Journalists have recently been the target of attack and ridicule, not just from the authorities, who, true to form, have sought reporters across provinces, but also from celebrities, who have dropped all good form to heap bile on the press.
After real-estate mogul Yu Jinyong (禹晋永) was accused of cheating and fakery, he called a press conference to issue his flat denials. He said: “If I want to close the door and beat the dogs, I have to first let them into the house. So there are a lot of media with us today.” After the pupil and relative of crosstalk performer Guo Degang (郭德纲) struck a reporter from Beijing TV, he continued to pile on the verbal abuse, saying that “Beijing TV is a filthy outfit” and that “journalists are no better than whores.”
Film director Feng Xiaogang, for whom scolding reporters has become something of a sport, responded that journalists “have no humanity” when he was asked an uncomfortable question about product placement while promoting his new film Aftershock.
I understand that I live in a coarse and vulgar society, but for these holders of public, economic and cultural power to conduct themselves in such a way, showing such poor judgment and character — this fills me with astonishment.
The Czech writer Vaclav Havel once advocated “eight principles of dialogue.” Two of these principles were: do not issue personal attacks, and do not persist in defending one’s errors. In China, these two principles have been turned on their heads, and [these upside-down principles of dialogue] have become part of the playbook of success for officials and other personalities.
Yu Jinyong has even shamelessly declared that, “Integrity doesn’t need to be expressed in words, and even less so in our actions,” but is evinced rather in “persistence in one’s heart.”
In each of these recent examples, personalities have blown their lids over journalists, voicing their utter disdain for the press.
A rather pure hearted colleague of mine, who has a great deal of respect for our profession, asked me how I viewed our work in light of these recent blow-ups. It was my view that even as we angrily defend ourselves against these attacks, we must seize this opportunity to ask ourselves tough questions.
Why can’t we garner even the most basic level of respect? Aside from the aggressiveness of those in positions of influence, are there reasons for how we are treated that lie with our own conduct? Aside from those honest, brave and professional top journalists who command respect, what is the situation for our media at large?
In modern societies, the press has a pivotal role, and has been called the “fourth estate” after the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government. The press serves three principal roles. First, to provide information for the convenience of citizens in their daily lives, seeking out the facts and helping them distinguish between truth and falsehood. Second, to monitor power, preventing its abuse by fulfilling the public’s right to know. Third, to serve as a platform for free opinion, so that differing views can be expressed.
The second of these tasks can easily turn journalists into heroes opposing power. And journalists who actually serve this role might be accorded great respect.
Many journalists in China today invoke the words of Joseph Pulitzer, who once said: “A journalist is the lookout on the bridge of the ship of state.” They believe it is a journalist’s duty to survey the seas, watching out for rough waters ahead and issuing timely warnings. And they know the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
There are many journalists in China who goad themselves on with sentiments like these. And when they’ve chanted them often enough, they begin to actually believe their work embodies the noble mission set down in the words of Pulitzer and Jefferson. But in fact, even Western media, working in much freer environments, cannot fully live up to these expectations — and in the age of new media things have even perhaps slid backwards.
Admittedly, Chinese media have experienced major change over the past 20-30 years, and have begun now to have a greater sense of independence and professionalism. The problem is that as they have been squeezed between government restrictions and the market, Chinese media have been seduced to the filthy road of temptation before they’ve even had an opportunity to find the true road to professionalism.
I remember a discussion journalists had last month during a “China-Europe Social Forum” I attended in Chengdu about the taking of “red envelopes” (or cash payments). “Red envelopes” are extremely common in China’s media, and have become a primary source of income for some journalists. Professor Zhan Jiang of the Foreign Languages University and other communications experts in attendance characterized the practice as abhorrent. After all, no one can reasonably suppose that a journalists who accepts cash gifts will maintain independence in their reporting — and even supposing they could, this is still a harmful practice.
But many Chinese journalists at the forum were wearied of this discussion. They grumbled that every time this sort of forum is arranged, the intractable issue of “red envelopes” comes up. They made the point that as nearly every newspaper maintains lists of advertisers who have to be protected from negative coverage, so even if journalists don’t accept cash gifts the integrity of their work is compromised.
Western journalists in attendance couldn’t get a word in edgewise on this topic. I think they just couldn’t understand this point of view. Fishing desperately for common ground, some recalled how Hollywood corporations would invite European reporters to attend film screenings, and there was a debate over whether it was OK for journalists to accept plane tickets to these events. But the idea that journalists would accept money directly from those they were reporting on, regardless of the industry, surpassed their imagination.
Alain Frachon, the editor in chief of France’s Le Monde newspaper said that when he was a deputy editor he did everything possible to avoid dinners with political leaders in order to avoid emotional interference, even if dinner parties were of a personal nature.
I have to say quite honestly that not only would the vast majority of Chinese editors — no matter how big or small their publications — not dare to spurn an invitation from a government leader if it happened to come, but in fact they would feel a deep sense of honor, to the point that they would write it directly into their advertising brochures and even report the meeting as news.
Given the way our media operate as a general rule, is it any wonder personalities like Guo Degang and Feng Xiaogang have expressed such disdain for the press?
Responding to questions from young reporters, Feng Xiaogang often refers to them as “little sisters.” You’re too young, he suggests, and you don’t understand things. You’re all little children. You don’t know your manners. But while Feng’s harsh response to reporter’s questions about product placements in his latest film may expose his agism and sexism, they also reflect his legitimate doubts about the character of journalists generally. After all, Feng understands that the product placements in his latest film have a corollary in the soft content that is so ubiquitous in China’s media.
There are indeed journalists in China who can be admired and respected for challenging the forces of power and money and bravely providing facts to the public. But while such professional conduct should be the norm for Chinese journalism, I often find myself saddened by the extent to which it is not.
So perhaps, when we’re speaking about our press as a whole, the contempt others feel for us is not such a grave injustice.
A version of this article appeared originally in Chinese at Southern Metropolis Daily.