Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Of orgies, activism, and poor journalism (中文 link at bottom)

Merely sensationalistic or politically motivated, a recent UDN article about social movements goes a long way in trying to discredit activists who have become a source of headaches for the Ma administration

I’ve said it before, and I’m going to say it again: Traditional media in Taiwan are doing a great disservice to the nation with sloppy journalism, sensationalism, lack of prioritization, and oftentimes little more than pure fabrication. We often read about the threat of China’s influence in Taiwanese media, which is indeed a worrying matter. But there is plenty of awful stuff going on here without China having to extend its nefarious tentacles.

Take, for example, a recent piece about social movements in the Chinese-language United Daily News, which shows just how far (or low) media here will go. The article, titled 燃燒吧!熱情社運圈不能說的秘密」 (“Burning desire — the secret no one wants you to know about social movements”), claims that the civic mobilizations that we have experienced in the past 18 months are little more than a matchmaking service, where young women become sexually involved with charismatic male leaders. In fact, the author, herself a young woman, claims that on some occasions, when the sun goes down, gatherings tend to descend into orgies. She then writes that “good, clean girls who love themselves” have warned each other to stay away from the protests. In other words, young women who participate in the protests are without free will, mere (pardon the term) “sluts” who cannot control their urges, who are defenseless against the extraordinary attraction of male leaders who (presumably) are protesting for the sole purpose of scoring with dozens of girls. The sexist undertones are rather hard to miss.

This is not a Christian fundamentalist describing what will happen if Taiwan passes same-sex marriage regulations, but a supposedly credible, trustworthy journalist working for one of the nation’s top newspapers.

It goes without saying that the reporter’s entire article fails to mention a single source. All we’re given are rumors, hearsay (“one student said...”), speculation, and a good dose of editorializing. For all we know, the whole thing could be the product of her imagination. But that apparently was good enough for the editors at UDN, a pan-blue publication that generally supports President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) KMT.

I have been following, documenting, photographing, and writing about those social movements for the past 18 months, and I can tell you that it is not one big happy love boat. The young activists have faced the elements, sacrificed weekends (and sometimes their grades) fighting for the future of their country, and faced everything from court summons to police shields. Are there “groupies”? Do romances develop occasionally? Of course they do. But it happens in the workplace, at school, in government, and even among journalists. Moreover, if there were orgies, I, along with the many academics and lawyers who often accompany then, must have missed them, busy as we were focusing on young Taiwanese who were singing songs, shouting slogans, distributing pamphlets, or being pummeled by riot police. 

The image created by the UDN article simply does not reflect the culture and seriousness of the student movement.

Of course this could all be the result of inexperience, of a young journalist’s eagerness to produce a scoop. If that were the case, then it would have been the responsibility of her older and more experienced editors to force her to further develop her article, or, more sensibly, to kill it altogether. Obviously they didn’t, which leads us to speculate as to whether the whole article was politically motivated to discredit a civic movement that has been haunting the Ma government, or that it was too juicy to let pass, and to hell with the facts.

After the article was published, a young female protester contacted the author to express her disagreement with her claims, whereupon the UDN reporter shared the private message — not exactly professional on her part, I might add! — with her friends, who then ganged up on the activist.

Facing a backlash by activists who accused her of smearing the movement, the reporter then claimed that her editors had changed her article several times (the title was itself changed three times, she says, even though journalists rarely have any input on headlines), perhaps insinuating that in the process her piece may have become, uh, distorted. In this case, any self-respecting journalist would have requested that her byline be removed from the article, though I would perhaps add that we should understand the dynamics at play here, with a young female journalist having to deal with older editors. She later wrote, somewhat self-deprecatingly, that her article should be treated as no different than articles about the baby panda, the ill-fated yellow duck, or the boy from Brazil, as if those were of equal importance. She also denies that the UDN is cooperating with the KMT in smearing the activists.

Whatever the reason, the journalist has since earned herself a very bad reputation with the social movement, and her credibility will suffer as a result — as will that of the UDN, which once again showed us that traditional media in Taiwan are, more often than not, part of the problem. (Photo by the author)

New! A Chinese-language version of this article is available here at The News Lens.

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