NBC News thinks that The Epoch Times is not a real newspaper, but more like a newsletter for a pro-Trump religious cult. Or, as lead story reporter Brandy Zadrozny said on MSNBC, it’s an “anti-Chinese government propaganda outlet.”
Zadrozny and her co-reporter, Ben Collins, authored a story on the emergence of The Epoch Times, its associated media, and the spiritual discipline Falun Gong, practiced by the paper’s founders. Various NBC-related outlets have given it a lot of attention. The problem is that the story is so poorly sourced, misleading, and unclear that it seems closer to disinformation than actual news reporting.
First, a little background: Falun Gong is a spiritual practice with ties to ancient Asian religions. It consists of a set of five exercises, much like the tai chi and qigong that many Chinese practice.
Its popularity in China exploded in the 1990s after Li Hongzhi began publicly teaching what had been a practice passed down in a lineage manner to only a few disciples. The communist regime in China came to resent Li’s influence and the movement’s open defiance of the regime.
Serious persecution (which continues today) soon followed. Followers were imprisoned, forced underground, or left China. Li moved to the United States.
In the year 2000, a number of Chinese Americans in Atlanta founded The Epoch Times “as an antidote to communist propaganda.” Originally, it was published only in Chinese; today, it is published in 21 languages. The founders believed in the principles of Falun Gong, including truthfulness. Because of that truthfulness, shortly after the first issues hit the newsstands, staff members in China were jailed and tortured for their reporting.
For about a decade, The Epoch Times was aimed primarily at Chinese expatriates. Eventually, however, The Epoch Times expanded. It is associated with a media group, Epoch Media Group (EMG), whose New Tang Dynasty TV produces audio and video content for a worldwide audience. As is common in these situations, however, the media group is a separate legal entity from the newspaper.
In her segment on this story, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow looked to programming from EMG, especially the entertainment show “Edge of Wonder,” which is all about conspiracy theories. Maddow, however, conflated news content from The Epoch Times with programming about conspiracies and used the show to condemn the paper in a most unfair manner. Judging NBC News on the basis of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior” show would make about as much sense.
Maddow devoted roughly half of the segment to an incident that took place 20 years ago, when a female Chinese immigrant, who wrote for The Epoch Times, disrupted a joint press conference with President George H.W. Bush and Chinese leader Hu Jintao.
Maddow directed much of her commentary to the importance of maintaining good relations with China and on how embarrassing this incident was to Bush. It seemed a bit inconsistent with the deep concern she has frequently expressed about colluding with Russia, a country also run by communists.
Maddow dismissed The Epoch Times’ coverage of the Obama administration’s alleged actions against Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign as “something about Donald Trump saving America from ‘satanic Democratic pedophiles.’” It may seem like Maddow was just trying to be cute, but actually this was just part of her smear attack on The Epoch Times.
She clearly tried to portray Falun Gong as a cult. For the record, there are no fees associated with the practice. The books and materials are free online. People of various faiths engage in the exercises, and no one is required to work or stay anywhere against their will.
Li lives a quiet life in the United States. He is not associated with the newspaper and does not meet with some board of leaders of Falun Gong (which does not have a hierarchy, anyway). That did not, however, dissuade Maddow from ridiculing him.
She snidely repeated claims that he may have made more than 20 years ago about his training and abilities. She also recounted statements he made about aliens taking over the earth. She did not mention that—again, 20 years ago—he explained that these statements were intended as “metaphors of ancient Buddhist thought.” Maddow also did not explain that the People’s Republic of China wrote and released a biography of him for propaganda purposes. That biography complicates reporting about him, because it does not match well with the facts.
That did not stop Maddow and the NBC News reporters. As Epoch Times publisher Stephen Gregory wrote, “NBC’s characterization of Falun Gong puts its beliefs in a false light, is similar to the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda attacking Falun Gong, and has the surely unintended effect of helping the CCP justify its 20-year-long persecution of Falun Gong.”
According to the NBC narrative, in 2016, The Epoch Times decided to change from being a small Chinese/religion paper and go mainstream (albeit conservative). The paper hired reporters not associated with Falun Gong and allegedly told them “their content was to be critical of communist China, clear-eyed about the threat of Islamic terrorism, focused on illegal immigration and at all times rooted in ‘traditional’ values, they said. This meant no content about drugs, gay people, or popular music.”
I started writing columns for The Epoch Times on a regular basis in 2018. I’m Catholic and most of my prior columns were written for Catholic outlets. I don’t fully understand Falun Gong, but I respect its practitioners. I’m pretty sure that I was solicited to write because I had edited a book and written some articles on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. I’ve also studied and written about disinformation.
As to the content of my writings, I was very clear that I did not want restrictions. I have now written about 45 columns for The Epoch Times. I have covered football, gambling, the space race, Saturday Night Live, a Halloween movie, politics, law, religion, and more. Two of my pieces have been rejected. One of them was perhaps too local. The other was sort of “inside Catholic.” I disagree with those editorial decisions, but they in no way were prompted by the kind of concerns that NBC News set forth in its report.
According to Zadrozny, most of the people who work at The Epoch Times, with the exception of seven or so reporters hired in 2016, “do so for free as part of their spiritual practice.” I have been assured that’s not true. I have toured the building that houses the Epoch Media Group and met several of the people who work there. They all seemed happy and friendly.
The Epoch Times certainly has a viewpoint, but newspapers are permitted to have those. Clearly, it is anti-communist. Given the collusion narrative that NBC has been trumpeting for the past two or more years, that would seem to be a good thing (and inconsistent with the alleged pro-Trump agenda).
Zadrozny made no effort to hide her political bias. She said at first that The Epoch Times “looks like a regular conservative outlet because it just keeps getting crazier and crazier, the regular conservative ecosystem.” However, she said, it ultimately got worse. She likened it to “a Russian troll farm.”
When asked whether there was any “coordination or acknowledgement” between the paper and Trump’s reelection campaign team, Zadrozny indicated that there was because the paper interviewed members of the Trump family and was a presence “at CPAC, interviewing everybody from Candace Owens to sitting congressmen.” Doesn’t that just show that The Epoch Times reporters were, well, reporting?
NBC News was also pretty casual in the way it categorized advertising money. According to the report, The Epoch Times “spent $1.5 million over the last six months to run 11,000 pro-President Trump ads on Facebook.” That is said to be “more than most Democratic presidential candidates have spent on their own campaigns.” One might question the numbers, but the bigger problem here is the characterization of the advertisements as “pro-President Trump ads.”
The advertisements in question are seeking newspaper subscribers, not votes for any particular candidate. I saw them in my Facebook feed!
They promise fair coverage of the president and draw a distinction between The Epoch Times and news outlets that have been unfair to Trump and other conservatives. That does not, however, make these ads political in nature.
They are the result of savvy business decisions in a nation where, according to The Associated Press, Trump won a majority of the votes in 2,626 out of 3,113 counties. That’s a big market. Recognition of that, and crafting advertisements to reach that market, is part of the reason why The Epoch Times is now the fastest-growing newspaper in the nation.
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Talking about conspiracy theories, according to reporter Collins (appearing on MSNBC), “The end goal of the spiritual group is to bring about a judgement day that will pit, send communists to hell and anyone who is sympathetic to them to heaven, and they think Donald Trump is the guy helping bring that about.” Say what?
The idea that Falun Gong practitioners see Donald Trump as a savior who will bring about the end times is a smear, not an honest attempt to understand Falun Gong. This outrageous claim does not appear in any official Falun Gong literature. It seems to come from a single source, a disgruntled former practitioner named Ben Hurley, who, according to full-time staff of the Australian edition of The Epoch Times, was associated with the paper from 2005 to 2013, but for years was on the margins. Hurley worked for another media company and was forbidden by contract from publishing elsewhere. He apparently told the NBC reporters that The Epoch Times is “rabidly pro-Trump” because the most devout Falun Gong followers “believe that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party.”
Might someone actually think that? I’ve never heard it said or seen it written elsewhere. I have a hard time believing that the feeling is widespread. Zadrozny and Collins certainly have not set forth enough evidence to justify the kind of allegations that they made.
Hurley is a disgruntled former practitioner who was upset that a friend of his who practiced Falun Gong died. One can appreciate his loss and even understand his resentment, but any serious reporter should question his reliability, unless the objective is simply to spread disinformation.
Li has expressly disavowed any effort to topple the Chinese government. Nevertheless, NBC News reports that the practitioners are dedicated to the takedown of China’s government. In fact, the NBC reporters almost side with the Chinese persecutors in this struggle.
Unsurprisingly, when talking about persecution of Falun Gong, the NBC News report no longer looks to the disgruntled Hurley. That’s because Hurley himself wrote that China conducted a “brutal campaign against [Falun Gong]— a campaign that continues to this day and has killed thousands.”
The bottom line is that The Epoch Times is thriving at a time when other newspapers are dying. It’s doing that by aggressively pursuing the truth, even when that takes them where others won’t go. Other news outlets should do the same.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.