Monday, July 15, 2002

Sketchy Ethics
Not one to shy away from controversy, a former colleague of mine, Steve Friess, recently penned an opinion piece for Editor & Publisher. I was originally going to list it in today's Pieces, Particles entry, but I think it begs further comment.

Bull in China Shop
Our man in Beijing and his Year of Living Ridiculously

Steve's piece bothers me for several reasons. One, it's an example of the classic Ugly American story. A Western journalist goes to work for an overseas news organization and is appalled by what he finds. He goes on to portray the locals' journalistic gaffes and foibles as humorous and quaint. (Steve secures his rebellious outsider role in his tagline to the piece: "Friess wrote frequently [and illegally] for USA Today from China last year.")

Two, Steve shares his experience giving no real sense that he seriously tried not to be complicit in -- much less to counter -- those very same gaffes and foibles. As an employee of the Chinese Ministry of Information, Steve passed on the party line. Colleagues changed quotes and invented people. Sure, Steve "wrote a query into the text" questioning the veracity of a statistic, but it's unnerving to think that -- if the practices of the Chinese journalists Steve worked beside were so wrong -- he didn't do more than he alludes to in the article.

Now, I didn't spend Steve's time overseas. I'm sure the role he found himself in was challenging. I'm also sure that he was surprised and not always delighted by how the China Daily's journalists worked. But Steve was in the mix. He was complicit in the very practices he's criticizing in what's supposed to be one of professional journalism's trade magazines. The point of this opinion piece -- outside of highlighting the humorous and quaint gaffes and foibles (and romanticizing Steve as a journalist) -- is weak. He helped local staffers apply to American journalism schools, "spreading the subversive gospel of the First Amendment." Please.

Higher up in the last column of the piece, Steve asks himself, "How did we stomach it?"

I ask, how did you sleep at night?

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