The recent investigation into alleged news extortion at 21cbh.com, a financial news website under the auspices of China’s 21st Century Business Herald newspaper, is just the latest smudge on the grubby surface of China’s media industry. We can add it to a long list of desecrations, including the shameless media mudfest over the televised confession of socialite Guo Meimei (郭美美) and sensational coverage of prison escapee Gao Yulun (高玉伦).
The 21cbh.com case stands as further proof positive that China’s media has entered an era of corruption. In the coming years, I’m afraid, we will continue to see cases and stories like these.
“Age of Corruption” was the cover of the April 2013 edition of China Weekly, the magazine where until recently I was editor-in-chief. Our coverage in that issue sketched an outline of the present age in which we have found ourselves. In our political, economic and cultural life, we are in an age of corruption. And there is no better phrase to capture the ethos of our present-day media industry.
It would be wrong to point to some past Eden of professional purity. There was no such place. But there was at least a time — counting from around the mid-1990s — when commercial media in China sought a higher professional character as they pursued greater independence in the marketplace. There was a professional esprit de corps that somehow brightened the darker aspects of media practice.
These days, the environment grows more and more unforgiving for those journalists and media that still strive for self-discipline, determined not to make the fall from grace.
On the one hand, cynical opportunism has become the dominant spirit of our industry. Success is measured by lucre and power, and their attraction to the exclusion of all else is irresistible to most. Meanwhile, institutional factors — both political and economic — work against those who persist in their ideals, raising the real costs of good professional journalism.
This perfect storm of moral and institutional corruption has scattered and dissipated those voices within the industry that once served to check the kinds of abuse we see so readily today.
You can still hear the vocabulary of professionalism at media gatherings. But a lot of the issues we held near and dear before — like balanced reporting or protecting your sources — have been usurped by talk of revenue streams, changing business models and “venture capital investment” (创业融资).
The surest way to elicit general groans is to start the conversation about professionalism. Just say the word “innovation,” however, and you’ll put a glow in every eye. What do we mean when we talk about “innovation”? Well, naturally we mean business. What else could we possibly mean?
There is still at least a superficial respect for the idea of pursuing the truth and serving the public interest, but these have been relegated to the margins. In China, we have an ancient literati tradition that emphasizes solicitude for the homeland. We also have the liberal tradition fostered by the newspaper professionals of the Republican Era. And we have, finally, the liberal and professional current that emerged at the outset of the commercial media era in the 1990s and never fully bloomed. But all of these legacies have been rapidly undone in recent years by political and economic pressures and by our darker human instincts.
Short-sighted opportunism — the dominant value in our society today — already reigns supreme in a media industry that once, not so long ago, stubbornly resisted such corrupting influences. The logical and real consequence of this is that the professional capacity of the media industry has not only failed to advance along with social change, but in fact has suffered continuous erosion.