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.

54 comments

  1. New York Times reporters have written up 15 out of the last 5 cases of censorship in China.

    Incidentally, 90% of dropped calls occur because of cellular handover. If they don’t want their calls to be dropped, they should try standing still when talking on the phone.

  2. Is this like the story of Eddie Murphy in the casino elevator? I heard about calls from China being cut-off mid-sentence shortly before I moved to Shenzhen, but the code word was “church.”

  3. I was an unaccredited and unknown freelance journalist based in Beijing in 2002-2003. I used my home phone for both internet browsing and phone calls. In a year’s time, the only connection problem I ever had was when I was on the phone with a human rights lawyer in Washington, D.C., and used the phrase “human rights violation” two or three times in less than a minute. The line went dead. The NYT may be full of it, but that is China. Btw, I also couldn’t open Yahoo emails that contained phrases such as “Taiwan independence,” even though I could open all the other emails in my inbox. And while I could browse most Western newspapers online, I frequently couldn’t open stories about China. And that was nearly 10 years ago. I’m sure Beijing’s methods are more sophisticated and thorough now, when it chooses to use them.

  4. The technological challenge of running real-time language recognition software on every phone call in China, and then tying this to a system that was capable of instantly cutting off phone conversations, should be enough to convince anyone to pause before shuffling out this rubbish.

  5. for the record, the contributing reporter’s own tests comport with yours. regrettably his input on the story made little difference.

  6. So, let’s name names. Apparently Jonathan A is absolved by his own word, so that leaves SHARON LaFRANIERE and DAVID BARBOZA, Jonathan Kaiman and Li Bibo. Good times, guys.

  7. I also saw this and was highly skeptical…but then again, calling from Shanghai may not yield the same results as calling from Beijing. If I’m not mistaken, local areas can have different phone censorship regimes (ie. it’s not uncommon for RFA calls to local areas that just had an incident to go dead after sensitive topics are raised), and it doesn’t seem too implausible that had this anecdote occurred within a certain radius of a sensitive area, it may have actually occurred as written. Obviously, it’s close to impossible to fact check with the PSB and other relevant authorities….

  8. Not wanting to be left out of the scientific process, I just called (from Beijing) another Western friend (also in BJ) on a China Mobile phone. The entirety of my discussion was “sensitive” terms, one after another. You can guess the specifics: a banned religious group, a spiritual leader/”jackal”; a splittist island; a movement with the name of a flower; a major public area in Beijing. And so on. The call ended only when I had bored myself silly.

    I wish the NYT had simply said, or would simply now say, “the episode seems not to have been typical and could even have been purely accidental. But it illustrated a larger pattern…” Because no one doubts the larger pattern.

  9. What should really set off the bullshit-meter is the fact that they claimed that the same result occurred when the phrase was said in Chinese. I found three different translations of the line from Hamlet, and naturally none of them use a word in Chinese with the “sensitive” meaning of “protest” that might be censored. Everyone knows China censors, but this story reeked. What is up with this Sharon LaFraniere, she recently had a story where she referred to Jiang Yu as Ms. Yu. Really expect better from the NYT.

  10. When I first saw this story on Hao Hao Report I thought your url was Shanghais Crap, and I thought this is my kind of website. 😉

  11. It’s easy to get paranoid about stuff like that. A friend of mine in Beijing and I were IMing over Skype a while back, and we discovered that any line either of us typed that contained the string of letters “xiao” would get silently dropped. We later discovered that this only happens when he IMs from work- from his home computer it doesn’t happen. So it may be part of some filtering layer his company uses.

    This is pretty odd, as “xiao” is the pinyin form of a very common syllable n Chinese… we have yet to figure out why this happens.

  12. It’s the NY Times. It doesn’t have to be true to be reported as fact, it is sufficient if one merely *wishes* it was true. So long as it supports the narrative “it must be true”.

  13. And how, exactly, would one distinguish censorship from every other dropped call in China? Happens all the time!

  14. “Journalists” are going to have to be more creative in making stuff up.Their patterns of thought are getting to be redundant and too easily recognizable.

  15. I was talking on the phone the other day and said “I’m going to the…” and the line mysteriously cut off. I tried it again and this time it started saying weird stuff to me in Chinese. Must have been the evil PSB, not the telphone company telling me I owe money. Unfortunately that even one of the few good American papers sucks, isn’t really news.

  16. About Tagore Smith’s disappearing “xiao”. It is likely some glitch related to IM emoticons. I’ve had it happen on my computer when my sister installed some emoticons bound to certain words, like any “zhou” was bound to a laughing Stephen Chow, aka Zhou Xinzhi. Others though eventually would just go blank for some reason.

  17. mikecheck: I hadn’t considered emoticons. That could be it. It’s odd though, because it isn’t just the “xiao” that doesn’t come through. The whole line gets dropped, even if you put spaces between the letters. Anyway, weird things happen sometimes with communications, either using cell phones, or over the internet. The Times should do a bit more work to confirm what’s going on before jumping to conclusions.

  18. Another possibility is the original anecdote might have been true, but the story still false. When the line “the lady doth protest too much” was uttered, and then the phone cut off, isn’t it entirely this was just a cooincidence, and it was a hiccup in the cellphone service, that might well happen on randon calls at random times. The really stupid part of the original story was in implying that that particulat anecdote had anything real to do with censorship.

  19. Richard: I suspect that is the case. I’m in the US, but I’ve spent easily a thousand hours communicating with people in China over the last 5 years. I am aware that a lot of that communication might be monitored, and it’s easy to get a bit paranoid about it. If my “xiao” story had involved something even a bit less innocuous I’m afraid I might have jumped to conclusions over it. People like to find patterns, and confirmation bias is a strong force.

    But the Times should know better, particularly because this story is so implausible. I’ve discussed some pretty controversial subjects with some of the people I talk to in China, and I’ve done so using plain-text in many cases, which is a lot easier to monitor in real-time than voice is. There is certainly censorship in China, and there is certainly a Great Firewall (and I actually do think that some of the internet glitchiness I’ve seen might be related to the hoops that packets have to jump through.)

    But I think a lot of people who have little experience with the Chinese net tend to have an exaggerated picture of this. I should say up front that the people I talk to in China are not dissidents and they are relatively privileged. But they are not afraid to talk about even very controversial things, and none of them have ever been invited to have a “cup of tea” with any authorities. The degree to which communications are controlled in China is a complicated question, and the Times isn’t helping people understand it with silly pieces like this.

  20. Sounds unbelievable that the NYTimes should publish such crap, doesn´t it? But they do. Years ago they published a story on the German rock group Rammstein. Evidently the New York Times had given the assignment to find some dirt on the group i.e. that they are Nazis. Nazis and Germany always sells just like the Great firewall.
    The group didn´t want to talk to the hack so she made up that their latest album was a call for Nazi rising!!!!
    I couldn´t believe it I read it twice and read it again: to prove this she claimed that their hit song Reise, Reise could be translated as Arise, arise!!! (The lyrics also don´t have the slightest political content.)Really I couldn´t believe that the editors let bulshit like that thruough. But they did. Reise means journey in German and nothing, absolutely nothing else. It might sound like rise but only the first syllable. Reise though does not even have a full equivalent to any English word. Just as I said the first syllable. And they let it through!!!! OK, German is not a world language but one would have thought, that would have been too embarrassing for the hack. Soomebody would complain!!! That she thought she would get away with it tell you all you need to know about the NYT standards in their foreign coverage. So I readily believe your story. Shame on the eEw York Times. Better not believe a word they write.

  21. The issue isn’t just about the NYT fact-checking articles about censorship. Every foreign writer or commenter living in China at some point replaces the experience of the average Chinese with that of their own. “I’m being censored, so EVERYONE must have the same problem.” It’s easy to do and something I’m sure I’m guilty of as well. But with some foreign journalists it appears to be a particularly bad habit. They have their own bubble with a few local sources and they think that it’s enough. It’d be nice if a few of them spoke and read Chinese and actually knew people in various communities and from different socio-economic backgrounds before they really wrote about China. Shockingly, there could even be some insightful pieces written.

  22. Perhaps in the spirit of the original post, I’d like to rebut ‘tom’ about the NYT’s reportage on Rammstein. Apparently the term ‘reise’ used to mean ‘arise’, and it is in this old sense that the term was meant.

    See here for an unofficial translation of the lyrics that uses this term: http://herzeleid.com/en/lyrics/reise_reise/reise_reise — and which includes this explanation at the end:

    “Though written as a noun, “Reise” is obviously used as a verb in the song. The phrase “Reise, Reise” is used by seamen as a wake-up call and finds its roots in the Middle High German verb “risen”, which meant “to rise” (to which it is obviously related as well). This verb has since died out in New High German, though the noun was retained and came to mean “journey” or “voyage”. The verb “reisen” was rederived from the noun “Reise”, but now means “to journey” or “to travel”. It seems the old meaning has been preserved in this phrase in the seaman’s language.”
    ENDS

    Feds, are you saying that the NYT journalists are not all fluent in Chinese?

  23. Hi Matthew
    It is amazing that you dug this up. Even me a German native speaker and Rammstein fan didn´t know that. Whatever – I believe NYT hacks don´t just don´t know German or Chinese they even believe nobody else does and nobody cares!!!

  24. What was irritating about this piece is that recently there has been something of a clampdown online that I have noticed which is irritating and bears investigation.

  25. Why mince words at this point? There’s no way of translating ‘protest’ in such a way that it would trip automated or human filtering in China. There’s no equivalency that hits the personal side of the Shakespeare quote AND the political end (活动 – I don’t think so). To me and others who know Chinese this is the sure-fire evidence that Barboza and LaFraniere MADE THE WHOLE THING UP. It’s fiction, a lie, a dupe of readers and editors. If Bill Keller and the NYT can’t figure that out then then god help that paper. And you’re absolutely right about anonymity in this story. It wasn’t sensitive or they would’ve left it out of the editors’ note. I’d say shame on the NYT but this sad mess proves they don’t have any shame left.

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