Another new low at the NY Times: Imagine what news is true

The top news editor at the New York Times has revealed an alarming new standard for what now passes as news in that paper.

The Public Editor’s Journal of Oct. 27 quotes him explaining why a news story containing an error should not be thought mistaken: The Times, he said, was only reporting what was common knowledge and that “It’s hard to imagine some version of this is not true.”

Just not the version reported.

Previously, the basic standard for publishing news required reporters to confirm facts. Specific, concrete, verifiable facts. Only talking heads and bloggers spouting fringe opinions relied on assumptions about what is common knowledge or the comforting excuse that surely some version of the events in question must be true.

Every old-school journalist has heard the saying, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

From now on, readers of the Times will have to do their own fact-checking before relying on news that’s printed whether it’s fit or not.

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Chicago Tribune death watch

“Lake-efect snow potential late Sunday”

Photo by  bizjournals.com

Photo by bizjournals.com

“Pattern shift suggest temperature downturn late next week”

Both of these come from the paper’s weather-page graphic by WGN-TV, a Chicago Tribune property. Both appear to have been composed by someone for whom English is a second language and then published without the benefit of copy editing.

As every die-hard delivery customer knows, the Chicago Tribune has shriveled in size and deteriorated in quality. Publishers blame shrinking revenues caused by the Internet luring away advertisers. But that explanation doesn’t go deep enough.

Readers and advertisers abandoned newspapers because, like dinosaurs, newspaper publishers couldn’t adapt to a new environment. They clung to an old business model that included spending as little as possible on the newsroom. This worked well enough when times were good. Now that times are bad, they’ve doubled-down on it, starving the newsroom much like conservative Republicans aim to shrivel government by refusing to fund it adequately.

Newspaper publishers (not all of them, but in general) tend to loathe newsrooms, regarding them as nothing but overhead full of employees with bad attitudes who bring in no money but produce plenty of complaints from government officials and chamber-of-commerce types. When revenues began to tank 10 years ago, their first instinct was to cut newsroom budgets, lay off reporters, copy editors and photographers, outsource or centralize editorial functions, hope to get by with lower-paid, less experienced staffers and demand more work from them.

In the last gasps of its death throes, the Chicago Tribune still has produced some outstanding exposes, such as its stories about the ineffectiveness and dangers of a red-light camera program shot through with corruption. Imagine what it could do if it reinvested in its core function of delivering news, redefined its mission as in-depth explanation and analysis and gave up publishing a print edition of “daily” news already outdated by digital sources the day it’s printed.

It even enjoys the advantages of a huge market free from any competing papers and a large pool of unemployed, experienced ex-newsroom staffers.

All it needs is a publisher with imagination and guts.

Honorable-mention model worker

 

CHAPTER FIVE of “Commie wage slave,”  in which I learn how not to do my job

Image result for model worker china images

China Daily’s website was housed in a modern 10-story office building that didn’t contain a single Western toilet. A Chinese toilet, for those who don’t know, consists of a hole in the floor, possibly inside a stall that might or might not have a door. Users place one foot on either side and squat. The modern apartments I saw in Beijing typically had Western toilets, but public buildings, restaurants, parks, attractions and public bathrooms often did not.

One of my biggest accomplishments in China was to get through a whole year without using one of these squat toilets. I made free use of the Western toilet in the coffee shop just down the alley, where servers were accustomed to seeing foreigners dashing in for that reason. The two-percent, cultural-DNA difference here was a sign cautioning users not to throw toilet paper into the toilet. A wastebasket was provided.

We couldn’t enter or exit China Daily buildings without flashing our employee ID badges in front of the electronic eyes by the doors. It was said that those issued to Chinese employees also recorded the times of their entrances and exits. I don’t know what kind of monitoring took place in the office, but my Chinese colleagues liked to take cigarette breaks in a spot they thought was one of the few places they could talk without surveillance.

The offices themselves looked like Western cubicle farms, except that 99.99 percent of the heads bent over the keyboards were black-haired. Ours had a conference room with comfy chairs, a huge table and an awesome sound system (which younger staffers sometimes commandeered on weekend night shifts, cranking up Beyonce while dancing, singing and imbibing.) There was an attractive break room with café tables and chairs and a refrigerator. The water dispensers in every office provided hot water for tea or instant coffee. Most Chinese staffers brought their own carafes of loose-leaf tea.

The building didn’t run heat and air conditioning during the weekends, when some of us worked. When it got close to 90 degrees, someone would run out and get popsicles for everyone. Fans would be set up in the aisles.

Unlike newsrooms in the West, sites of workplace discussions and joking around, this office was quiet as a library. Nobody spoke; everybody texted. Most appeared to be in their 20s or 30s.

With few exceptions, nobody ever spoke to me even to say so much as hello or goodbye. If spoken to, most were polite but not talkative. This may have been reluctance to try speaking English, difficulty understanding it or worry about being seen conversing with a “spy” (as American employees were assumed to be).

Journalism, Chinese style

My main job was to fix the English in the mobile news reports, but every department sent me items, from the paper’s newsroom to the special advertising sections.

The Cultural Affairs department sent long, tedious articles touting tourist destinations: “Cultural Relic” (in this case, the Great Wall) “prepares to handle more tourists.”  Columnists sent editorials, some of them anti-American rants. The web site sent news stories.

Any foreigner on duty got bombarded with editing requests. The strangest I saw involved tidying up a letter from a Chinese businessman to former president Bill Clinton. Having been denied a visa to the United States, the businessman tried to persuade Clinton to intervene on his behalf. He must have had enough money or clout to ask a favor from an upper-management editor, who in turn thrust the letter upon one of the Chinese reporters to translate it from Mandarin then get the English corrected by one of the foreign staffers.

There was no assignment Chinese employees could turn down. Walls between journalism and advertising, personal gain and professional ethics simply didn’t exist. And in a country with far more people than jobs, nobody wanted to risk their own by saying no to a supervisor.

Normally, I had about two hours of work during the 2 p.m-to-10:30 p.m.  shift. About 3 p.m. and about 9 p.m., one of the Chinese editors would send me the latest mobile news report, destined for cell phones and other portable devices with Internet connections. It consisted of top news stories summarized in single paragraphs, mixed with headlines, human-interest briefs, photos and jokes. Each item was published in English and in Mandarin.

To Western minds, the logical way to do this would have been for us to write the English-language snippets, and for the Chinese to write them (or translate ours)  in Mandarin.

But we weren’t trusted. The bosses feared we’d try to slip pro-democracy messages into the copy, so the Chinese staffers prepared both versions, and their limited grasp of English showed.

Problems arose because they insisted that both versions match word-for-word (as if that were possible) – at least, that was the explanation given every time I tried to tighten the writing or reorganize the material, such as putting the most important fact first.

Western newswriting aims to be crisp, succinct, accurate and informative. Chinese newswriting is squishy, vague, wordy and open to interpretation. The element put at the top is the name of any official who wants to be credited for something or who attended an event, along with that person’s always grandiloquent title.

If an item contains news the government considers favorable, it’s shamelessly hyped. If it’s news that might cause a loss of face, it’s suppressed for as long as possible. Items that fall into the vast middle ground, where it’s unclear if something has major support or opposition, get the squishy treatment.

Part of this wordy vagueness, I gleaned, is cultural, related to the structure and use of languages I don’t speak or read. But a very big part is that it’s dangerous in China even to state an obvious fact. Someone powerful might take offense. Chinese reporters and editors have been fired and jailed for what they wrote or published.

So I learned to look first at the end of every article I was asked to edit, knowing that anything newsworthy would be buried beneath many paragraphs of inane quotes from people with long titles. Real news had to be tip-toed up to, quietly.

On a nuts-and-bolts level, one of the most common problems involved future and past tenses. Mandarin doesn’t have this feature, relying instead on context to convey such information. It wasn’t unusual to see an article simultaneously describing an event as happening now, about to happen and having already happened, which clearly called for some editing.

But any such effort on my part, which I thought of as doing my job and, incidentally, making them look good, always prompted head-shaking, heavy sighs and exasperated instructions that I couldn’t do that. If I changed the English version even a jot, the Mandarin version would have to be rewritten. Nobody explained why this couldn’t be done.

Although my Chinese colleagues supposedly had many years of education in English, most couldn’t understand the questions I asked while editing an article. This included top editors. I tried phrasing questions in the simplest terms, such as, “Does this mean black or white?” They’d answer, “Yes.” The only options left were to guess at what was meant or delete the murky language, which of course triggered protests.

Reports were compiled from the Chinese news service, Xinhua, and the websites of British, Indian and Australian newspapers, never American newspapers. Thus, they contained words and expressions such as “bourse” (stock exchange), “lorry” (truck), “thrice” (three times) and “in hospital.” Although American English is the global lingua franca, the paper clung to a type that sounded to Yankees like it might have been spoken by Dickens. American staffers fought a constant battle against this, always losing to the greater numbers and enthusiastic sabotage of the Brits, Indians, Aussies, Canadians and Kiwis on the staff, who would promptly change American words back to Britishisms after copy left our hands.

Another source the Chinese in my department used was the website Urban Dictionary, a compendium of American slang. Thus, the pseudo-word “recrap” appeared in – of all places – the Better English column in this example: “How did the meeting go?” “Allow me to recrap.”

This wouldn’t have been a problem if Chinese readers could be assumed to understand the term as cheeky slang and a play-on-words. But given the dismal English abilities of highly educated Chinese news staffers (who more than once have reprinted articles from The Onion because they didn’t realize it was satire), it wasn’t safe to assume that Chinese readers likely to be even less able with English would get that.

I spiked “recrap” three times – “thrice,” in China Daily terms. It still appeared in print.

Another gem that showed up in the Better English column was the term, blanket drill: “When I get out of the Army, I’m going to do the blanket drill from dawn to dusk” (although the writer probably meant from dusk to dawn). Not mentioned is that it’s a military euphemism for masturbation.

The paper also ran a Better Chinese column for foreigners trying to learn Mandarin. One of the examples raised alarming questions about why anyone thought a foreigner might need to understand these phrases: “Why do you refuse to confess? Someone else has already told us everything.”

The only time I managed to keep something inappropriate from publication was when the Chinese expression “iron cock” appeared in an article destined for the newspaper. It disappeared after I explained, partly with pantomime using an index finger springing stiffly upward, that the English translation pertained to a particular quality of male sexual anatomy.

It’s possible that these exercises in questionable taste simply reflected attempts by bored staffers to have a little fun. Since we couldn’t communicate well, I’ll never know.

Polishing the prose

At Western-style news organizations, my job would have been that of a copy editor, who looks for logical organization, completeness and accuracy as well as correct grammar, style and spelling. But in China, my job title was “polisher.”

This aptly describes the severe limitations of the job and the role of Chinese news media.

Although masquerading as a newspaper, China Daily is licensed, monitored, censored and used by the government for propaganda. That’s true, more or less, of everything the Chinese publish or broadcast. The paper’s resemblance to a genuine newspaper, and to the practice of journalism, is superficial.

Orders arrived daily from the propaganda authorities, cynically dubbed by Chinese as the Ministry of Truth. These described which topics, events, words and expressions were forbidden or mandated that day, how stories should be presented and what angles should be emphasized. They often included travel bans for reporters to disasters, demonstrations or riots. An on-site censor reviewed articles before publication.

I never saw these orders while in China, which considers them state secrets, but stumbled across their existence occasionally when I started writing columns for the newspaper and website. No topic was off-limits as long as these words never appeared: Taiwan, Tibet, Dalai Lama, democracy and separatism, the Chinese euphemism for independence movements in occupied “autonomous regions.”

If editors suspected something I wrote might trigger the censor to prohibit publication, they gave the column an innocuous and misleading headline. It saved the censor from having to read the entire item and the editors from having to scrape up something to fill the space at the last minute.

They didn’t hesitate to run columns about censorship, surveillance, corruption, greedy officials or suffering citizens, probably because few Chinese could read them. Publication of them gave visiting foreign English speakers, who might pick up the paper in a hotel, the misleading impression of a government confident enough to allow carping. These columns never attracted comment. The few Chinese who could read English were unlikely to risk publicly approving criticism of authorities, and it’s also likely censors deleted any.

For a column decrying the Chinese habit of public nose-picking, however, they allowed more than 440 comments to be published. A few applauded my screed, but many more accused me of cultural imperialism or a dastardly alliance with the Dalai Lama.

A Chinese co-worker quietly asked me, late one night in the almost deserted office, whether it was true that American news media were not censored. Yes, I said.

Really, he asked, none at all?

How about China Daily, he asked, can you buy it in the U.S.? I’ve never seen it there, I told him. “The government probably prevents it,” he said, meaning the U.S. government.

From his viewpoint, that’s a logical assumption. It might have perplexed him that the U.S. government would see nothing in China Daily to suggest it ought to be suppressed. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

Less is best

After several months of hearing exasperated sighs and seeing any corrections I made changed back to the original errors, I finally stopped trying to do anything but fix spelling and add punctuation. This delighted my Chinese editor and co-workers, but left me with a lot of empty time during my shifts.

I’d check my email, polish the afternoon mobile news report, cruise the Internet and maybe write a column, but that still would leave four or five hours to fill before the 9 p.m. report. Over time, it became clear that as a foreign expert I had leeway not enjoyed by the Chinese employees, and I began to use it.

At first, I had been scrupulous about not taking more than one hour for dinner. By the time I left China, I routinely took three or four hours, running errands, shopping and hanging out in some restaurant over dinner and a few beers.

Nobody ever said a word.

It took a while for me to reach this point. But guilt for taking advantage of my status diminished under the growing realization that the professional standards I was used to didn’t apply there. At China Daily, where only the appearance of journalism exists, trying to use notions of accuracy and fairness led to bafflement and frustration all around, as almost every skill I thought I’d been hired to provide was rejected or ignored.

At first, I’d send copy back to reporters with notes such as, “Please ask your senior editor about the underlined sentence. It may be libelous.” Or, “Please verify the accuracy of the claim that 9 million people attended the 15th annual Tianjin Special Industrial District Weekend Expo.”

This must have bemused the Chinese reporters (if they could understand the questions). I hadn’t yet learned that China doesn’t have a functioning legal system, so concerns about libel were pointless. And accuracy was far less important than putting a good face on events.

After a while, it seemed futile to continue beating my head against this wall. I could quit clinging to insistence on meeting my standards or spend the remaining long months vexing my Chinese co-workers while I fumed. I chose to let go.

Not every Westerner managed to reach this point, and those who couldn’t, suffered. Renee, for example, volunteered to update the style manual. She spent countless hours of her own time working on it under pressure of an unreasonable deadline demanded by editors, only to see it ignored, then discarded. Annette gave weekly classes on news reporting and writing to Chinese staffers who never would be allowed the chance to fully use them.

Sometimes the Chinese staffers suffered, too. One of the British copy editors became notorious for the shrill tantrums she inflicted on reporters for their poor English or sloppy reporting. Inept though their English might have been, they understood the insulting tone of her shouted criticisms.

What we didn’t realize was that our presence at China Daily was really just for face. Chinese businesses that managed to employ Westerners gained tremendous prestige. There were Americans in Beijing who got paid to pretend they worked for Chinese companies, being shown off at dinners, trade shows or conventions while collecting big per diem fees for just nodding and smiling.

That’s what we were at China Daily – Western window dressing. Our real job was to bolster the appearance of success. The actual substance required for it, beyond nodding and smiling, wasn’t wanted.

After a few months, I stopped pestering reporters and editors with questions they couldn’t understand or making changes I knew would be rejected. No doubt as a result of my more cooperative attitude, the department head told me I had been nominated for one of the paper’s yearly Model Worker awards. Although I didn’t win, they gave me a small bonus, a book of movie coupons and a gift certificate to the Japanese department store Ito Yokado, whose grocery kept me in baguettes, butter and cheese for a good while.

Coming next: Cold wars

 

I was a Commie wage slave

CHAPTER ONE, in which a jobless American journalist

goes to work for a Chinese newspaper in Beijing

China Daily building 

Like millions of other Americans, by the summer of 2009 I faced financial ruin.

My biggest mistake was having chosen 30 years ago to embark on a career as a newspaper reporter. I was probably in the last graduate class of journalism students anywhere who used typewriters.

The first computer I saw was at my first newspaper job in 1981. Who foresaw those big, clunky boxes morphing into palm-sized devices, turning printed newspapers into 21st-century buggy whips?

My second big mistake was to leave a newspaper job at the age of 49 thinking I could get another one. I hadn’t realized that my 50th birthday would be like a brick wall between me and a newsroom.

Finally, the whole economy tanked, driving the last nail into the coffin of my career.

So there I was, with boxes full of front-page articles and magazine cover stories, a few nice awards, a master’s degree for the resume and not a chance in hell of finding a full-time job with a livable salary in my chosen profession. The low-wage, part-time jobs I’d scraped up had just delayed the inevitable while depleting my savings. A few thousand dollars stood between me and foreclosure, then homelessness or moving in with a relative.

My long-time buddy Renee, a fellow survivor of news organizations, joked that we would live out of neighboring shopping carts under a bridge in San Diego, where at least the weather was good. That was funny when it seemed unlikely.

In May 2009, I got a card from her that showed two women sitting on a couch, grinning: “A good friend will bail you out of jail. A great friend is sitting beside you saying, ‘Wow, that was fun!’”

Inside, she wrote that she was off to Beijing for a job at the English-language newspaper, China Daily. After she got there, she pelted me with emails describing the wonders of the Chinese capital: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Silk Street Market, the neighborhood noodle shop where we could feast on fresh, hand-pulled noodles with beef and a locally brewed beer for $1.50. Why don’t you apply, she wrote, I’ll give you a reference. They’re hiring.

Renee had been there two months, but it was enough when combined with my resume to snag a job offer.

It came in an email from Mr. Pan, who ran the office that babysits China Daily’s English-speaking “foreign experts” and shepherds them through encounters with officialdom, like registering your address with the police. He offered a one-year job correcting the English of its Chinese reporters and editors at a salary of roughly $33,000 (at the then-current exchange rate), plus a rent-free, utilities-paid one-bedroom apartment, health insurance, 20 days off for Chinese festivals and plane tickets for one trip to Beijing and one back home a year later.

By then, I hadn’t had a full-time job or health insurance for seven years.

So saying yes to an offer that would keep me going financially for a while longer, plus let me experience China with one of my closest friends and on someone else’s dime, was a no-brainer. Only later, after eagerly accepting the offer, did I wonder whether working for a dictatorship on one of its propaganda organs might be hard.

But that niggling concern got shoved aside while I concentrated on the details of preparing for a year in China. These included getting five vaccinations, obtaining a year’s supply of a prescription medicine, buying an enormous suitcase and pressing relatives into duty as caretakers for my pets, my house and my small pet-sitting business.   http://datelinebeijing.wordpress.com/2010/12/21/what-to-do-before-leaving-for-beijing/

As I quickly learned once in Beijing, there is no such thing as a free press in China, or freedom of expression. China Daily articles tended to range from public relations hype to outright propaganda.

Taiwan, for example, is not called a country. It’s an “autonomous region.”

The Dalai Lama is a “terrorist,” and Tibet was “liberated.”

Advertising is routinely written up as news, and it’s standard practice to sell or trade space on so-called news pages for articles that here would be labeled as advertising.

The continual distortion doesn’t always sink to the level of propaganda, but it does leave the paper resembling a chamber-of-commerce publication.

Mercifully, the jobs of foreign reporters and editors typically are limited to the point that they do no significant reporting or editing. Chinese reporters (with some brave exceptions) are little more than stenographers, dutifully recording the story line as presented by officials and businesses.

Why, you may be asking, would any self-respecting foreign journalist participate in this?

We needed jobs, and needed them badly enough to go all the way to China for them. Although the younger expatriates generally were just enjoying the adventure, the older ones were trying to hang onto houses, or help their kids through college or recover retirement savings lost to suddenly worthless investments and disappearing pensions.

When I got home a year later, I couldn’t stop talking about China. For months, the most mundane events – shopping for groceries, going to a movie, eating out, waiting in line – prompted anecdotes about how differently people do those things in China.

What most surprised everyone was hearing what the Chinese believed about us. People here don’t realize how little the Chinese know about us (and how little we know about them) until they hear some of these anecdotes. One described an after-work chat over beers that left my expat friends and our young Chinese co-workers slack-jawed with amazement about each other’s countries.

Reports that millions of Chinese visitors to the 2010 Shanghai Expo were mesmerized by its water fountains amused and puzzled the expats. Our Chinese co-workers didn’t understand why the fascination with water fountains wasn’t obvious to us. Most Chinese (and all expats) drank only bottled water because even after boiling, tap water throughout China contains too much sediment to be swallowed. Drinking the equivalent of tap water without boiling it first was a novel experience for Chinese, they said.

We wouldn’t have thought of that, one of us answered, since we’re don’t have to do that at home.

Our Chinese friends looked stunned. Do you mean you drink water right out of the tap, without boiling it? Yes, we answered, in fact it’s required to have drinkable tap water for any dwelling to be considered legally habitable. They clearly wanted to believe us and just as obviously didn’t.

This was one result of severe restrictions on information about the world outside China. In combination with decades of government lies about the United States, such as telling Chinese in the 1950s that children in America were starving, even the most educated, computer-savvy urbanites have trouble telling truth from fiction. They know they’re lied to and are cynical about the government and their news media, but they’re still affected by the propaganda inundating them.

Before concluding that this doesn’t happen here, keep in mind how many Americans believe claims that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Muslim socialist who wants to subject sick people to death panels.

People kept telling me, “You ought to write a book.” (Maybe they wanted to shut me up.) I resisted. Plenty of people, more knowledgeable than me, have written excellent books about China.

Yet some of those books promote a view about China that even a brief sojourn like mine would call into question. One of the most common is that China is a powerful nation whose progress out of Third-World poverty threatens the United States. The Chinese certainly want to believe that, and its government insists this is so.

It’s the conventional wisdom. But what I saw suggests the common-sense conclusion that China will not be strong or rich enough in this century to threaten anyone except the smaller countries that share a border with her. China’s internal challenges are overwhelming, and will suck up every bit of money and effort available to keep them from swamping the country. There isn’t any of the surplus needed for international power.

China is a paper dragon, projecting an illusion of power far greater than its substance. Internationally, its allies are the rogue state of North Korea and some of the poorest countries in Africa, which can be cheaply cultivated by relatively affordable investments.

The highest priority of the Chinese government (topped by nine old men whose dictates rule 1.3 billion people) is maintaining its one-party dictatorship. Its attention, money and policies are devoted to this end, with control of its citizens as the means. All else, including international opinion, is a distant second.

Their methods, very roughly, boil down to three strategies: control information about China’s past, current conditions and the world beyond its borders; prevent citizens from organizing so much as a block club that isn’t sanctioned by authorities; and squash dissent. Transgressors suffer punishments ranging from loss of jobs, harassment and house arrest to beatings, imprisonment and execution. Their children and their children’s children are marked as unreliable and kept out of good schools and skilled jobs. For generations, they’ll suffer from a big, black mark made in their permanent political files.

Here in the U.S., kids snigger over threats made by exasperated teachers that misdeeds will be noted on their “permanent record.” In China, there really are such documents, compiled for every Chinese citizen which none is allowed to see.

Even with a cushy job like I had, its greatest benefit came to be the comforting knowledge that I had a guaranteed exit from China.

Next chapter coming soon: culture shock