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Well Red

After being cut loose, Mitchell did some freelancing for MSNBC online before taking a break from journalism. He briefly attended Regis College with an eye toward earning a teaching degree and did some substituting in the Boulder Valley School District. Then, in late 2001, he traveled to Florida to visit a woman with whom he was involved and, while there, sent a blind resumé to the Weekly World News on the odd chance that its owner, American Media, which also owns the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabs, might be looking for scribes following the anthrax attack on its Boca Raton headquarters. He was contacted shortly after he got back to Colorado, and the company agreed to let him write from his home.

"Yes, I was Ed Anger," Mitchell confirms. "I was also Serena Sabak ('world's sexiest psychic advisor') and Dotti Primrose," whom he described in an unpublished article written for the Denver Post as "Dr. Laura on paint thinner." He landed on the paper's front page with an earthshaker about a mermaid that was found in a can of tuna, and as the Iraq crisis was coming to a boil, he checked in with a pair of timely exposés, "Saddam Statue Sheds Mystery Tears" and "Saddam's Doubles Looking for New Jobs." Still, his personal favorite was "Amazon Tribe Worships Wisconsin Bowling Team as Gods." The WWN horoscope was another of Mitchell's playgrounds, and he often sprinkled his astrological blurbs with rock lyrics. On one occasion, his advice to Scorpios drew upon the collected wisdom of Led Zeppelin, the Moody Blues, the Doors, Pink Floyd, Blind Blake and the aforementioned Fab Four: "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow on Tuesday afternoon, consider breaking through to the other side and breathe, breathe in the air. Look around, choose your own ground. Ditty-wah-ditty. Lucky number: 9."

Contrary to appearances, Mitchell writes, "WWN does fact-check, except it's mostly to prevent libel suits." Likewise, the paper's newsroom, where he worked for a couple of weeks, felt awfully familiar, with the exception of "editors hollering stuff like ŒWhere is that talking-french-fry story?'" As a bonus, he adds, "there was no pretension or illusion among the (very small) staff and management that we were performing any sort of public service other than entertaining the unwashed masses and the bored folks stuck in a grocery store checkout line."

Mao-Maoing the flak-catchers: Justin and Julian 
Mitchell in China.
Photo courtesy of Justin Mitchell
Mao-Maoing the flak-catchers: Justin and Julian Mitchell in China.

The recompense for completing these tasks was decent, but no overly so; Mitchell reports that "the days of it allegedly being the highest-paying paper in America are long gone." His direct association with the Weekly World News has vanished, too. "I went through four or five different editors in my time there and my duties began diminishing (as well as my pay) as each new editor assumed command," he notes. "I was finally told this summer via e-mail when I was teaching in Shenzhen that my services were no longer required. But a new door opened up, so I'm on to the next chapter."

Mitchell began blogging even before he and Julian hit China, and his hiring by the Shenzhen Daily has given his cyber-diary greater dimension. Some of his observations are strictly cultural, with a number of entertaining essays underscoring the steady creep of Western influence into this once virulently anti-capitalist society. Take his November 23 entry, in which he speaks of his surprise upon discovering that Helen D., a 24-year-old Daily editor who loves hard cider, Sex and the City and "retro hippie-chick" duds, is a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Even better, she passed along this information while dancing to a Ja Rule track at a disco dubbed Chicago that features "absolutely no Chicago-related decor," he recounts, "though the visages of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are displayed."

In the beginning, the sight of these icons would have caught Mitchell off-guard, he concedes. The "biggest misconception I had was that I thought China would still be overshadowed by the Mao era and influences. Haven't seen anyone in drab Mao jackets, Little Red Books, or those caps with red stars on them. People dress very fashionably, and I've only seen one Mao statue/monument and a few portraits, whereas I see images of Colonel Sanders and [Houston Rockets basketball star] Yao Ming daily. There are several Wal-Marts, a Sam's Club and a plethora of upscale department and grocery stores. The only difference between, say, a Chinese grocery store and a King Soopers is that there are no live snakes, eels, turtles and fish for sale in the seafood department [at the latter]."

Blog items about the complex inner workings at the Daily are just as fascinating. Mitchell sees "some of the same 'types'" he came to know from American newsrooms: "perky lifestyles editor, burning-out, cynical senior reporter, ass-kissing assistant editor, etc." In other respects, variations between Chinese and U.S. press abound. For instance, Mitchell and a fellow "foreign devil" he identifies only as Jeff are the sole members of the staff aside from the top editor with any formal journalism training or experience at a newspaper. The chief qualification for a position at the Daily appears to be a degree in English. And while many of the stories about China that appear in the West focus on liberalization, Mitchell has come to realize that reporting freedom remains more of an ideal than a reality.

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