Monday, April 21, 2008

New stock phrase

On several occasions in recent months, this site and others — Michael Turton’s The View From Taiwan spearheading the effort — have pointed out the biased use of language by wire agencies and news organizations to describe Taiwan or the situation in the Taiwan Strait. In most instances, it would be fair to say that the misrepresentations were unintentional and stemmed from the fact that the copy writers were ill informed. Given the reflex, as in any big organization that deals with information, to recycle material (a phenomenon only made worse with the advent of the copy-and-paste function), information gets congealed in time and the path of least resistance means that errors will not get corrected. What may also explain the poor track record of reporting on Taiwan is the fact that many of the reporters are not on the ground — or their work is edited by people in far-away offices who do not have a clue what they are doing.

Let us hope, therefore, that Associated Press reporting by Taiwan’s own Debby Wu over the weekend was the result of an editor in the main office, because the new stock phrase that was used in the piece bespeaks an ignorance of Taiwan’s history that defies the imagination.

In a piece titled “US may post Marines at office in Taiwan,” Wu uses terms such as “island” and “self-ruled island” that we have all become accustomed to, as well as the “Taiwan and China split amid a civil war in 1949,” which though wrong has been so overused as to have become a fact on the ground. But then follows a phraseology that, to my knowledge, had not been used to date. China “threatens to attack Taiwan if it seeks to make the break permanent” (my italics).

How can a break be made permanent if it doesn’t exist in the first place? Furthermore, by sloppily paraphrasing Beijing’s propaganda — or failing to directly quote what Chinese officials have said — AP gives the impression that the comment is its own, as if this were a historical fact rather than flagrant distortion of reality. Sadly, as always, this stock phrase will be used and reused, adopted and slightly permutated by other agencies until it, too, becomes customary, regardless of the fact this it contains not one particle of truth.

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