A couple of quick points regarding the brouhaha over last week’s New York Times’ story suggesting that China is censoring the use of the word ‘protest’ – both English and Chinese – in phone conversations. My post debunking this odd anecdote can be found here; it’s generated far more attention – and emails, phone calls, and DMs – than I ever expected. Some have questioned whether the issue is really so important.
Well, from my perspective it is: insofar as the New York Times’ China correspondents hold the most important and influential foreign media jobs in China, their stories, standards, successes and failures, reflect on all foreign media in China. And, for better or worse, this ‘protest’ story does, too: from now on, it will be one more example for foreign media detractors to use as proof that “foreign media lie/make stuff up.” But forget the China-centric viewpoint: a very large percentage of the visits – and correspondence – generated by that post are from American with little interest in China, but a great deal of skepticism about the credibility and intentions of the American media. As someone with a personal interest in the credibility of American media, I have two (hopefully) last points that I’d like to make on this issue that I haven’t seen covered elsewhere.
- The NYT story claims that the anecdote in question – an anecdote about a phone line purposely being disconnected when a speaker said “The lady doth protest -” – was verified by translating the same phrase into Chinese and generating the same result. But there’s a problem with this claim: Chinese doesn’t really have a 1:1 equivalent for ‘protest’ as it’s used interchangeably in English. Brendan O’Kane, the highly regarded Beijing translator and writer (and tweeter) emailed me on this point over the weekend: “the Chinese translation of that line does not use “示威,” “抗议,” “游行,” or any other words meaning “protest.” For that matter, any would-be activist discussing a protest would almost certainly not use the word either; they’d probably use “运动,” which is so common that it would render any hypothetical automated scanning system more or less inoperable.” Even if you don’t know Chinese, I think Brendan’s point is obvious and powerful: the one-to-one translation that the NYT claims that it did, is not really possible as a practical matter. And that’s a big, big problem.
- So how, then, was this anecdote verified? At this point, I think it’s relevant to bring up something that’s been mentioned in whispers but not publicly [addendum: in connection with this incident]: the lead author of that story, Sharon LaFraniere, is the wife of the New York Times’ Beijing bureau chief, Michael Wines. Could that relationship have played a role in getting this otherwise unverifiable anecdote into the paper? Only Wines can answer that. As for me, I can only assume that Wines’ relationship to LaFraniere complicates, if not effects, any actions that the NYT might want to take (against LaFraniere, in particular) in the wake of this incident. In the meantime, we are left with a question fit for a journalism ethics course: “You are the editor of a major newspaper. How do you handle a case of potential journalistic misconduct committed by a reporter working for a bureau chief who is also her husband? Discuss.”
It will be interesting, indeed, to see if the Times takes any actions beyond the defensive, non-corrective editors’ note that it quietly appended to the story over the weekend.