Thursday, April 24, 2003

From the In Box: Sketchy Ethics

Almost a year after I commented on an opinion piece Steve Friess wrote for Editor & Publisher, Steve replies:

This is Steve Friess. I'm having a bit of an insomniacal night here in Hong Kong, where I'm handling SARS coverage for USAT. I decided to Google myself (actually Yahoo, but it's not as pleasing a verb) and unearthed your blog blast of my E&P column from last year about working at China Daily. I'm amused you criticized me for writing a predictable column with criticism that was at least as predictable and easy. It was the sort of facile response to journalism "ethics" that would make a Medill Law & Ethics prof proud but has little bearing on the realities of working abroad and in difficult situations. As Eason Jordan gets beaten up all over town by misinformed journalistic moralists and opportunists for the practices of CNN in Iraq in the 1990s, I'm reminded of just how arrogant and simplistic it is to sit back from stateside and presume to know what is possible and viable when attempting to work under a dictatorship.

I knew what I was getting into when I went to China Daily. It wasn't intended as a journalistic exercise, it was intended as a cultural and political learning experience. The exposure to the mentality of the Chinese Information Ministry was unique and valuable and has informed much of the rest of my coverage of Chinese issues at that time and since then. The editing work at China Daily would have been done with or without me. By doing it, I got to see how it's done. I didn't mock their "foibles" in terms of the silly words they used or the amusing malaproprisms that surfaced; I mocked their "news" judgment. But there never was a realistic sense that anything could be "done" about the Chinese efforts to publish propaganda.

Your criticism is schizophrenic. On the one hand, I was rude to my hosts by writing critically about China (and later China Daily) while I was there working for their mouthpiece. On the other hand, I betrayed my journalistic soul by not somehow standing up for American press standards in a totalitarian dictatorship. The answer that you suggest, as I'm hearing from the CNN critics, is that I shouldn't have been there in the first place, that I should have just left. And that's just stupid because if journalists didn't make compromises or place themselves in difficult ethical situations from time to time, we'd get even less foreign news than we already do.

The theory always is that once you sell your soul to the devil, you can never buy it back. Please. I challenge anyone to look over my website's archive and suggest that my coverage in USA Today, The New York Times, Wired, Poz and any number of other publications on a wide range of Chinese issues wasn't hard-hitting and balanced. You can spend the time analyzing whether it was all tainted by my other purpose for being in China or by acquiescing from time to time to the Chinese limits on press freedoms, but the reality is that my readers received better, more insightful coverage because I knew more about what I was writing about than I otherwise might have.

I'm just simply offended by the out-of-hand dismissal of my efforts to help Chinese staffers genuinely interested in pursuing work in the free media obtain admissions to Western journalism schools. To date, I've assisted four journalists come to American or British schools by advising them on the process, reviewing their essays and mailing them admissions and applications material they might otherwise have trouble obtaining. This has cost me plenty of time and money, but it's probably the best anybody can do to affect change in China's media.

Finally, I spent hours upon hours in China explaining to my Chinese colleagues how our media system works. That's valuable cultural exchange that may someday come in handy if the people of China do obtain more freedoms. I'm never going to directly force the Chinese regime to change itself in any meaningful way, but I can plant seeds among its youth at a time when the Internet threatens to make government censorship irrelevant anyway.

Media Diet: One bug in my bonnet was the assumption that American journalism was better. Sure, propaganda from the government, and press limitations are bad, but is there a locally appropriate journalism for China that's not a cookie cutter of our kind of journalism? British journalism, for example, is much different than it is here. And I don't think it's a worse form of journalism. The same could be argued about Al-Jazeera.

Let's agree that any media incapable of providing any balance or vague semblance of truth is absolutely "worse." I don't know why it's so hard for Americans to be proud of the liberties we have and recognize them as desirable to all people, not just us. Because to the rest of the world that seems like arrogance? Just because our motives are constantly misunderstood doesn't make the misunderstandings true.

This is a variation on other debates I had about the Chinese situation while I was here the first time, namely this question of whether liberal democracy is really soemthing the Chinese would want or could handle. The thinking goes that they've been oppressed for so long or so accustomed to centuries of being ruled that they couldn't possibly culturally accept the idea of self-governance without falling into utter chaos. I do agree that gradual transition is appropriate, lest we wind up with Russia, but I also know that the transition Chinese leaders are working towards does NOT include expanded personal freedoms but merely economic expansion. Economic freedom doesn't necessarily lead to political freedom unless the leaders actually intend for it to do so. Singapore is an economically successful and yet horribly repressive society.

As for the question about Chinese culture, I just point to Hong Kong and Taiwan, both Western-style democracies that have been among the most prosperous Asian nations/territories for decades. Somehow these people had precisely the same cultural backgrounds as the mainland Chinese, but THEY can handle liberties just fine. I _do_ believe there are absolute truths about humanity, and one is that most people, if they could, would govern themselves and reject tyranny. Most people, if they understood what they were missing, would want what Americans have, the rights to self-determination that are proven over and over again as the most expedient path to economic success for the most number of people. You just don't see boatloads of Indonesians washing up on China's shores begging to be taken in, do you? But they DO wash up on Australia's shores all the time. Why do people risk their lives to live in our country and countries like ours but not to live in China, Syria, Egypt, Mexico, wherever?

Well, that's more than I needed to say, but I'm now sufficiently sleepy. All this notwithstanding, I love your site and have bookmarked it for regular checks. -- Steve Friess

Thanks for the response, Steve. And best of luck in Hong Kong!

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