Monday, May 04, 2009

‘Taipei Times’ v. the ‘People’s Daily’

As a frequent contributor to and editor at the Taipei Times newspaper, I often search the Internet to see which Web site carries our stories, or what is being said about them in chat rooms and blogs. Especially when it comes to my articles, I use this as a means to see whether my arguments are getting traction with readers as well as to remain critical about the assumptions that underlie my writing.

As expected, comments cover the full spectrum of reactions, from character assassination (“numbskull,” “vermin” and so on) to flattery (“eloquent,” “knowledgeable), with the core of responses lying somewhere in between.

One position that, above all, strikes me as odd is the perception, not so much in Taiwan but abroad, that somehow the Taipei Times is a “mouthpiece” of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with one commentator going so far as to claim that the Taipei Times is Taiwan’s equivalent of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-controlled People’s Daily newspaper.

This comparison is not only wrong (there is no institutional connection between the DPP and the Taipei Times or its parent company, the Liberty Times Group), but it also fails to take into account the vastly different environments in which the two newspapers operate. While it is true that, like the DPP, the Taipei Times supports independence for Taiwan, it certainly has not been uncritical of the DPP administration when it was in power, or of its policies since it became an opposition party last year. In fact, in both its coverage and editorial page, the Times was often quite critical of DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh’s (謝長廷) campaign strategy, and has never boycotted or censored comments made by the President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. In other words, despite its political inclinations, it does not represent a political party and its management has not pressured reporters and columnists into avoiding certain subjects or warned them against criticizing the pan-green camp.

Obviously, this much cannot be said about the People’s Daily, which by virtue of its being controlled by an authoritarian regime, cannot depart from the party line and will censor anything that smacks of criticism of the Chinese leadership.

The key here is the nature of the political systems in which the papers operate. If, as some critics have averred, the Taipei Times were but a mouthpiece for the DPP, its survival in a free-market and highly competitive democracy would be very much in doubt, as its editorial line would justly be construed as overly biased and therefore unreliable. To put it in evolutionary terms, it would be selected out by market mechanisms, with readers refusing to consume it. In a democratic system such as Taiwan, as well as in the countries where people read the Taipei Times (certainly not China, where its Web site is blocked by the authorities), readers can make informed decisions as to where they get their news from, and while those decisions are undeniably influenced by one’s political views, if a source is deemed unreliable, or incapable of providing a reasoned counterweight to political views at the other end of the spectrum (say, pan-green versus pan-blue media, or, in newspaper terms, Taipei Times versus the China Post), it will be dropped. That is why, despite the obvious polarization of Taiwan’s media environment, pan-blue (i.e., pro-KMT) channels such as TVBS, or newspapers like the China Times, will at times be critical of the Ma administration, and why the Taipei Times, the Liberty Times and Taiwan News will not refrain from criticizing the DPP when criticism is warranted.

Unlike China, where such topics as the health of senior CCP cadres or disease outbreaks are “state secrets,” Taiwan does not have “no-go areas” in terms of news coverage — if one thing, it is maddeningly intrusive, to an extent that would probably result in lawsuits in many countries. This media openness allows for media to remain critical and, as a whole, to provide enough competing views so that citizens can make their own informed decisions (not everybody does that, of course, and there will always be those who choose media that tend to confirm their views). The same rules apply to the UK, the US, Canada and France, to name a few, where no newspaper that strictly adheres to a party line — as does the People’s Daily — or completely departs from reality, could survive, given the market mechanisms. In democracies, toeing the line to the extent that a news outlet becomes a mouthpiece for a political party would be corporate suicide, something that does not apply to the People’s Daily, which, funded as it is by the CCP, does not depend on readership or subscriptions for its survival.

Does the Taipei Times have an editorial line that at times overlaps with the policies of the DPP? Absolutely, as does the New York Times vis-à-vis the White House, or the Guardian vis-à-vis 10 Downing Street. But to claim that it is an organ of the DPP is an invidious accusation that completely fails to understand the nature — and impact — of authoritarianism, versus that of democracy, on information.


Anonymous said...

Funny! should ask your boss: Who is the boss?

Gilman Grundy said...

I don't doubt that plenty of people at the paper genuinely believe what they write. That said, the Typo Times is ridiculously one sided in its editorial positions, and it's not just one commenter who says so. I don't understand why you guys don't get some people from the other side of the political aisle in to do a few editorials. This doesn't mean you have to compromise on your ideals, just recognise that the other side has a position of their own.

The worst episode had to be the recent interview with Ma. There the TT's ace reporters were with the President of Taiwan, and pretty much the only questions they asked him were about the cross-strait issue, and they were fairly abstract questions at that - what a waste of an opportunity!

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...


Thanks for the comment. While I fully agree that the editorial line of the TT is largely “pan-green,” I think it’s a bit unfair to say that the paper “never” publishes pieces from the “other side.” Just recently, the TT published a series of letters from the Minister of Justice, as well as letters by TECRO in Washington and the head of Central News Agency — all of whom were critical of positions taken in opinion pieces published in the paper and which generated, in my view, quite useful debate. Should there be more of this? Absolutely.

I also believe that writers themselves can be accused of “bias” in their selection of outlets; in other words, the absence of pan-blue opinion pieces in the TT could also the result of writers “on the other side of the political spectrum” choosing other publications (e.g., the China Post) to submit their material, and vice versa. There is a tendency among writers, not only in Taiwan but everywhere else, to submit material where it is “safe” to do so, to publishers who reflect or support their views, which creates a feedback loop whereby writer reinforces publisher’s position and publisher reinforces the writer’s — in essence, what is known as groupthink, which I also experienced first-hand when I worked in government.

Again, thanks for the comments. Quite useful.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Got me thinking … To expand on what I argue above, I think an analogy might be useful here. If I were to write an op-ed about, say, the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israeli forces (a conflict that equally arouses passion), in which I argue that what the Israelis are doing there is illegal and support a resolution to the conflict based on international law, &c, I would likely consciously choose to submit it to magazines or newspapers whose editorial line reflects or supports those arguments. In other words, I would submit it to The Nation or the Guardian rather than to, say, The New Republic or the Daily Mail. The “selecting out,” of which newspaper editors are often accused of, could in fact happen even before they are handed a story, and be committed by the writer himself. I know I do this, and this is why I’ve never submitted op-eds to conservative, right-wing newspapers and have instead focused my efforts on CounterPunch and The Nation … and yes, the Taipei Times. To sum up, can a newspaper be blamed for not publishing opposing views if material supporting that line is not sent its way in the first place?

Gilman Grundy said...

@MikeinTaipei - Fair enough, and I had missed the balancing opinion pieces. Your mentioning of the Israeli/Palestinian issue reminds me that the central political issue facing Taiwan has little in the way of neutral ground.

Here's where I have to admit that I haven't read the TT much since the Ma interview. It was just such a turn-off seeing an opportunity to speak to the guy who is supposed to be in charge of Taiwan simply thrown away through asking questions which were guaranteed to receive boiler-plate answers. Granted, I don't know whether some questions were supposed to be out of bounds, but surely they could have asked him some questions about his past, about how he saw the role of president, about minorities etc. I felt it reflected a distinct degree of monomania, of seeing everything through the cross-strait lens.