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.
  2. 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.


  1. What bothers me about this whole thing, as I said in the letter I wrote to the NYT, is that this is the kind of mistake that people like AntiCNN will use for years to argue that foreign reporting on China is untrustworthy. Whether it was a legitimate mistake or not, it debases the coinage of the NYT and foreign reporters everywhere. The lede has now been so widely disseminated — on BoingBoing and Slashdot, and through other news organizations — that even a full correction will not make up for it.

    I’m sure that Chinese authorities are working on an automated scanning system, if they don’t have one already. I’m just about as sure that if they have such a thing, they’re not going to let people know it by (e.g.) cutting off phone calls on the uttering of potentially inflammatory words. Even if it’s human surveillance, I can’t see any upside to tipping one’s hand so — surely an eavesdropper would want to know what was being protested, and where?

    By its nature, the Internet makes it easy to assume the worst of the person on the other side of the screen. I’ve done that before, and wish I hadn’t, but assuming good faith on the part of everyone involved, it still seems pretty clear to me that at the very least, a correction, rather than an editor’s note, is in order here.

  2. Brendan – Obviously, I agree with everything you’ve just written, but especially the first graf. The traffic that I received from the first post was much greater than I usually receive, with a significant percentage of it coming from the United States and sites that are, generally speaking, quite suspicious of what they like to call the MSM. It’s occurred to me in the past that anti-CNN has some ideological brethren in the US, but I guess I’d never seen it illustrated so dramatically. My point being, that this isn’t just a China issue, that there’s a whole reservoir of people in the US who believe that NYT reporting – and thus all ‘MSM’ reporting – is unreliable.

    Your last graf also rings a bell with me. I don’t have anything personal against LaFraniere, but I do take it very personally when other media organizations tarnish the reputations of reporters in China (and elsewhere) and then refuse to make any effort whatsoever to correct the record. Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s arrogance, maybe it’s something else. Poke around the online discussions occurring regarding this episode, and you’ll see additional plenty of stories of requests for corrections rebuffed or ignored. It would be nice, for once, if the NYT would say why or why not they are behaving in the way that they are.

  3. These kinds of stories wouldn’t have much credibility in an environment where censorship wasn’t practiced so widely. It’s like the fake food scandal scares (remember the cardboard baozi). In retrospect one feels foolish for having believed it, but given the context you can see why people are easily convinced.

    At least Western media engages in hand-wringing after the fact, which is more than can be said for China’s state-controlled media outlets.

  4. Sharon is a good reporter and it’s a pity that she’s getting hammered so hard over this. I bet she was given the story by somebody she’s trusted in the past and didn’t think twice about it. Because she’s Sharon nobody she works with or anybody in New York thought about it either. Some might call that innocent and others might call it arrogant. The result is that one reporter’s rep is now damaged and so is probably much of her office too. Lesson to you all.

  5. What if the phrase they used in Chinese was not an official translation (unlikely, don’t you think?), and just a free kouyu translation which used the word ‘kangyi’? Doesn’t that seem the most probable scenario? Since it’s not established what the actual Chinese sentence was, and given that it could have included kangyi if it were a nonofficial translation (which is the most likely, right), jumping from point 1 to point 2 seems like quite a large jump. I wouldn’t do it without a good harness.

  6. Matthew – In terms of your last point, jumping from point 1 to point 2, I’d agree with you if there wasn’t a host of additional reasons to believe that this article and the verification process used on it (if, in fact, it was verified). I detail those concerns in the much longer post prior to this one, available here.

  7. Regarding the translation of that line: I guess it’s possible that someone could have misunderstood the meaning of “protest” in the original line (in the sense of “protestation”) as “protest” in the common modern sense, if the line were divorced from its original context. In any event, “kangyi” has not triggered any signal drops on anybody else’s phone.

  8. Brendan: I pointed out Adam’s original story to a friend of mine on Beijing. His response was, paraphrased, “this seems to confirm the reasoning of a book I read that criticized Western media coverage of China. The use of anonymous sources and anecdote is something that book made a point of.”

    I won’t call him “the average Chinese guy” out of deference to Adam, but I do think his background is pretty typical for a young guy on the make in Beijing. Just an anecdote, though.

    Beyond that, shouldn’t people question the Times? I sense a bit of contempt in your reference to people who are suspicious of the “MSM.” I would never have come up with that abbreviation on my own because I don’t think that there is a real alternative, but…

    I am an expert in a couple of niche areas of human knowledge. Every once in a while someone reports on one of those areas. The reporter invariably gets it so wrong that… well, as Pauli said, what they report is often so bad that it it isn’t even wrong.

    I’m not one of those “damned MSM” types simply because I think there is no alternative to that damned MSM. I don’t think that “citizen journalism,” whatever that is, will be able to have a reasonable Beijing office.

    But let’s not pretend. The Times is no longer (if it ever was) a source of facts, except in a very limited way. And journalists should not be credible or not credible. They should support their assertions or they should shut up. I don’t care if Sharon is a good reporter, and no one outside your circle does.

    When I get fed obvious nonsense I don’t care about the credibility of the person feeding me the nonsense.

    The Americans who suspect the “MSM” might be unsophisticated, but they are better informed than you in some ways. At the very least they are not surprised when the Times reports nonsense, as it does every day.

  9. This is the worst “fact-checking” logic I’ve ever seen.

    So my friend gets his wallet stolen on a street in Shanghai, and he uses that experience to write a larger study about street crime.

    To “fact check” I go to that exact same spot, wave my purse around, and nobody steals MY wallet. Ergo, my friend is a liar and his whole study is crap.

    It’s called an anecdotal lead — a little personal tale to draw readers into a larger reported piece. Of course the NYT doesn’t say that ALL phone conversations, utterings of “protest” or Shakespeare quotes are censored — that would be ridiculous. And no intelligent reader would read it that way.

    But if you take that one bit out of context, then it’s sure easy to make up a straw man article to criticize.

    I notice you don’t mention the rest of the 1,500-word serious and well-reported article on censorship.

    Obviously, the circles that foreign correspondents move in suffer from more monitoring than some random dude chatting on his cell. And if you don’t think phones are tapped in China, or that censorship is totally random, you have another thing coming.

    LaFraniere and Wines are both top correspondents. Take a look at their Wikipedia pages. They’ve been reporting together since their days covering Africa. I’m not saying every word they write is golden, but I find it a bit disparaging that an award-winning journalist is basically downgraded to being just some bureau chief’s wife.

    PS. I work for the NYT Co, though I comment on blogs as an individual and had nothing to do with this article. But I find it annoying that bloggers take so much glee in supposedly “debunking” a small bit of one article, while ignoring broad good reporting on a serious topic.

    PPS. Outside of the China-watcher blogosphere, this it a total non-story. The Shakespeare bit, I mean. The rest of the world still goes to major international media to see what’s up with Chinese communication controls.

  10. Joyce – Actually, it’s a bit like withholding the fact that when your friend’s wallet was stolen in Shanghai, it was being waved over his head, bulging with money. If you don’t mention those additional, very relevant facts in that “anecdotal lede,” then it’s a doctored anecdotal lede, at best. It damages the entire story, all 1500 words of it.

    Let me be abundantly clear: the problem is that the original story didn’t mention that the Shakespeare/protest calls took place “in the Beijing bureau.” That’s why – over the last week or so – the story spread widely via boing boing, twitter, etc (and not just among China watchers/bloggers). It’s only after readers in China – including legit credentialed journalists whom you know and read (I link to them in my first post on this issue) – questioned the anecdote, that the NYT, in a lengthy editor’s note, added that crucial piece of information, and the story stopped spreading online.

    LaFraniere’s relationship to Wines, her bureau chief, is absolutely relevant to how this situation is handled. In any organization, there are lines of authority – unless, of course, there aren’t, or they exist in name only.

  11. Your points are not very apposite, IMHO, Joyce. You say: “LaFraniere and Wines are both top correspondents. Take a look at their Wikipedia pages.”

    So when they do obviously terrible reporting your response is that it must be good reporting because they are “top reporters?” According to Wikipedia. Really? This is exactly the sort of thing that makes people in the US mistrust journalists, but more importantly it is the sort of thing that makes Chinese think US media is dishonest in its China reporting.

    Let me repeat something: When I am being fed obvious bullshit I don’t care much about the credibility of the source. Bullshit is bullshit, even if it comes from top reporters.

  12. Adam,as much as I agree that highly relevant information was not duly reported in the lede anecdote,I wouldn’t say your controlled study or the other ones were actually checking the fact that the reported loss of connection actually happened.

    Now, failure to report that foreign correspondant was in the phone call did exaggerate the implication of the story.If they mentioned it, I would think foreign correspondants are particular targeted. I still wouldn’t be convinced that “tightening” is happening, because no historical comparison was provided in the story per se.

    With the current version,I was led to perceive the scope of phone policing to be wider than what a full report would’ve suggested. It affected my reasoning, yes. But I wouldn’t call it a non-fact, a lie, a made up story. And I thought fact-checking is about checking facts.

    Other than that, I’m with you. Particularly on how bad reporting like this tarnishes media credibility.

Comments are closed.