A number of people have reacted to my last post, in which I expressed concern that the furore over The Guardian's colossal journalistic mistake in reporting the fate of activist Lu Banglie will overshadow the core issue of Taishi village and the villagers' struggle for democracy there. ESWN insists that the Guardian's error is important. He writes:
The Taishi village affair did not begin on the day when Benjamin Joffe-Walt walked in. There was a small and dedicated group outside mainland China following the case. Trust me when I say that I know who my allies are and who the vultures looking for a dead body are. Google and Technorati remember who they are. Even if most of the world didn't care, we thought that it was important enough to track the developments and try to tell the story. All the time, we asked what, if anything, can we do for the villagers? ...
After giving some examples, he concludes:
Throughout all this, we all recognize the tristesse. Freedom of press does not exist in China today, so a full story of Taishi village will not be told in the Chinese media. It is up to the international media to reveal the truth of the matter through their privileged status and that may make a real difference. Yet, there was very little about Taishi village that appeared in the western media until the moment came when the myth of the power of the western media to speak the truth was ruined in the case of Benjamin Joffe-Walt and The Guardian. None of us want to see that happen. We want to return to that status quo and all that is required is a very simple mea culpa from The Guardian.
The Guardian has now added a correction to its original erroneous story which described the grotesque beating-to-a-lifeless pulp of activist Lu Banglie - who then appeared in one piece giving interviews the next day.
UPDATE: (Sunday PM EST) The Guardian now has a full editorial by readers' editor Ian Mayes describing the 25-year old journalist's state of post-traumatic stress and its result: "Joffe-Walt had lost touch with reality."
But ESWN's post highlights some serious issues. It's true, that in the eyes of many Chinese bloggers - and ones like Michael Anti who are quite critical of their own system to begin with - The Guardian has managed to badly damage the Western media's reputation in China. ESWN translates part of Anti's criticism:
When Benjamin Joffe-Walt reported about happened to Lu Banglie, our immediate reaction was to believe him because we have believe in foreign media all along. We even started to prepare to donate money, voice support, sign petitions and make protests. But suddenly we were told that this was just a fantasy of Benjamin Joffe-Walt. You must realized what a major shift it is for us. Even though this does not destroy all of the trust by the civilian sector, it is for sure that the next time that The Guardian or any other foreign media reports on an exclusive about an incident, we cannot be naturally trusting.
Another vein of criticism - also sparked by Anti - about the way Western journalists sometimes bring trouble upon their Chinese sources and allies (as Joffe-Walt is criticized for taking Lu into danger) has even led to some public soul-searching by journalists, including this piece by Newsweek's Melinda Liu.
But I want to return to the point ESWN makes. He's absolutely right: for most consumers of mainstream media in the West, the Taishi story didn't exist until Lu was believed to have been beaten to death. If you do a search on "taishi" in Google News and Yahoo News you will find this to be true. And even so, most of the reporting in English is in Asia-based or Asia-oriented media, and lot of those stories focused on the beating of journalists... not the core issues at stake in Taishi, or why the villagers' foiled attempts to recall corrupt officials through democratic elections had become such a cause celebre on the internet in China.
Now I'm going to say something awful but which I think is true: If Lu had in fact been killed last week as Joffe initially implied with his reporting, the story of Taishi and the story of village democracy movements in China would be all over the Western press. But since he's not dead, they've moved on quickly - if they covered it at all. This is what I have always disliked most about my profession: often the best way for a "cause" to get media attention does not equal the best outcome for the actual human beings involved with that cause. If it bleeds it leads. If it's not bleeding, and if the story is multi-faceted, complicated, and doesn't fit editors' neat good vs. evil paradigms, it's terribly difficult to get editors to care - and thus enable the public to be informed.
So when it comes to the Taishi information situation, we have the following picture: the Chinese media hasn't been allowed to report on the details of the fight over the Taishi village elections. Chinese internet bulletin boards disscussing the issue have been forced to shut down. Chinese blogs are angry about how the Western media has let them down, and the Chinese foreign ministry is making statements about how foriegn reporters have been going around flaunting the law (which I know from experience is impossible not to flaunt if you're actually going to succeed in covering any news and not turn yourself into a People's Daily clone). But the foreign mainstream media hasn't been following the story in any real detail either. The only people following it closely and fully outside of China have been HKInMedia, a Hong Kong Chinese-language independent media website, and when it comes to English coverage, no other source beats the Hong Kong-based media researcher-turned-blogger, Roland Soong of ESWN. As my colleague Ethan Zuckerman pointed out the other day:
Roland’s been doing exactly what skilled journalists could be doing with the Taishi story - collecting accounts online, via email and from media sources, translating from Chinese to English, and organizing them into coherent narratives, like this hugely useful timeline.
While I’m not generally a blog triumphalist - I believe there are stories that mainstream media can cover that bloggers cannot, and that bloggers usually follow, rather than lead the media - this is a case where bloggers and citizen journalists have been running circles around formal journalism.
Even with my decent (albeit slow) ability to read Chinese, I would have been at a total loss in making heads or tails of the Taishi story without Roland's tenacious work. I haven't come across any other good English-language source with such detailed and up-to-date information on Taishi - or on many other issues related to the internet and media in China. He is doing a tremendous service to the world's understanding of China - to the extent that the world will ever understand China. I know for a fact that a lot of Western journalists covering China have already come to depend on ESWN as a source of raw materials, free translations, and story ideas. Too bad most of them can't or don't link back to him and credit him the way bloggers do.
Roland and ESWN is "exhibit A" for why blogs enhance the world's "information ecosystem," as I like to call it. I am not one who believes that mainstream professional journalism should be replaced by blogs. But news companies make choices of what to cover globally based on limited resources and personnel. They can't cover everything happening on the planet, and editors could give me a long list of reasons - many valid - for why they can't cover Taishi any more than they have. But thank goodness we now have a growing number of multi-lingual bloggers all around the world who won't let go of issues they believe have long-term importance and should not be allowed to die: bloggers who keep collecting information about places like Taishi long before and long after the mainstream media has come and gone with the story. They will influence history every bit as much as the best mainstream journalism does.