China Needs Journalists It Can Trust

As the spotlight shines again this week on New York Times reporter Judith Miller who was jailed for contempt for 85 days last year when she failed to reveal exactly what Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney’s then chief of staff, had to say about the Valerie Plame CIA story, there are many people here in America who feel that Ms. Miller is getting a raw deal. She has now agreed to testify, indeed she is doing so, against Mr. Libby and to tell the court what she had so far refused to say.

We can debate her woes and those of other U.S. based reporters with the results of such debates no doubt being quite varied although probably falling along fairly predictable liberal and conservative lines. However, while we take sides concerning Ms. Miller, while we question whether prosecutors and judges should be able to invade the fourth estate’s turf at all in such matters — what, for instance, if her story was about a judge and what he had told her in "off the record" interviews? — what we need to remember is that the United States is far more protective of its journalists than is any other nation.

Try China for example.

Recently, Lan Chenzhang started his first month of work with the China Trade News, a fairly obscure print newspaper in Shanghai. His initial job was simply to accompany two other journalists while they visited a mining company to ask questions about the legality of the enterprise. Apparently, mining companies spring up literally over night in Shanxi Province, exploiting workers and ruining the environment with illegal coal mines which produce much soot while failing to meet even minimum standards of health and safety for the workers or the citizens who reside nearby to the digging sites.

Mr. Chenzhang sat in a car doing nothing at all while his two colleagues made their way inside the mining office attempting to talk to the mining company’s management. Moments later he was set upon and viciously attacked by a group of men armed with lead pipes and other crude weapons. He was beaten so badly that he died within a few hours from his injuries.

Perhaps in different times, the story would have been largely ignored. It is no secret that being a reporter in China means either to be corrupt, to simply follow the party line and to purposely avoid seeing what you are not supposed to see or comment upon, or to find yourself as an outcast banned from writing anything, or worse, like Lan Chenzhang, brutally beaten until you are dead.

As New York Times correspondent Howard W. French wrote recently:

"Attacks against journalists are not uncommon in China, even if deaths are (relatively) rare. But, in ways that few could have expected the killing on January 11 of this untested reporter for an obscure publication has become a watershed event, with reporters and editors around the country seeing in the murky contours of the case a cautionary tale for their booming but deeply troubled profession."

For whatever reasons, perhaps simply the particular brutal nature of this crime, China’s regular news media and internet blogs, etc. have risen up and made this incident a major national issue.

Indeed, China’s President, Hu Jintao, certainly saw it was time to say something as the story grew bigger throughout the Asian super-power. He demanded that justice be done, that the guilty be punished, etc. That this statement was self-serving is also obvious in that China’s government and Mr. Hu Jintao in particular have often called in recent times for China to strengthen its control over the news media, not to relax the censorship.

But even in China, one can no longer rule simply with an iron fist, even though they want to. The openness and speed of information are just too much to be controlled and swept into a box. President Hu Jintao is very caring about China’s image in the world and he does not want a simple story of press censorship and brutality to take on a life of its own. He knows that a small grass fire can quickly become a raging inferno spreading across all of China.

Because of this miserable incident, China’s government has seen the national press become unusually forthright, mixing criticism of the government’s repressive policies with a harsh look at their own reporting or lack of it in many areas of public policy. The truth in China is that the press is often for sale to the highest bidder, making our national spin-masters look like innocent children in comparison.

Indeed, there is a large segment of the press and individuals in China who question if Mr. Lan Chenzhang was innocent or if he was doing the far too often usual business of a young Asian reporter: extortion.  In essence: "I’ll write something favorable about you, or I won’t expose your illegal operation here, if you pay me off."

That slant has understandably infuriated his colleagues, and it is highly doubtful that this poor young man was doing anything other than following orders and waiting in the car as he was instructed, but it has also caused the press to start speaking out about the corruption that does exist within its own ranks.

"We have to admit that the public image of journalists is increasingly depressed, and the causes for this should give all of us reason to reflect," said Liu Wanyong, an investigative reporter with the China Youth Daily in Beijing.

China desperately needs a press it can trust and believe in. While the United States news writers and reporters may not be in total any paradigm of virtue themselves, they are still the model for the world. We have often found the press here strong enough to expose and then help to topple corruption from Watergate to Abscam to Enron, etc. while at the same time exposing and dealing with their own corruption, for instance at the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, where a few reporters falsified some stories and later were publicly vilified by their peers and then removed from their positions.

In a country such as China where their leaders are clever enough to say placating things when they sense the national mood requires it, it is more important than ever that voices of conscience, truth and reason in the press not be silenced or painted as simply all corrupt.