Tag Archives: journalism

Former Obama Asia advisor: Media's US-China rivalry articles 'represent lazy journalism'

Jeffrey Bader, a former senior director for East Asia at the U.S. National Security Council during the Obama administration and a key Obama advisor, spoke at Beijing’s Tsinghua University Tuesday, almost a year after he appeared the last time. While a lot of what he said was not especially new if you follow Bader, he closed his speech with a fairly sharp line on the U.S. news media’s handling of Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a trip to to Southeast Asia because of the domestic political crisis in the United States.

Specifically, Bader took issue with the tired frame that assumes a U.S. absence is a victory for China:

We all read a steady drumbeat of articles and media of both sides focusing on U.S.–China rivalry. They are not wrong, but they are seriously unbalanced and, I believe, frankly represent lazy journalism. Nevertheless, perceptions affect reality. If, for example, western analysts interpret Obama’s failure to attend APEC and the East Asia Summit as a victory for China—and I read many articles describing these events as “Xi wins, Obama loses,” as if it were a football game—then I can understand why Chinese analysts respond by imposing a similar zero-sum framework of analysis on U.S. and Chinese behavior.

I hope sophisticated Chinese and Americans will transcend this kind of interpretation. In fact, not everything, indeed not most things that the U.S. and China do are aimed at the other. We each have substantial interests and relations including with other countries in Asia without regard to any rivalry for influence.

This analyst agrees with the former White House advisor.

A few other notes:

  • Bader noted there has been a significant increase in U.S.–China military-to-military exchange, cooperation, and  participation in international exchanges. My far less informed observations confirm this impression.
  • He divided U.S.–China issues into four realms: global issues, Asia-Pacific issues, global hotspots, and purely bilateral issues. Of these, he said, Asia-Pacific issues such as the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are likely to pose the greatest challenge in the coming years.
  • Increased nationalism throughout the region, he said, is worrisome and creates conditions where concessions are impossible in territorial disputes. Accordingly, Bader said he likes China’s proposal of joint development of undersea resources in the South China Sea, since it sets the sovereignty issue aside and sidesteps arguments over exclusive economic zones that may radiate from some land features under UNCLOS.
  • “Diaoyu islands doesn’t matter,” Bader said in a refreshingly frank and lighthearted discussion of the sticky Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. He continued: “If there were global warming—and there’d have to be a lot of global warming, because they’re pretty high—but if there were somehow miraculously global warming and these islands disappeared, no one would care. But China and Japan would still have issues.” The root of Bader’s argument on Japan and China is that the island dispute was nearly absent for decades before coming up, and that Sino-Japanese relations have hit an unusual rough spot that allows the island dispute to flare up.

Shameless plug:

  • I wrote here about Bader’s dislike for the term “pivot,” which he brought up again today.

Some notes on This American Life's retraction episode #Apple #China

The U.S. public radio show This American Life yesterday announced it would retract its adaption of Mike Daisey’s storytelling show about Apple’s manufacturing operations in China. I’m taking notes while listening on WNYC to a broadcast of the show Retraction.

The podcast is available Sunday now (yesterday it said it would be held; now the link is here). Notes will accumulate below:

  • My original review of the monologue as performed on stage in Seattle about a year ago.
  • “The most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated.” –Ira Glass
  • Fact checking 101: If the best part of your story can’t be verified, and if there’s a lot of material there, and your “reporter” can’t help verify—kill the story.
  • Daisey admits that he misled TAL on the name of “Cathy” to prevent them from finding her, Glass says.
  • The Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz’s first clues were things I chalked up to storytelling exaggeration: the guns. But the question of laborers at Starbucks did bother me. Where was the money coming from?
  • From the transcript: “Cathy Lee: I think that if she said she was 13 or 12, then I would be surprised. I would be very surprised. And I would remember for sure. But there is no such thing.
”
  • Another falsehood/exaggeration I caught immediately: When Daisey said “There are no iPads in China.” This doesn’t really minimize the power of the scene in the full narrative (beyond the TAL excerpt). This mixed purpose seems to be the real trouble.
  • Nice that Schmitz notes Cathy’s memory wouldn’t necessarily be fully clear.
  • Daisey bears down on the girl who said she was 13; that exchange is pretty damning:

    Mike Daisey: I don’t know. I do know when doing interviews a lot of people were speaking in English. They enjoyed using English with me and I don’t know if she was paying attention at that particular point. I don’t know. There was a lot of wrangling that Cathy was doing, talking to people and sort of pre-interviewing.

    Rob Schmitz: So Mike, according to what you’re saying, these are migrant workers who are preteen, 13 or 14 years old, there English isn’t going to be very good. You’re telling me that they were speaking English to you, in a way that you could understand? [This resonates with me, especially for a worker so young. -gw]

    Mike Daisey: Well, I only know – only one of them was really talkative and that was the main girl I was talking to.

    Rob Schmitz: So you have a clear recollection of meeting somebody who was 13 years old?

    Mike Daisey: Yes.

    Rob Schmitz: And twelve years old?

    Mike Daisey: Yes of the girl who was thirteen and her friends who represented themselves as being around her age and so the spread there is just an effort to cover the ages that I suspect they are around that age.

  • “I really do believe that stories should be subordinate to the truth.” –Daisey. Definition of truth seems important.

Act II, in which Ira Glass speaks directly with Daisey:

  • Glass, citing n-hexane, asks why Daisey didn’t take the opportunity of their queries to acknowledge that some of the details were dramatized. “I think I was terified,” Daisey says. Glass: “Of what?” Daisey: “I think I was terrified that if I untied these things, that the work, that I know is really good, and tells a story, that does these really great things for making people care, that it would come apart in a way where, where it would ruin everything.”
  • Daisey acknowledges he did think about the fact that others—TAL—were vouching for him.

  • KEY QUOTE from Daisey: “My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes – has made- other people delve.”

Ira says out loud what any editor should have said before running this story as journalism:

Ira Glass: I guess I thought that you were going to come in and say that more if it wasn’t true because, um, there are parts of it I just don’t buy based on what you’ve said. I don’t believe you when it comes to the underage worker. Like, it seems credible that your translator if she saw an underage worker, it seems credible that she says that she would remember that kind of thing because it’d be so unusual. That seems credible. And I don’t believe you when it comes to the guy with the twisted hand because your translator who was there doesn’t remember that he said he worked for Foxconn and doesn’t remember the incident with the iPad. And I might be more inclined to believe you but you admit to lying about so many little things – the number of people who you spoke to, the number of factories that you visited – you admit to making up an entire group of characters who didn’t exist, who were poisoned by hexane and the only person who was with you said these things didn’t happen. So when it comes to underage workers and the man with the claw-hand it’s like – I don’t believe that that happened.

Mike Daisey: Yes. And I stand by it as a theatrical work. I stand by how it makes people see and care about the situation that’s happening there. I stand by it in the theater. And I regret, deeply, that it was put into this context on your show.

My comment here, after Glass says he thought it was literally true on stage, is that Glass is not as clever as I thought he was.

More to come from another outlet.

China citizen database proposal is nothing radically new

A Chinese official proposed the creation of a database of every citizen in China, reports The New York Times. Zhou Yongkang, a former head of the Public Security Bureau Ministry, “said the system should be based on the resident identity cards issued to every Chinese citizen, and should include such details as each person’s tax record and history of education and employment, as well as what property and vehicles he or she owns,” according to the Times.

My first thought was that this sounds a lot like the “Golden Shield” project proposed as part of early rhetoric on e-government in China. I looked up my master’s thesis, and found that Golden Shield, one of the “Twelve Golden Projects,” would (according to me, citing others): “Increase police capacity and efficiency in public security. Some involvement with online censorship efforts.”

Then I went back to a 2003 article on china.com.cn, which names e-government projects: “two networks, one portal, four databases, and twelve golden projects.” Lo and behold, a population database is part of the plan.

There very well may be something new here in Zhou’s statement. This is just to note that keeping better track of people for security reasons has been on the government agenda since a key 2003 state council document that outlined the Chinese government’s 信息化, or “informatization” efforts.

So, in my opinion, this is one more in the line of non-news headlines on Chinese authoritarianism. Sure, keeping track of people has consequences. But it’s not surprising or even especially new.

Research ethics, journalism, and paid participation

I am new to academia’s conventions on research involving human subjects—so new, in fact, that I’m just now completing my basic certification. The standards are not without resonance for me, however, given the emphasis placed by journalism educators on the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Principles of “beneficience” seem to run parallel to the journalists’ narrower exhortation to “seek truth and report it.” SPJ’s “minimize harm” section is similar in many ways to the Belmont Report‘s “respect for persons” and “justice.”

One short passage from the training I’m undergoing, however, would seem to raise serious questions about some of the research advertised on and near many campuses. Describing the “voluntariness” element of informed consent, my training states:

“Compensation and ‘inducements’ (financial, material, or otherwise) should not be so compelling that they play a major factor in a prospective subject’s decision about participation.”

I am certainly not the first person to notice that many people participate in studies only because of financial inducements. I’m thinking specifically about people I’ve talked to who said they participate in psychological studies and other medical trials exclusively for cash. I wonder what the practical consequence of language like “a major factor in a prospective subject’s decision” turns out to be. Without some inducements, subjects are unlikely to give their time, but when inducements are larger than what a prospective subject’s time would have yielded otherwise, the effect is different. Perhaps the risk of harm is sufficiently small that the problem of inducements is ethically irrelevant. (The consequences for the data may be more significant.)

A student at my level of understanding is in no position to criticize, but it’s interesting that the SPJ code has something to say about this too: “Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.” My instructors in journalism school and editors at most publications would go further: “Never pay sources.” I’ll be interested to learn more about how these fine lines are walked.