WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Before it could be determined whether they were "detainees" or "hostages," the "Hainan 24" came home for Easter. Their jubilant families rejoiced. The American people celebrated. President Bush was praised for preventing an "incident" from becoming a "crisis."
In Beijing, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan claimed that the downed EP-3 aircrew was released as a "humanitarian gesture" after the U.S. "apologized." From Paris, Secretary of State Colin Powell said no apologies were tendered "because we did nothing wrong."
Is this a "great victory for quiet diplomacy and the Bush White House" -- or a "bitter humiliation" for the United States? In the real world, the answer to that question depends less on what has happened up till now than what happens from this day forward in the U.S.-China relationship. Unfortunately, you wouldn't know that from the way our Fourth Estate has covered this episode -- from the moment our damaged aircraft landed on Hainan Island through the return of our airmen. At best, it's been a case of "too little -- too early." At worst, it's been a case study in media schizophrenia.
The media's rush to judgment on the EP-3 matter is reminiscent of last year's election coverage. On Election Night, they prematurely and incorrectly awarded the presidency to the wrong person based on faulty and incomplete information. And for 34 days thereafter, the "news" networks offered us live coverage of reporters on courthouse steps interpreting judicial decisions they hadn't yet read.
In the immediate aftermath of the collision in international airspace on April 1, news readers and copywriters insisted on describing our EP-3 surveillance aircraft as a "spy plane." It's not, but the term was immediately picked up by the international press and Beijing's propaganda machine. Within 48 hours, the Bush administration was castigated for being too bellicose in demanding the return of our aircrew and aircraft. But by week's end, some who bill themselves as "hawks" on Red China were saying that President Bush had brought a "profound national humiliation" upon the United States by expressing his sorrow that a communist Chinese airman had lost his life.
Then, on April 10, the State Department released the text of a carefully crafted 236-word letter that U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher had delivered to Colin Powell's counterpart in Beijing on April 7. That prompted talking heads and wordsmiths to spend hours analyzing the definition of the words "sorrow" and "regret," and pore over State Department and White House statements in search of hidden meanings. The dictionaries in network studios and newspaper newsrooms hadn't been so thoroughly consulted since Bill Clinton suggested alternative meanings for words like "is" and "sexual relations."
By the time our airmen were headed home to a heroes' welcome on April 11, the Bush bashers' first assumption was that the president had "given away the farm." The cable-news networks scoured think-tanks and universities for "Chinese linguists," former diplomats, even "professors of political rhetoric" to offer "instant analysis," as though negotiation over the fate of Americans was a sporting event being described by the likes of John Madden or Dick Vitale.
Instead of parsing the words of a diplomatic note, the media should focus on where we go from this point forward in the growing competition with an increasingly powerful adversary. Some questions that ought to be asked:
How long before we resume surveillance flights off the coast of China, and what happens if Beijing refuses to return our damaged EP-3 -- both issues on the agenda for the meeting with Chinese officials on April 18?
What is the administration's response to California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter's resolution to terminate Permanent Normal Trade Relations with communist China? He says that "every American ... should ask themselves if it is in our national interest for the U.S. to pay for the military of a nation that conducts itself in a less than friendly manner."
How do we encourage our Asian allies in the aftermath of this incident? While we were negotiating the release of our aircrew, the Japanese government of Yoshiro Mori rebuffed Beijing's efforts to ban further surveillance flights from U.S. bases on Okinawa and instead attached heavy tariffs to Chinese agricultural commodities because Beijing has been dumping these products in Japan.
What's the Bush administration's response to Taiwan's request to purchase four Aegis-class destroyers and advanced capability Patriot missile defense systems?
Does the administration support a growing citizen movement to boycott consumer products made in communist China?
What will we say when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meets in Moscow on July 13 to decide whether Beijing, Istanbul, Osaka, Paris or Toronto is the venue for the 2008 summer Olympics? Can we support the IOC repeating the mistake of 1936, when Adolf Hitler used the Olympics as a propaganda bonanza?
What are we doing to win the release of the 21 other U.S. citizens currently detained by Beijing.
The ranting of a pony-tailed political science professor spewing screed from the People's Liberation Daily may seem like "good TV" to some network execs, but unless broadcast reporters start asking questions like the ones above, the term "network news" may soon be defined in the dictionary as "oxymoron."