Paul Krugman’s Communist Viagra Peddlers

Paul Krugman has seen the enemy, and that enemy is a Communist Viagra salesman. At least, that’s the message conveyed in the esteemed Nobel Prize winner’s Saturday blog post at the New York Times, “The Hacking of Michael Pettis.”

For those who don’t know of him, Michael Pettis is a finance professor at Peking University, and a well-known ‘China bear’ and skeptic. For China critics like Krugman, Pettis  and his blog are inspiration. In any event, a few weeks ago Krugman was amused to find Pettis’ blog filled with Viagra ads; on Saturday, amusement turned to alarm when he returned to Pettis’ blog to read that – due to the power of the Viagra hackers – Pettis has been forced to re-build his blog. There are plenty of conclusions to be drawn from Pettis’ blog predicament. Krugman, notably, chooses the most extreme:

“Commenters over there are suspicious — this sounds awfully persistent for Viagra salesmen, and you have to wonder whether someone doesn’t like frank assessments of Chinese economic prospects. And it makes me grateful that this blog is protected by Times firewalls etc., given the stuff that has happened outside that protection — e.g., fake Google plus, Facebook, and Twitter accounts in my name, to cite just the stuff I know about.”

Let’s be clear about what Krugman is implying here: Michael Pettis, noted skeptic of China’s economic prospects, has been transformed into a Viagra sales platform by “someone” who doesn’t like his economic analysis. .Who is that “someone?” Krugman won’t won’t say, but in this age of state-sponsored hacking it shouldn’t be too hard to connect the dots to … the Chinese Communist Party and its platoon of Viagra salesmen?

This is wacky stuff – black helicopters for the well-heeled Nobel Prize set, in a sense. It’s also baseless stuff: when I posted the story to facebook, my friend Rich Brubaker, founder of the Collective Responsibility consultancy, and an adjunct prof at the China European International Business School in Shanghai, left the following comment:

“Pettis’s blog has had this for three years. Started as a result of widespread WordPress event, and all my blogs had same problem. I sent him fix years ago… Clearly he isn’t bothered.”

That’s a reasonable, fact-based explanation, even if it leaves open the possibility of something far more serious. Krugman, if he hopes to avoid becoming a cartoon of himself, would be well-advised to learn from it.

UPDATE: In another facebook comment, Brubaker expands a bit on his communications with Pettis:

“Here is one of the links that I sent him, which describes the core issue that he was facing in 2011 (when I emailed him). I myself had to go through this for 2 blog sites, both WordPress, and a LOT of sties were reporting the same issue at the time. With many being hosted on Media Temple.”

The link Rich shared is here.

 

The NYT’s David Barboza on Mike Daisey and This American Life

On Friday, I posted a few thoughts on This American Life’s [TAL] retraction of its episode devoted to Mike Daisey’s The Agony & The Ecstasy of State Jobs. The full post is available here. In it, I point out that Daisey and his partisans have, in part, built a defense based upon citing The New York Times’ recent, high-lauded ieconomy series that includes extensive reporting on Foxconn. The series was co-authored by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, and that led me to wonder why neither the NYT itself, or Duhigg or Barboza, had objected to this frequent citation:

I can understand that the NYT doesn’t want to send out an official release telling Mike Daisey and his delusional supporters to stop citing its ieconomy series as factual backup for Daisey’s lies. But it sure would have been nice if Ira Glass, during his interview of ieconomy co-author Charles Duhigg during the retraction episode, had asked him even one question about Daisey. Did that material hit the cutting room floor? No idea. Does Duhigg think that his work supports Daisey? Surely, he could say something. And so could, for that matter, Duhigg’s co-author, David Barboza in Shanghai.

Over the weekend, David Barboza sent me an email in which he responded to these observations and questions. With his permission, I’m publishing it, below.

I read your column about Mike Daisey today and thought you’d like to know my own impression. I was supposed to be interviewed by Ira Glass. But after they talked with my colleague Charles Duhigg, they cancelled my session saying they had plenty of material. What I would have said is that Daisey’s fabrications were utterly ridiculous. He should never have been treated as a journalist.

I heard large parts his performance on This American Life. He’s a talented story-teller, but I was a bit surprised they used his segment as a piece of journalism. I did not hear the entire show, but what I heard sounded far-fetched. He mentioned, for instance, meeting a 12 and 13-year-old at Foxconn’s gates. That just seemed highly unlikely to me. I’ve been to Foxconn gates in Shenzhen (and also got an official tour of the facility and its dormitory complex) many times and you can’t easily meet 12 or 13 year old there. And if you did, it’s unlikely they’d admit to being an underaged worker. I mentioned some of this in a Facebook chat I did shortly after our Apple i-Economy piece was published.

Rob Schmitz of Marketplace certainly produced a piece of first-rate journalism. I wish I had done that work myself, since I too had suspected that Daisey fabricated large parts of his story.

Anyway, you posed good questions in your essay. Ira Glass and the producers of This American Life should have asked Daisey whether he had photographs of his visit? How exactly did he find a translator? Were there any emails with his translator? What factories did he visit? What about hotel receipts? I don’t know what questions they asked, but I would have pushed him on those details and others. Editors don’t generally ask such questions of journalists they trust, but when the person is not a journalist, and the story just sounds a bit too good to be true, it would seem natural to ask.

My Take on Mike Daisey and Ira Glass.

In the week since Rob Schmitz’s outstanding debunking of Mike Daisey’s fabricated tales of Foxconn, I’ve been contemplating what – if anything I should write about this matter. Back in February, regular readers of this blog may recall, I appeared with Daisey (and two other guests) on To The Point with Warren Olney (downloadable here). Afterward, I was so bothered by, and suspicious of, Daisey’s blustery rage that I took the time to blog about it, here.

Since then, I’ve been tempted to write again. But in the aftermath of Rob’s report, so much good (here and here, to start) has been written about the Daisey affair that I decided that there really wasn’t any need for anyone else to say anything about it. Then, earlier this week, Sam Gaskin of Time Out Shanghai asked me if I’d do an email interview on the subject, and that got me thinking about it, again. You can find that interview, here. I’m not often in the habit of quoting myself, but I’m going to indulge the temptation just this once, if only to highlight, for the record, on my own blog, what I feel about this matter.

So, here goes. In my opinion, Mike Daisey has been rightly pilloried for his fabrications. But, for all intents and purposes, Ira Glass hasn’t. Glass has made it clear that he saw Daisey’s story as a means of humanizing what he characterizes as a story that needed humanizing. To me, that’s the source of why this debacle happened. Or, as I told Time Out:

Ira Glass made it clear in interviews that he was interested in Mike Daisey’s monologue as a means of humanizing what he already believed to be a problem. So, rather than commissioning journalism for the purpose of getting at facts, he in effect paid for a monologue that confirmed what he already believed to be facts. That’s the only way that I can explain why he didn’t drop the story after Daisey claimed he could not provide TAL with the contact information for his translator in Shenzhen. At any other fact-checked news organization, that’d be enough to kill the story. But TAL wanted this story badly, and so drifted away from the normal standards of a fact check.

A common response to all of this is, “Well, nothing that Daisey said is untrue. It’s all supported by the New York Times.” Think I’m exaggerating? Take, for example, this statement from the Wooly Mammoth Theater Company, which supported Daisey’s fabulist work from the beginning. :  “… The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs … opened people’s eyes to some of the real working conditions in Chinese factories where high-tech products are manufactured—conditions which have been documented by subsequent journalistic accounts in The New York Times and other sources.”

Or, as Daisey himself wrote on his own blog: “You certainly don’t need to listen to me. Read the New York Times reporting.” This is only kind of sort of true. The New York Times, in its series on Foxconn, didn’t claim to find 12 and 13-year-olds outside of Foxconn’s gates. Nor did it come across Chinese union organizers sipping lattes at Starbucks. I can understand that the NYT doesn’t want to send out an official release telling Mike Daisey and his delusional supporters to stop citing its ieconomy series as factual backup for Daisey’s lies. But it sure would have been nice if Ira Glass, during his interview of ieconomy co-author Charles Duhigg during the retraction episode, had asked him even one question about Daisey. Did that material hit the cutting room floor? No idea. Does Duhigg think that his work supports Daisey? Surely, he could say something. And so could, for that matter, Duhigg’s co-author, David Barboza in Shanghai.

In any event, there seems to be an evolved consensus that the New York Times has written the definitive account of Foxconn and its labor practices. To be sure, they wrote a long account. But if you’re interested in a deeper and more complex account of what life is like in and around Foxconn, then I strongly encourage you to click over to “Now Can We Start Talking About the Real Foxconn?” by Bloomberg’s Tim Culpan.

Culp’s piece is based on years of reporting, and offers a far more nuanced view of life in a Chinese high-tech manufacturing facility that what Ira Glass and his producers wanted to believe. It’s the kind of story that This American Life should have done, if only because China – the real, truly complex China – is something that American readers, listeners, and viewers are going to need to understand, and the sooner the better. Idiotic, agenda-driven broadcasts like the one featuring Mike Daisey don’t advance that cause. Not one bit.

My Time Out interview is here.

 

 

Millinocket, Maine v. China’s Global Times (and its sketchiest editorialist) [UPDATED!]

[UPDATED 25 June: Okay, turns out that the update below needs an update. The Global Times site was, an emailer tells me, undergoing an upgrade, and links to some content were broken in the process - including links to Mattimore's pieces. They are now restored.]

[UPDATE 13 June: The Global Times editorials referenced in this blog post have all been deleted from the Global Times website. However, cached versions remain, and I've added links to those versions where possible. The fact that the Global Times would delete this editorial, and others by Patrick Mattimore says much about their veracity and quality. Put differently, it takes a real whopper to get yourself deleted from the Global Times, let me tell you.]

On Monday, the English language edition of China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper, daily circulation of 1.5 million, had this to say about Millinocket, Maine, population 5000, and its high school (Stearns), enrollment 200: [UPDATE 13 June: a cached version of this now deleted editorial is available HERE.]

Stearns is a run-of-the-mill high school and doesn’t appear on any “best high school lists.”

The school building is over 40 years old. The school has only one Advanced Placement class and the school maps date from the Cold War era.

Millinocket is isolated. The closest mall and movie theater is one hour away. The town gets 93 inches of snow per year. Millinocket has about 5,000 residents but has experienced increasingly hard times since its paper mill filed for bankruptcy eight years ago. There were about 700 students at the high school in the 1970s. Today there are about 200?and the biggest kick for kids is hanging out in a supermarket parking lot.

Context: Millinocket, Maine has an active international students program in its public schools and, over the last year, it’s been covered by several media outlets, including the AP and the New York Times (indeed, the Global Times story lifts language, unattributed, from the Times’ story). The Global Times editorial argues that Chinese parents are better off sending their children to elite Chinese schools, rather them to international programs like the one in Millinocket, Maine – especially if they want their children to attend elite American colleges. It’s the kind of thing that the Global Times, once described by James Fallows as “the pro-Communist Fox News of China“, likes to run, especially when – as in the case of this editorial – it’s written by an American.

In any case, it struck me as patently unfair that a subsidized newspaper, circulation 1.5 million, would pick on a small town in Maine, population 5000, without giving that small town the opportunity to respond. So, Monday night, I wrote to the Town Manager of Millinocket and offered Shanghai Scrap as a forum for him to respond to the editorial in any way he liked. He wrote back and, soon after, so did the Superintendent of Millinocket’s schools. I’ll post their complete responses, in a moment. But first, a brief word about the author of the Global Times editorial, American Patrick Mattimore. Continue reading

The Bureau Chief’s Wife Doth Not Protest In Chinese.

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.

  1. 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. Continue reading

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 … Continue reading

China Southern Got the South China Sea Memo

The other day, in the midst of a long flight on China Southern Airlines, I turned – as I like to do – to the in-flight magazine. Nihao is actually better than most and, after losing myself in a brief essay on the nature of time (I’m not kidding), I flipped to the back, and the maps, where I came across this curious map – and sub-map, in the lower right corner – showing the airline’s domestic Chinese services.

And, below, a close-up of the circled area:

Those who follow these sorts of things know that sovereignty over the “Islands of [the] South China Sea” is fiercely contested between China and the other countries that border them. It’s a touchy, touchy issue, a source of military build-ups and diplomatic spats and, in the case of China at least, the belief that if you claim sovereignty often and loudly enough, you get sovereignty. With this in mind, I’ll point out that – in my experience – airlines aren’t often in the habit of including maps of politically sensitive areas to which they don’t fly in their inflight magazines. At a minimum, it’s a potent reminder of just how potent (and ubiquitous, in some quarters) this issue has become. And China Southern, I’d dare say, got the memo. Next: checking Malaysian Air’s inflight for its treatment of the disputed Spratlys. Stay tuned …