Seattle Times, and $183,657 to the Chicago Tribune. The payments were listed as "advertising expenditures" and "printing newspapers."

For China Daily, "printing newspapers" refers to running "China Watch" inserts in print editions of papers, while "advertising expenditures" take the form of placing news-style articles on news sites and in the pages of papers. The Free Beacon explained in 2019:

While many China Daily articles touted the country's economic achievements or tourist attractions, others pushed explicit political messages. These articles contain the legally required disclaimer that a Chinese entity prepared the ads, but do not say that China Daily is owned by the Chinese Communist Party.

One China Daily article from March that appeared on the Journal's website described China's detention of more than one million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang reeducation camps as a "law-based campaign of de-radicalization." A Journal spokesperson said that her outlet reviews all ads for "issues of taste and accuracy," but did not say whether China Daily's articles on Xinjiang met those guidelines.

Since late 2020, Time has given China Daily an entire landing page on its website full of this type of content. The Time-branded page features a banner that reads "China Watch: All You Need to Know About China and the Dynamics of Sino-US Relations." The only hint that the news is a product of the CCP is a "Paid Partner Content" disclaimer.

"Many of the newspapers working with China Daily face severe financial problems," the Free Beacon noted in 2021, and the news business has only gotten worse since then.

The Free Beacon reached out to the outlets still taking money from China Daily for comment. Only the Los Angeles Times responded on the record, saying, "China Daily is an advertising customer. The Los Angeles Times newsroom operates independently from the business. The LA Times newsroom follows clear journalism ethics guidelines."

There is a clear "ethical question of U.S. media outlets accepting money from an authoritarian government to publish disguised propaganda," John Dotson, the deputy director of the Global Taiwan Institute, told the Free Beacon. "In a similar fashion to how media outlets might feel financial pressure to avoid offending a major advertiser, there's a risk of encouraging self-censorship on the part of media organizations."

Dotson, who has written extensively about Beijing's propaganda campaigns, said the prospect of such censorship is likely a "major motivation for Chinese state agencies funding this material in the first place."