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Monday, February 20, 2023

Balloon hysteria is not helpful

US Media 'Spy Balloon' Obsession a Gift to China Hawks


For over a week, U.S. corporate media have been captivated by a so-called “Chinese spy balloon,” raising the specter of espionage.

NBC News (2/2/23), the Washington Post (2/2/23) and CNN (2/3/23), among countless others, breathlessly cautioned readers that a high-altitude device hovering over the U.S. may have been launched by China in order to collect “sensitive information.” 

Local news stations (e.g., WDBO, 2/2/23) marveled at its supposed dimensions: “the size of three school buses”! Reuters (2/3/23) waxed fantastical, telling readers that a witness in Montana thought the balloon “might have been a star or UFO.”

While comically sinister, the term “Chinese spy balloon”—which corporate media of all stripes swiftly embraced—is partially accurate, at least regarding the device’s provenance; Chinese officials promptly confirmed that the balloon did, indeed, come from China.

What’s less certain is the balloon’s purpose. A Pentagon official, without evidence, stated in a press briefing (2/2/23) that “clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance,” but hedged the claim with the following:

We assess that this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective. But we are taking steps, nevertheless, to protect against foreign intelligence collection of sensitive information.

Soon after, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website (2/3/23) stated that the balloon “is of a civilian nature, used for scientific research such as meteorology,” according to a Google translation. “The airship,” the ministry continued, “seriously deviated from the scheduled route.”

Parroting Pentagon

Despite this uncertainty, U.S. media overwhelmingly interpreted the Pentagon’s conjecture as fact. The New York Times (2/2/23) reported that “the United States has detected what it says is a Chinese surveillance balloon,” only to call the device “the spy balloon”—without attributive language—within the same article. 

Similar evolution happened at CNBC, where the description shifted from “suspected Chinese spy balloon” (2/6/23) to simply “Chinese spy balloon” (2/6/23). The Guardian once bothered to place “spy balloon” in quotation marks (2/5/23), but soon abandoned that punctuation (2/6/23).

Given that media had no proof of either explanation, it might stand to reason that outlets would give each possibility—spy balloon vs. weather balloon—equal attention. Yet media were far more interested in lending credence to the U.S.’ official narrative than to that of China.

In coverage following the initial reports, media devoted much more time to speculating on the possibility of espionage than of scientific research. The New York Times (2/3/23), for instance, educated readers about the centuries-long wartime uses of surveillance balloons. 

Similar pieces ran at The Hill (2/3/23), Reuters (2/2/23) and the Guardian (2/3/23). Curiously, none of these outlets sought to provide an equivalent exploration of the history of weather balloons after the Chinese Foreign Affairs statement, despite the common and well-established use of balloons for meteorological purposes.

Even information that could discredit the “spy balloon” theory was used to bolster it. Citing the Pentagon, outlets almost universally acknowledged that any surveillance capacity of the balloon would be limited. 

This fact apparently didn’t merit reconsideration of the “spy balloon” theory; instead, it was treated as evidence that China was an espionage amateur. As NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel (2/3/23) stated:

The Pentagon says it believes this spy balloon doesn’t significantly improve China’s ability to gather intelligence with its satellites.

One of Brumfiel’s guests, a U.S. professor of international studies, called the balloon a “floating intelligence failure,” adding that China would only learn, in Brumfiel’s words, at most “a little bit” from the balloon. That this might make it less likely to be a spy balloon and more likely, as China said, a weather balloon did not seem to occur to NPR.

Reuters (2/4/23), meanwhile, called the use of the balloon “a bold but clumsy espionage tactic.” Among its uncritically quoted “security expert” sources: former White House national security adviser and inveterate hawk John Bolton, who scoffed at the balloon for its ostensibly low-tech capabilities.

Minimizing U.S. provocation

The unstated premise of much of this coverage was that the U.S. was minding its own business when China encroached upon it–an attitude hard to square with the U.S.' own history of spying. Perhaps it’s for this reason that media opted not to pay that history much heed.

In one example, CNN (2/4/23) published a retrospective headlined “A Look at China’s History of Spying in the U.S.” The piece conceded that the U.S. had spied on China, but, in line with the headline’s framing, wasn’t too interested in the specifics. 

Despite CNN‘s lack of curiosity, plenty of documentation of U.S. spying on China and elsewhere exists. Starting in 2010, according to the New York Times (5/20/17), China dismantled CIA espionage operations within the country.

And as FAIR contributor Ari Paul wrote for Counterpunch (2/7/23):

The U.S. sent a naval destroyer past Chinese controlled islands last year (AP, 7/13/22) and the Chinese military confronted a similar U.S. vessel in the same location a year before (AP, 7/12/21). The AP (3/21/22) even embedded two reporters aboard a U.S .

“Navy reconnaissance aircraft that flew near Chinese-held outposts in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago,” dramatically reporting on Chinese military build up in the area as well as multiple warnings “by Chinese callers” that the Navy plan had “illegally entered what they said was China’s territory and ordered the plane to move away.”

The U.S. military has also invested in its own spy balloon technology. In 2019, the Pentagon was testing “mass surveillance balloons across the U.S.,” as the Guardian (8/2/19) put it. The tests were commissioned by SOUTHCOM, a U.S. military organ that conducts surveillance of Central and South American countries, ostensibly for intercepting drug-trafficking operations. 

Three years later, Politico (7/5/22) reported that “the Pentagon has spent about $3.8 million on balloon projects, and plans to spend $27.1 million in fiscal year 2023,” adding that the balloons “may help track and deter hypersonic weapons being developed by China and Russia.”

In this climate, it came as no surprise when the U.S. deployed an F-22 fighter jet to shoot down the balloon off the Atlantic coast (Reuters, 2/4/23). Soon after, media were abuzz with news of China’s “threat[ening]” and “confrontational” reaction (AP, 2/5/23; Bloomberg, 2/5/23), casting China as the chief aggressor.

Perpetuating Cold War hostilities

Since news of the balloon broke, U.S. animus toward China, already at historic highs, has climbed even further.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to China. President Biden made a thinly veiled reference to the balloon as a national security breach in his February 7 State of the Union address, declaring, “If China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country.” 

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, Democratic ranking member of the newly formed House Select Committee on China, asserted that “the threat is real from the Chinese Communist Party.”

Rather than questioning this saber-rattling, U.S. media have dispensed panicked spin-offs of the original story (Politico, 2/5/23; Washington Post, 2/7/23; New York Times, 2/8/23), ensuring that the balloon saga, no matter how much diplomatic decay ensues, lasts as long as possible.

JULIANNE TVETEN writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.