The Message

Well Red

Justin Mitchell's life in newspapering has taken more twists than Chubby Checker. His curriculum vitae includes a lengthy run as pop-music critic for the Rocky Mountain News and a briefer one spent impersonating fictional columnist Ed Anger, the bizarro conscience of the extraterrestrial-friendly Weekly World News. Yet his current gig as a copy editor at the Shenzhen Daily, which advertises itself as "South China's only English language newspaper," may be his oddest to date -- and perhaps the most satisfying. Working at the Daily and living as a Colorado Yankee in Chinese president Hu Jintao's court for the past several months has clearly revitalized Mitchell, and he pours all of his excitement into a Web log accessible at http://zenshenzhen.blogspot.com that features what is arguably the finest writing of his career.

"I enjoy waking up and not having the slightest idea what the day or night will bring in terms of a new adventure or encounter or learning curve," he notes by e-mail. "It's sometimes frustrating, but rarely ever boring. It's a feeling I haven't had in many years, maybe since I was a young child. I love it."

Asia has long held an allure for Mitchell. As a boy, he spent a year in Bangkok in the company of his father, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado who'd won a Fulbright Scholarship. The excursion "impressed me deeply," Mitchell stresses. Equally memorable were a childhood visit to Japan and an Army stint in Korea, where he met and married the mother of his son, Julian. He's always dreamed of returning to the region, and he got his chance this past summer when he was hired to teach at a three-week English-language camp sponsored by the Daily. As a bonus, Julian, eighteen, was also engaged to teach there; in the wake of the SARS scare that greatly affected China, the camp had difficulty finding veteran instructors. "He and I are quite close, and I saw this as a sort of last hurrah for both of us before he left home," Mitchell acknowledges.

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.

At first, Julian was a bit lukewarm about the prospect. "After much discussion, and being told that I could stay for three weeks instead of five, I signed on," he e-mails from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, which he began attending shortly after his Shenzhen escapade concluded. "The main draw was a free trip to China. I mean, how many eighteen-year-olds get to go to China?"

The decision was a good one -- Julian calls the excursion "a once-in-a-lifetime experience" -- but the chores he had to perform weren't easy. He had a difficult time getting through to his students, ages eleven to thirteen, whether the subject was English or English-language pop. "We had American Music Night, where I played them everything from Michael Jackson to Nirvana to Serious Bob [Bob Dylan]," Julian discloses. "They didn't seem into any of it. They really hated Serious Bob."

As for the senior Mitchell, he was so intrigued by China that he began looking for ways to stick around. When he heard that the Daily had an opening for a copy editor, he applied and was accepted, signing a one-year contract. "I wasn't really shocked when Dad told me he was moving there," maintains Julian, who's studying journalism at Drake. "I knew he had a good time and really liked it. Better than I do, at least. I like it here just fine."

Justin, though, found the journalism options across the Pacific to be more inviting than those available to him in the land of his birth -- an unfortunate change from his days as a Rocky critic. That position had been ideal for him, since he was, and remains, a music aficionado. (He favors blog titles that reference acts such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and in one section, he writes affectionately about a Shenzhen bar he began to frequent after hearing a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tyson wafting through its outdoor speakers.) However, things went sour a few years into the '90s, when he was accused of what then-editor Jay Ambrose reportedly characterized as multiple instances of plagiarism -- the same type of charge that recently led to the resignation of Denver Post music critic G. Brown ("Looking Glass," November 20).

Rather than quit, Mitchell, supported by the Denver Newspaper Guild, fought the plagiarism complaint. He was eventually cleared, and the Rocky was contractually obligated to rehire him. Ambrose's enthusiasm for doing so is indicated by his subsequent move to bring Mitchell aboard as a copy editor. "I could have challenged that, but I was too burned out by the struggle, as was the guild, to fight anymore at the time," Mitchell asserts. A couple of years later, in 1997, Mitchell was canned by the Rocky for breaking workplace rules against using the paper's phones and electronic systems in non-work-related ways -- a crime that, if strictly enforced, would result in the wholesale dismissal of every reporter on the face of the earth. Even so, Mitchell admits that the quality of his copy editing at the Rocky wasn't as high toward the end of his run as it is now at the Daily.

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."

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.

"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.

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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