They say fiction has had its day, given over to Brooklyn-dwellers with nothing to say. True and not. Our newspapers provide splendid fiction. It is a golden age.
This season’s big fiction is the tale of correspondents abroad shining the light of a free press in darkened, non-Western places such as China. You get more uplift here than in any Jane Smiley novel you can name. You get your courage, your dashing ladies and gents, your arrested bureau assistants to put it all in dramatic relief and remind you of the correspondents’ perils.
Prompting these reflections are the New York Times and the Bloomberg news service, whose correspondents in Beijing and Shanghai may or may not get their visas renewed as we speak. A good question arises: What are Western media going to do as all goes global and reporting in societies not rooted in Western traditions grows ever more a necessity?
It is not a new question. But it takes on urgency now. It comes up because the Times and Bloomberg crossed one of Beijing’s red lines when they reported on corruption among high officials in the central government, along with their offspring navigating to great wealth by way of nepotism.
The pith of it is this: Will Western media cave as the world economy changes shape and power rebalances? Or will they sail bravely on, upholding the principles of free expression — “Damn the torpedoes,” in Adm. Farragut’s famous phrase?
I wager pessimistically. For one thing, most Western media find the notion of a Fourth Estate — freestanding, sovereign in its own right, gloriously impervious — useful as imagery but otherwise dangerous to the bank balances. For another, we have a record and it is grim.
The past few days have been revealing in all of this.
Time just published an essay by one Hannah Beech, Beijing bureau chief. Beech takes on the question of self-censorship in the face of official intimidation and allows, “Yes, there probably are some journalists sufficiently worried enough [sic] about the year-end visa process to tone down their coverage.” Edit out “probably” and you have a true sentence.
Then the counterpunch: “But it is an insult to those of us doing our jobs in China to assume that we’ve suddenly taped our mouths shut.” The cut-above-the-rest pose is heroic, but we run into problems.
No one is talking about taping mouths: This is your classic “straw man.” The essence of self-censorship, as any hack knows, lies in maintaining deniability, usually by skipping a subject altogether. Silence, not weak copy, is the preferred method — “the power of leaving out,” as I call it. Beech writes that she expects to get her visa renewed, and she is likely to: Sufficiently conveniently enough, she is now on holiday in New York and will write nothing until new papers come through.
I promise this is what she tells us. And I promise that her primary concerns as she contemplates the question of press ethics when abroad are her children’s places in private school, the rent on her Beijing apartment and her dog. (Take two, Hannah: From the top, and go for the high-minded bit this time.)
For the record, Hannah Beech is the daughter of the late Keyes Beech, among the great Asia correspondents of his time. In the trade we say people such as Hannah Beech possess “good bloodlines.” I have never found this a wise way to hire, and in the defense of sound principles Hannah Beech will recuse herself from writing about the very real problem of Chinese nepotism.
On our side of the ocean, we have to connect a few dots. A few days ago, the Times reported the tale of a CIA man missing in Iran for six years. Turns out the Times has withheld the story since late 2007 for the sake of efforts (by its account) to free Robert A. Levinson, the errant spook.
One does not like to see people killed, a plain enough truth. But this man is/was a spook, and if you can’t stand the heat, etc. As the Times account makes clear, Levinson was in the game precisely for the risk and adventure. My gripe is this: Once again we find evidence of the Times’ exceedingly diseased relationship with power.
The paper once the paper of record consults the CIA when its reporters unearth operations, consults the administration when it gets WikiLeaks material, consults the NSA before it reports on Edward Snowden’s doings, and now consults when a spy is held in a nation that will self-evidently want to hold American spies. And these are the cases it chooses to tell us about in its pages.
OK, those dots. The Times' stuff on corruption and nepotism in China, noted previously in this space, was good. Some Bloomberg correspondents did good work earlier on the same topic. It does not follow that American correspondents are any kind of model practitioners, or that they bear some noble feather to unenlightened others. These are the fictions and must be read as such.
Relations between the media and power — political, corporate, financial — are not too different here from what we see elsewhere; they are managed more subtly. Self-censorship among foreign correspondents in China and elsewhere is as nothing next to the rampant cancer of it at home, where reporters cannot even raise the question because they are incessantly in the act. If American media were half as good reporting corruption and nepotism at home as they are abroad, we would have a healthier polity. These are truths as opposed to fictions.
The record abroad is not so good, anyway. Bloomberg, to my knowledge, has never put up a fight anywhere. Most recently (and again as noted here) the editor in chief, Matt Winkler, just killed a big corruption-in-China story written by four Bloomies (one of whom was promptly fired for his efforts). A dozen years ago, Fortune and its sister publication, the Time magazine of our Hannah Beech, celebrated 50 years of Communist rule with a forum in Shanghai. They let Beijing curate the program — and then kept that week’s edition of Time off the streets.
Nice. As to Rupert Murdoch, he has been so eager to get into the China market over the years that I come to think the man could be a crypto-Leninist. A few years back, son James, then chairman and chief exec at News Corp., applauded China’s repression of the Falun Gong religious sect. Also nice.
There are some honorable stories. The Times does not visibly buckle, being as powerful as it is, but its bravery is reliably in conformity with the orthodoxy in Washington. Not much on, say, Palestinian refugee camps (and let us not get started on the Mideast coverage) or, closer to our topic, Chinese psychiatric “hospitals,” where many thousands of sane people are routinely driven insane.
My own batting average is one for three. I was expelled from Singapore in the early 1980s, and my magazine at the time, the regrettably defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, kept the bureau open and listed it on the masthead with a blank where the bureau chief’s name would have gone. This went on for years.
In Tokyo later for the International Herald Tribune, I wrote of the incestuous ties between the foreign ministry and the Japan Times, the leading English-language daily. Perfectly defensible, but my paper published an apology in the center of the editorial page (where demanded) because it was keen to sell papers in Japan.
Most recently, the aforementioned Matt Winkler caved to the Singaporeans when they alleged I had accused the city-state’s rulers of nepotism in a Bloomberg column. I had not even mentioned the term — writing about nepotism in Singapore is like shooting at the side of a barn — but Winkler agreed to half a million dollars in penalties and fees, scrubbed the column from the archive, and published a very awful apology.
It is not an easy world for correspondents of any creed or ethical standard or professional pride. I cannot end in any impossible idealist’s pose — angélisme, as the French say. More than once I have not been one.
The Chinese are very burdened and very deprived, truth tragically silent so often. But China can (I think will) find its way to a vigilant, informative press worth living up to — its way as in its, not ours. The West has things to pass on — technique, mostly — but not much by way of ownership structures, saggy standards, corrupt ties to the governing classes, and so on. The Chinese and others in the non–Western world should look to themselves or elsewhere for these things.
As to Westerners operating beyond their cultural shores, I see questions coming. One is, Are correspondents prisoners of the orthodoxies where their media live? Are you an American first and a professional only afterward? I used to ask this of my students and concluded we have the question now, good enough, but not the answer.
Two is, what are hacks to do in the world as it is? What is going to happen as media with Western standards, however blowsy, operate ever more prominently in nations that do not share even corrupted variants of the ideals?
Here a few answers. Your publication might let you down or you might get expelled. But you have to serve well so long as you can. “Write it until they fire you,” as someone once advised me. (I did and they did.)
You have, most of all, the order in which you do things. You move right up to the red line. You know just where it is, and you get in as much as you can short of it. Then, as you eventually must, you cross the line and take the hit. In the end you have what we used to call an “airport story” — the one you file on your way to the airport for the last time.
Damn the torpedoes, dogs and school fees. The best correspondents ought to travel lightly in these regards anyway.