Fact-checking the New York Times’ China Coverage [UPDATED]

[UPDATED at end of post.]

On Monday, the New York Times ran a story on the tightening of internet controls in China that included this anecdote in the lede:

BEIJING — If anyone wonders whether the Chinese government has tightened its grip on electronic communications since protests began engulfing the Arab world, Shakespeare may prove instructive.

A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancée over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.

He spoke English, but another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence.

Here at Shanghai Scrap, we believe in the strictest journalistic standards, and so, for the moment, neglecting the New York Times reporting standards (censorship stories in CHINA led by anecdotes about foreigners quoting Shakespeare over the phone), we would now like to report the results of our STRICTLY controlled study of whether or not quoting Shakespeare over mobile phones in China results in a loss of connection.

METHODS: The staff prepared three phrases. A) Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks;” b) “I like Bob Dylan’s protest songs, the most;” and c) “PROTEST PROTEST PROTEST!” The staff also prepared a list of five individuals with phones in China. They are a) a foreign Shanghai entrepreneur; b) a Shanghai school teacher; c) a Beijing-based foreign correspondent; d) a Beijing-based scrap metal entrepreneur; e) a Foshan-based scrap metal entrepreneur. Each individual was called from a Shanghai phone line, and asked to listen to the three phrases, repeated twice.

RESULTS: In all five cases, the connection was sustained and the staff was subjected to varying degrees of bewildered responses:

a) Foreign Shanghai entrepreneur: “Is this about the  upcoming Bob Dylan show?”

b) Shanghai school teacher: “Are you drunk?”

c) Beijing-based foreign correspodent: “I thought that story was bulls*** too.”

d) Beijing-based scrap metal entrepreneur: “I don’t understand.”

e) Foshan-based scrap metal entrepreneur: “What do you want me to say?”

CONCLUSION: The staff of Shanghai Scrap conclude that, a) Foreigners can feel confident that they can quote Shakespeare, in English, when discussing restaurants in China on the phone; b) the New York Times needs to widen its circle of sources on censorship beyond people who quote Shakespeare, in English, when discussing restaurants on the phone. Further study needed on whether or not phones used by New York Times correspondents and assistants are the most reliable means of judging phone censorship in China.

[Addendum: It turns out that my friend Kenneth Tan at Shanghaiist conducted a similar study, with similar results, earlier today. Dr. Tan’s study, here.]

[Addendum 3/24: And the unsuccessful attempts at verifying this episode continue, both among China’s foreign correspondent corps (some distinguished verifiers, here, here, here, and here) and among expatriate, er, civilians (a tiny sample, here, and here) Now, just to be clear: this ludicrous, unverifiable example of ‘censorship’ should not detract from the simple fact that internet controls in China are tightening. That’s a real phenomenon, and one can only wish that, in the future, the New York Times decides to front its stories with the many actual verifiable examples of censorship occurring here (especially as they impact the Chinese, and not expat correspondents).]

UPDATED after the page jump …

[UPDATE 3/24: The byline for the NYT’s story belongs to Sharon LaFraniere and David Barboza. However, like many NYT stories, this one was a team effort, with additional reporting provided by reporters around the globe. Among the team members on this story was Jonathan Ansfield – at the end of the story, his role is described as follows: “Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting from Beijing.”

A little while ago, an email directed me over to Ansfield’s twitter account. It’s rarely used, but in the last 24 hours, Ansfield has used it to re-tweet two tweets related to this article. The first re-tweet was of one of mine, in which I inform my followers that it is, in fact, safe to quote Shakespeare over the phone in China. The second re-tweet is of Beijing writer and translator Brendan O’Kane, in which he announces that he is writing to the NYT’s corrections department over the ‘protest’ lede, and encourages others to do the same. Seriously: can anyone come up with another example of a New York Times reporter making such a public effort to back away from a published story with which he or she has a credit? I can’t. Here, for posterity’s sake, is a screen grab of the re-tweets:

One last point. This morning someone identified as ‘Jonathan’ left comment #10 on this post, below. It reads: “for the record, the contributing reporter’s own tests comport with yours. regrettably his input on the story made little difference.” I don’t disclose the actual identies of commentators on this blog, unless they give me express permission to do so; I’ve emailed this individual and asked if I can reveal his. If and when he replies, I’ll post his first and last name. UPDATE to the UPDATE: I’ve confirmed that the comment was, in fact, left by Jonathan Ansfield.]

[FINAL UPDATE 3/26: The New York Times just added an editor’s note to the end of the original story. It can be found at the end of page two, and reads as follows:

Editors’ Note: March 26, 2011

An article on Tuesday about Chinese censorship of digital communications began with a description of two interrupted cellphone calls, which were cited as possible examples of “a host of evidence over the past several weeks” that the authorities were increasing their efforts out of concern that antigovernment sentiment might spread from Arab countries. In one call, a Beijing entrepreneur lost his cellphone connection after he used the English word “protest” twice. In the second, a call was lost after the speaker twice used the Chinese term for protest.

The article did not point out that in both cases, the recipients of the calls were in the Beijing bureau of The New York Times. Because scrutiny of press communications could easily be higher than for those of the public at large, the calls could not be assumed to represent a broader trend; therefore, those examples should not have been given such prominence in the article.]

[FINAL ADDENDUM RE NYT’S EDITORIAL NOTE: With an evening’s sleep to mull this editors’ note, I’d like to add one last point. It is this: why, if the conversation took place between someone “in the Beijing bureau of the New York Times” and a Beijing entrepreneur, did the New York Times’ reporters and editors, decide to grant anonymity to itself? The NYT’s policy on the use of anonymous sources states, quite clearly, that the grant of anonymity is a”last resort to obtain information that we believe to be newsworthy and reliable.” But, of course, in this case, the NYT had ample evidence (from one of its own reporters) to know that this information was not reliable. So why, then, the grant of anonymity? Did Sharon LaFraniere, the lead author of the piece, decide that it was too good to withhold from the story, much less its lede? It’s up to the Times to tell.]

And a new post, touching on a couple of final points, here.