The Message

Well Red

"Ultimately, all our content is approved by the government," he states. "Our news budget list is compiled and presented at a 4 p.m. staff meeting by editors, but then a copy of it is sent to someone in the Shenzhen city government who presumably gives it the green light or makes 'suggestions' for revisions/changes. Neither Jeff nor I are privy to the process that goes on beyond the 4 p.m. meeting, and he's only learned of the broad details after working here for 18 months. I have not seen it yet, but Jeff has seen some nights when a story was pulled or a toned-down, more 'official' version was subbed in at the last minute following a message from a government official outside our office."

If this sort of oversight breeds paranoia, Mitchell hasn't detected it. He believes staffers are more worried about making mistakes when it comes to facts, not ideology. After all, everyone from reporters to editors (with the exception of him and Jeff) is fined for making old-fashioned errors. "They work extremely hard and seem to be a very dedicated bunch," he writes.

Nonetheless, the Daily workers don't put a premium on objectivity, at least when it comes to the state. In an October 20 commentary dubbed "Working for the Clamp Down" (a nod to a song by the Clash), Mitchell calls the paper "a weird hybrid between East and West that wobbles along a fine line, veering mostly on the side of journalism as cheerleading/propaganda." He illustrates this theory by recapping a news meeting at which attendees carry "bags of nuts and sweet herbal tea," not cups of java. One editor criticizes an article labeled "Positive Reaction to China's Space Launch" because "the first person who speaks in the story is an average citizen of Hong Kong. Only later do we read that distinguished foreign leaders praised our space launch. This is not right that an average citizen should be quoted before leaders." No wonder photo cutlines at the Daily typically eschew standard left-to-right identification, choosing instead to cite pictured individuals in order of prominence.

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.

News judgment seems just as quirky when viewed from a Western perspective. Mitchell's November 19 effort reveals that the confession of a Chinese serial killer with 65 cadavers to his credit was buried inside the Daily as "the front page trumpeted something like 'World Lures Chinese Tourists.'" The arrest of a "Chinese version of John Wayne Gacy" who'd entombed 25 boys on his property didn't make the cover, either, and the tale of a couple who robbed and killed a dozen women was kept off page one by a report whose stirring headline read "Local Trade Fair Vows Improvements." A Google search Mitchell conducted turned up a story about the Chinese couple in the Las Vegas Sun that was more detailed than the Daily's account -- but the Sun had nothing about the trade fair. "Let it be known that we take no prisoners when it comes to trade-fair coverage!" he crows.

SARS reporting is another matter, Mitchell contends. "Jeff was here during the SARS epidemic and said that while everyone on the streets in Shenzhen knew a terrible new disease was running rampant, the Daily waited about two weeks until it got the go-ahead to run anything about it. Until then, it was running stories such as one reporting the sudden upsurge in the demand for and price of vinegar. What the story omitted was why there was a vinegar shortage. It was because folk tales/rumors had it that it would cure SARS."

Although Mitchell doubts his presence will "make any great inroads or difference in the state of Chinese journalism," he points out that the Daily employs AP style, the standard of the American media, and senior editors frequently solicit his opinions. "Whether it is lip service or a genuine interest in adopting a more Western style of journalism, or a mixture of both, is a mystery to me," he adds.

Of course, the enigmas of China are what delight Mitchell most. Asked what he's learned from his relocation to China, he responds, "How to use a couple of bus lines, how to say my address in Chinese and not to always believe a beautiful woman when she says she'll call you...and I've also learned that in some ways, there isn't much difference between working for Scripps Howard and a Communist Chinese newspaper."

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