Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sunday musings on journalism

The January 14 elections revealed both sides of the political spectrum in their true form, and what I saw wasn’t pretty

With the febrility of the Jan. 14 elections now behind us, I have arrived at a point where I feel confident I can take stock of what that period of heightened sensitivities, where months of frantic effort all converged on a single point, taught me about the profession of journalism. Given the stakes, it should not be surprising that the period would bring out the best, and at times the worst, in those directly involved or working from the peripheries. Exhausting though it may have been to be on the front line, those frenetic weeks were a true eye opener, giving me heretofore inaccessible insights into the personalities of “allies” and “opponents” alike.

If you will indulge me, let me start with an incident that, while occurring more than five months prior to the elections, was nevertheless directly related to them. That incident, as some will recall, was the reaction by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to an opinion piece I published in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 30, in which I argued, based on years of observation and interaction with the armed forces, that Taiwan’s national security apparatus had been penetrated by Chinese intelligence, a development that, though nothing new, could threaten future US arms sales to Taiwan.

The initial reaction came from the Ministry of National Defense, with an audibly ill-at-ease spokesman calling me on the day the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the sister newspaper of the Taipei Times, where I work as a reporter and deputy news chief) had published a front-page lead article based on the article I had written in the WSJ (in the process, the reporter omitted to mention the crucial fact that my article was an op-ed, as opposed to hard news). For the sake of my friendship with the ministry spokesman, who evidently was acting on orders, I will not provide the details of our conversation that morning. Suffice it to say that, because of what I had written, I had been “de-invited,” as it were, from an annual MND lunch with reporters two days from then. Reconciled to the fact that my arguments were unlikely to be warmly received by the armed forces, I didn’t make much of this, though I did make it a point to inform a fellow reporter and close friend of what had happened, if only to let him know that he should not look for me at the lunch.

About half an hour later, as I was having coffee and reading Martin van Creveld’s The Age of Airpower, the phone rang again. My reporter friend, ostensibly annoyed by the de-invitation, had called a very senior official at MND and told him what had happened. The latter’s reaction, he said, was to describe the whole thing as “unacceptable” and a “freedom of the press issue.”

“Expect to get a phone call soon,” said my friend, who has covered military affairs in Taiwan for well over a decade.

And get called back I did, with the same spokesman now informing me that I was welcome to attend the lunch, but that I should keep a low profile and promise not to discuss my article with other reporters there. Having made my vow of silence, I then headed out for lunch, receiving, along the way, a text message from the main MND spokesman, who “cordially” invited me to the lunch. So the matter is settled, I thought to myself as I sat at a table at a local Hong Kong restaurant. My stir-fried noodles and iced coffee arrived, and I went back to my reading, casting the occasional glance at the two flat-screen TVs mounted on separate walls, both of which were presenting news programs from different channels. At some point, about halfway into my meal, something playing on the television to my left caught my attention: A panel of individuals on a talk show was visibly animated about something, which was not all that unusual for Taiwan. One man, clearly angered, was engaging in a silent diatribe, as the volume had been turned off. His body language, arms flailing above his head for emphasis, left no doubt as to his state of excitement. Though I had no idea what the subject of the discussion was, something deep inside prepared me for what would come next: Leaving the panelists for a moment, the camera zoomed in on a newspaper article. It was in English. It was from the WSJ. And then I saw my byline underneath the headline, “Taiwan is Losing the Spying Game.” I knew, then, that I had struck a very sensitive chord.

In the weeks prior to the publication of my article in the WSJ I had written a handful of front-page “hard news” articles and one editorial on the espionage situation for the Taipei Times, pretty much making the same points I was making in the WSJ. In them, I touched on high-profile spy scandals, such as the case of General Lo Hsien-che (羅賢哲), who is now serving a life sentence for conducting espionage on behalf of China. I’d also written extensively, again in the Times, about Ko-suen “Bill” Moo (慕可舜), a former international sales consultant for Lockheed Martin Corp in Taiwan who, after moving to the US to become a businessman, had been arrested by federal agents for attempting to sell air-to-air missile technology and a F-16 engine to China, among other items. After serving his sentence, Moo had been sent back to Taiwan, where he’d disappeared. To me, and to several defense experts I’d spoken to, the fact that immigration officials at the airport, who’d been alerted by the US of Moo’s imminent return, had lost track of him, or that foreign affairs and defense officials didn’t seem to know who he was or were unaware that he had returned to Taiwan, was alarming. At the very least, this sent the wrong signals to Washington, just as Taipei was awaiting a decision on US arms sales to Taiwan. But MND seemed unworried, and spokespersons approached for comment did not give me anything.

Only after I’d walked into the office in Neihu around 3:30pm did I become aware of the extent of the reaction to my article. Then-KMT caucus whip Chao Li-yun (趙麗雲), flanked by other legislators and someone from MND, had held a press conference in which she threatened to have my immigration status investigated, and to have me expelled and rendered persona non grata if I failed to provide my sources and apologize for “trying to humiliate” the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration at such a crucial time. Never mind that I had made it clear in my article that Chinese intelligence penetration of Taiwan was a longstanding problem and not one concerning the Ma administration alone, or that I would have written the exact same article had Ma’s opponents been in power. I did argue, though, that Ma should “clean house” lest inaction create undue apprehensions in Washington over possible technology transfers or intelligence leaks. I focused on Ma because, well, he was president at the time of writing, and an announcement on the US arms sales package was imminent. For Chao and others within the KMT, my article was nothing more than a gratuitous attack on Ma. Not only that, but the fact that I worked for the Taipei Times, a publication that is often perceived as supporting the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was proof that I had ulterior motives, that what I had written was perhaps being dictated by my superiors at the Taipei Times or the Liberty Times. Based on this perception of the world, reporters don’t have free will and are nothing more than pawns in the games politicians pay, something that I would encounter again a few months later, and from unexpected quarters at that. Not only had I not been instructed by anyone to write what I’d written, I hadn’t even informed the newspaper I work for that I’d published in the WSJ. I had, however, tried for weeks to alert the Liberty Times to the significance of the Bill Moo case, as my articles in the Taipei Times had had exactly zero impact and elicited no reaction from the authorities. Only after my WSJ article appeared did the Liberty Times, followed by other Chinese-language media in Taiwan, start paying attention, by which time the threats against my person, as opposed to Bill Moo and Chinese espionage, had become the news.

That night, as I tried to do my job in my cubicle, surrounded by books and piles of newspapers and MND paraphernalia, the phone started ringing, and my inbox filled up with requests for interview on TV and radio. Deciding I had better keep a low profile so as to avoid making matters worse for myself, I turned down all but one interview request, hoping silence would allow things to blow over. (By sheer, though by no means less disturbing, coincidence, that very same night the lights in my living room decided to give out. One can only imagine what went through my head when, flicking the light switch, the entire living room remained pitch black.)

That decision appears to have borne fruit, as a few days later the media soon shifted its focus to the next crisis — the announcement that James Soong (宋楚瑜) of the People First Party would likely enter the presidential race. I did attend the MND lunch, and though I was swarmed by journalists and photographers as I walked into the main hall, lunch went well, and a good number of reporters, as well as MND brass, came over to congratulate me for a job well done. Deputy Minister of National Defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖) also made a point to engage in chit chat with me and exchanged business cards as photographers clicked away, which in my view sent a signal that the ministry could deal with criticism and that I would not be ostracized. To this day, I am convinced that deputy minister Yang was the principal actor behind my “rehabilitation” with MND, and that his intervention was key to making the KMT realize that acting on its threat to expel me would hurt their image with the US and the international community (the last time a foreign journalist was expelled from Taiwan was in 1981, under Martial Law, when, by ironical coincidence, the very James Song who shifted attention from my case was director-general of the Government Information Office).

It should nevertheless be noted that since that incident, not once have I been invited to the occasional MND trips to military bases or exercises (though I did get invited to a lunch earlier this month), nor was I invited to attend the annual dinner for reporters at the Presidential Office. Meanwhile, MND, which following the WSJ crisis had told me I should consult them more in future (as if I hadn’t when I sought comment on the Bill Moo case), remains as uncooperative as ever whenever I seek information from them, usually limiting itself to “no comment” or “we cannot confirm nor deny” platitudes. On a couple of occasions, references to my WSJ article have been made.

But what else could we expect from the KMT and the Ma administration, detractors will say. After all, the party has an authoritarian heritage and the China-friendly Ma will do everything in his power to please his masters in Beijing and ultimately engineer the delivery of Taiwan into China’s embrace, critics will argue, adding, without any attempt at nuance, that the KMT is on a mission to “destroy” democracy in Taiwan.

Sadly, as I would discover during and after the elections, the other side of the political spectrum was hardly any better. Though the means were far less coarse than those the KMT had resorted to, the objective — censorship, control of the narrative — remained the same.

I had my first taste of this less than a month about the WSJ crisis, following the publication of an op-ed titled “More expatriate humility, please” in the Taipei Times. In it, I had made the apparent mistake of arguing that non-Taiwanese, even those who live in Taiwan, should perhaps show a little more understanding toward Taiwanese over their voting decisions and sense of identity. Rather, as some misinterpreted my message, than argue that foreigners should “shut up” and not comment on Taiwanese politics, what I proposed was an acknowledgement that Taiwanese alone, as a result of the extraordinary situation they face as citizens of an officially non-state claimed by a giant with some cultural and linguistic similarities and which threatens force while promising great riches, could decide their destiny, and that how they weighed the pros and cons of their decisions might differ from that of individuals who were not born here.

The attacks were almost immediate, and the Taipei Times published some of the letters disparaging me. I was using the Times as a pulpit from which to beat down others, one would-be academic averred, while others surmised that I’d been brainwashed or “turned” by the KMT following the WSJ crisis. Once again, people were assuming that I had no free will, that I was trying to make amends with the KMT by publishing an apology of some sort. In reality, that article was nothing more than part of the debate any critical individual should be having on a constant basis. Not only that, but in my view, it is the responsibility of a journalist to revisit his or her paradigms and to admit past failures, while striving for a more flexible and understanding approach to reality. At no point did it cross my mind that writing such an article would earn be points with the KMT or “make up” for what I’d published in the WSJ (not to mention the fact that I strongly doubt senior KMT officials, or ordinary Taiwanese, for that matter, pay much attention to the opinion pieces in the Taipei Times).

This nonetheless resulted in my being ostracized in some circles, including by some supposed “allies” both in Taipei and back in Washington. But this was nothing compared with what would happen next, this time during the elections.

Amid fears that Ma and the KMT could resort to “dirty tricks” in the lead-up to, during and after the elections, a group of individuals created the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan (ICFET). While I’d be the first to argue that the KMT, sometimes with help from Washington and Beijing, did rely on questionable practices to gain an advantage over its opponent, it soon became apparent to me that there was a serious problem with the ICFET. Looking around as I attended a number of its press conferences, I realized that the very composition of its members put its impartiality into doubt. Not only did the top committee members include a former DPP presidential candidate, it also included a very vocal former DPP legislator as well as a number of academics and retired officials who were so openly “green” — the color associated with the DPP — as to make the Amazon look yellowish by comparison. Although I have no doubt that the majority of the international observers, including personal friends, truly intended to conduct an impartial evaluation of the elections, the presence of a number of individuals on the committee or in a supporting role tainted the whole affair from the onset. I used an unsigned editorial, again in the Taipei Times, to argue that this was undermining the credibility of the ICFET, and that should the body unearth problematic behavior during the election, the very presence of those individuals would make it very difficult for the body to be taken seriously. (Another troubling incident, which was recounted to me by more than one credible source who was present when this happened, occurred while ICFET observers were visiting a local KMT campaign office. At one point, some of the observers practically put a poor local KMT official on trial over the party’s stolen assets. The problem here is not whether the KMT has illegal assets — we all known it does — but rather that someone felt the need to raise this unrelated issue at such an inopportune time, which again raised all kinds of questions over the biases and lack of neutrality of supposedly neutral observers.)

About 30 minutes after my editorial appeared, I received an e-mail from one member of the committee, a US-based lobbyist who was in Taiwan at the time as an observer (also a good friend for whom I have great respect), expressing great disappointment with what I had written, adding that my editorial was damaging to the cause and would make their efforts more difficult.

What struck me then was the fact that people seem to expect that the role of journalists is to take sides, when in fact on should, within reason, always strive for impartiality. In my response to that individual, I said that my role was not to facilitate someone’s job; in fact, in speaking truth to power, journalists should always try to make everybody’s life more difficult, to keep them honest. Only propagandists choose sides and use words and images to help a certain faction, even when doing so defies reality or conveniently ignores unseemly blemishes.

Needless to say, I was now ostracized by members of the other side — not the KMT, but the DPP — for writing things that displeased them, and later for arguing against the risible claims that Ma’s re-election spelled the death of democracy, or that Taiwanese voters were not “intelligent” or “mature” enough to vote “the proper way” (a case usually made by people who haven’t lived in Taiwan for several years). Since then, not a single article I’ve written has appeared on a Web site run by the said lobby organization, while several — some written by members of the ICFET — were provided links to. A coincidence? Front-page lead articles about the Taiwanese Air Force being on the brink of suing the French government for more than 1 billion euros over the sale of Mirage 2000 aircraft in the early 90s, or threatening maneuvers by the Chinese Navy in Taiwan’s rear, again on the front page, are hard to miss. All the while, ample room was made for links to articles making wild claims about Ma’s intentions, some by authors who cannot refer to the president without underhanded references to “phony ponies” and “Ma Ying-joke.”

How ironic that purported defenders of Taiwan, its democracy and freedoms, would replicate the very thing they oftentimes condemn the Chinese Communist Party for doing — manufacturing a pliant, subservient media that acts as propagandist, while punishing anyone who dares publish something that doesn’t make them look good. So I’ve done it, and managed in the past six months to alienate both sides of the political spectrum. In my book, and while this makes my life more difficult, this is a sign that I have done my job, or at least that I’ve stuck to the principles that I believe are at the very core of the profession. And I would rather get a new job than deviate from that guiding light.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Cole,

As a Taiwanese student abroad who is often frustrated to no end at the lack of quality journalism from home (especially when we so desperately need it, egads!), I cannot thank you enough for the service you provide. I apologize on behalf of my people for their foolish and ungracious behaviour. We need people like you! Please stay around and at least wait for the younger generation to finish their studies and return to make things better!

A loyal reader

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Thank you very much for the kind note. One precision is in order, however: the "foolish" and "ungrateful" behavior does not apply only to "your people" — that is, Taiwanese — but to certain members of the constellation of individuals who focus on Taiwan, many of whom are Westerners. My piece applies to everybody involved, and in no way was singling out Taiwanese, for whom I continue to have the greatest respect.

Anonymous said...

A lengthy but nevertheless insightful comment. I think, and do hope what you have gone through is just a growing process in Taiwan. It is after all a young democracy. When I left Taiwan for the States in 1979, there was no DPP or formally organized opposition movements. I appreciate the improvements over the years and hope it can be faster and quicker. The green blue divide appears deep and unbridgeable, but I think it will improve over the years. Wish I can say the same about the red blue divide in the States.

I have always enjoyed your insightful writings about Mideast and defense issues. Thanks.


Robert Scott Kelly said...

Excellent writeup, Michael, but honestly, I don't see the equivalence. On the one hand you have government agencies trying to both censor you and actually destroy your livelihood by potentially revoking your work visa. On the other you have a private organization that doesn't like what you are saying and is using its legal rights to stop you publishing on venues they control.

In the first case we have clear official abuse, chilling in its possible effects. In the second, mere disappointing hypocrisy from a private group. These are not the same in seriousness.

Michael Fagan said...

Lord Acton's famous remark is sufficient explanation for your ostracization; it's the warp of electoral politics.

As you know Michael, your work on defence is necessary and much appreciated.

"...but honestly, I don't see the equivalence."

Had the DPP been in power at the time of his WSJ piece, would they have used similar "your immigration status is belong to us" tactics? I certainly wouldn't put it past them - I have at least one of your little greenies from the Taipei Times constantly trying to abuse me at my blog (not arguing or debating - just swearing and muck throwing).

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Thanks to all for the kind remarks.

Robert: I did not mean to imply that the two instances were comparable in terms of their severity, and that is why I wrote: “Though the means were far less coarse than those the KMT had resorted to.”

However, I do believe that the objective — censorship, control of the narrative — remains the same. The actors, you are right, are different, but I think the dynamic remains the same, that of a larger group pressuring the individual to conform via recourse to a number of carrots and sticks (the CCP does this to great effect with academics and reporters, preventing access, visits and tenure to those who refuse to abide by its regulations on what one can and cannot discuss publicly).

And should we not expect more from those who side with the angels, as it were? At a minimum, I think people, regardless of their political stance, should welcome journalists who strive for integrity. After all, isn’t that quality of paramount importance in ensuring the credibility of a reporter, or that of a news outlet?

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael,

It's not surprising to read about your treatment from KMT but to read about the reaction from the DPP side was disappointing.

I hope you keep writing with journalistic integrity and courage. I read your blog and Taipei Times everyday and enjoy your writing immensely.

Anonymous Islander

Michael Turton said...

Thanks man. You work is always insightful and inspiring. It always teaches me something. Please don't get discouraged, we need your voice.

Michael Turton
The View from Taiwan

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

Thanks to all for the overly generous words and expressions of concern.

I fear I may have given the wrong impression here: I am not discouraged and have exactly zero intention to stop writing about the fascinating place that is Taiwan, and the equally fascinating region of which it is part. I was, however, retelling an intense period in my life, and sharing with readers some of the frustrations that every now and then will arise in my line of work.

All good wishes,