Apologies for the absence from the blog over the last five weeks – I’ve been tied up with some personal and professional matters. Of the latter, I’ll have more to say in a few days.
Anyway, earlier today Bob Dylan took the rather unprecedented step – for him – of commenting on his recent concerts in China. My last post to this blog was related to those shows, and so a brief follow-up.
For those lucky enough to have forgotten the controversy surrounding Dylan’s China appearances, the trouble came down to two issues: 1) by appearing in “Communist China,” he somehow tarnished the protest singer credibility he earned during the 1960s; and 2) allegations that he submitted his setlists to “government censors” in advance of his performance. The first point is a matter of opinion, of course, but the second is a matter of reported fact – if, in fact, you can report it. Back around the time of the China shows, most reporters were repeating that the setlist was censored as if it were a fact, but – best as I can tell – only the Washington Post’s Keith Richburg seemed to suggest that he had actually heard a government official say that the setlist had been censored. His story was widely syndicated (occasionally under some variation of “The Times They Are A-Censored”), and here’s the lede:
BEIJING — Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.
The problem with conventional wisdom and accepted facts – especially for reporters – is that they allow reporters to avoid actual reporting. Now, as it happens, the Ministry of Culture did in fact claim that Dylan subjected himself to censorship. Or, as Will Clem, a very good reporter, posted to the comment section of my blog:
The Ministry of Culture’s approval notice for Dylan’s mainland tour stated that the performance needed to stick strictly to the approved content and reminded the performers of their responsibility to monitor/supervise to make sure that happened. I don’t know if there was any other source for claims that the set list had been vetted by Chinese authorities.
As anybody else with any experience in China knows, just because a Chinese ministry says that it did something legalistic sounding, doesn’t mean that it actually did something legalistic sounding. At a minimum, when reporting in China or anywhere else, it’s always a good idea to verify with a second source that the (or a) government is doing what it says it’s doing. In the case of the Dylan shows, it seems reasonable to suggest that Dylan and/or his camp would’ve been the go-to destination for that confirmation. And had Richburg or anyone else called up Dylan’s people, I suspect they would have received a response along the lines of what Dylan wrote earlier today:
As far as censorship goes, the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There’s no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months. If there were any songs, verses or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it and we played all the songs that we intended to play.
The Dylan website maintains an archive of past setlists, and those from the three months of shows that he performed before China (in 2010) don’t look markedly different (or more or less censored) from those played in China. In any case, what we now (probably) know is that Dylan responded to a request for his setlist by sending three months’ worth of setlists, and never heard back from anybody. This makes sense to me: the sorry bureaucrat who received that pile of setlists probably took ten minutes to glance over them and decided – quite reasonably! – that forty-five-year-old American “protest songs performed in English, in China, don’t pose much risk to the stability of the CCP. So they released a pro-forma statement claiming that they did their due diligence and went to lunch. End of story, no reason to bother this strange, tuneless Mr. Dylan. Alternatively, I suppose, one could surmise that Dylan’s statement today was an outright lie; but, on balance, I’d take his word over that of the Ministry of Culture.
Which brings me to the New York Times, a paper that has had recent problems with the truthy-ness of its China coverage, and one Maureen Dowd, once a reporter (some may argue), and now a columnist, for the paper. In the aftermath of Dylan’s shows, she, more than any other writer, turned the Dylan censorship allegations into accepted fact. The third paragraph of her column, “Idiot Wind,” did the trick:
Before Dylan was allowed to have his first concert in China on Wednesday at the Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing, he ignored his own warning in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — “Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose” — and let the government pre-approve his set.
Dowd didn’t report this story; she wrote it up based upon the shoddy reporting of others (ie, Richburg’s method: report the statement of the Ministry of Culture as credible; follow-up with nobody). And that shoddy reporting, I’m pretty sure, was built upon a preconceived belief that, when in doubt in China, assume the totalitarian explanation. Now, I’m not doubting that there’s enough totalitarianism to go around, but when you start assuming it, rather than reporting it, you have a tendency to create a comic book image of China that has more in common with the Cultural Revolution than it does with contemporary reality. When the comic book treatment is warranted, then write it up (but be careful you’re not having your leg pulled, or somebody will call you on it); but when it’s not, when there’s something more subtle going on, or nothing’s going on at all, it does a real disservice to readers to just assume the worst and damage reputations – in this case, Dylan’s – in the process. So far, at least, the Times’ ArtsBeat post reporting Dylan’s statement links, but does not correct Dowd’s piece. Somebody over there should do something about that.