8 December 2013
NY Times Frets China Crackdown on Journalists
The Public Editor
The Thorny Challenge of Covering China
By MARGARET SULLIVAN
Published: December 7, 2013
HOW do major American news organizations write about a Communist country
with the worlds second-largest economy a country that doesnt
believe in press rights and that punishes tough-minded coverage?
Aggressively? Cautiously? Fearlessly? Competitively?
The country is China. The news organizations include The New York Times,
as well as its closest competitors. And those questions are on the minds
of top editors and executives of news organizations. The Chinese market is
a lucrative one, important to their profitability; and, separately, news
value is high. There are crucial stories to be reported in this fast-changing
nation of more than 1.3 billion people, the most populous country in the
The answers are playing out on newspaper front pages and websites, in newsroom
personnel decisions and on corporate balance sheets.
Consider some of whats happened:
Last year, The Times published a story by David Barboza about the
enormous wealth of Chinas ruling family. The article won a Pulitzer
Prize and caused the Chinese government to shut down The Timess
website in China, an important part of its growth as a global business, at
a cost of about $3 million in lost revenue to The Times so far.
On Nov. 9, The Times published an article on its front page about
one of its chief business-news competitors, Bloomberg News, describing how
the organization had decided against the planned publication of an article
for fear of reprisal by the Chinese government. The Times story, which came
from unidentified Bloomberg employees, included denials by Bloomberg news
executives, including the editor in chief, Matthew Winkler, that the story
A few days later, Bloomberg made a written complaint to me, through its ethics
consultant Tom Goldstein, a former Columbia journalism dean. Mr. Goldstein
called the article unfair and inaccurate. He criticized The Times for
sabotaging a competitor by describing the news in the unpublished
After I began investigating the complaint by interviewing journalists at
Bloomberg and at The Times, Bloomberg postponed and then canceled my scheduled
interview with Mr. Winkler. A public relations representative told me that
a follow-up Times article on Nov. 25 a broader look at Bloombergs
corporate mission was much more accurate and made the
Bloombergs insistence that its China exposé simply wasnt
ready for publication, and that therefore the original Times story was invalid,
is off the point. The core of the Times story had to do with media
self-censorship in China: A top American news executives telling his
reporters that a story was being pulled back at least partly because it might
get their news organization kicked out of the country. The details of Mr.
Winklers conference call, in which he spoke to the reporters, are
verifiable, The Timess foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, told
me. Other journalists, inside and outside The Times, mentioned the existence
of audio recordings of that call.
I believe the initial Times article was essentially solid and certainly
eye-opening. Still, one can reasonably question whether it was sound judgment
to put an article focused on a competitors news decision at the top
of The Timess front page.
Fortune magazine reported last week that Chinese authorities barged
into Bloomberg News offices in Shanghai and Beijing to conduct inspections
shortly after The Times wrote about the disputed and still unpublished article.
Chinese officials also demanded an apology from Mr. Winkler, Fortune reported.
Mr. Winkler has built Bloomberg News into a top-flight news organization,
one that has clearly done some of the best reporting from China. Publicly,
Bloomberg has continued to say that its article was held back for more reporting,
not permanently killed. One of the reporters of that article, Michael Forsythe,
was suspended from Bloomberg; he later left the company. It would not be
surprising if Mr. Forsythe soon joined the reporting staff of The Times.
American reporters in China are having problems getting their residency
visas renewed and soon may be forced to leave the country. What once was
an annual nonevent has become a very big worry, said
Jill Abramson, the executive editor at The Times. Im concerned
that we wont be able to do the unfettered coverage we need to do for
The Times has a dozen people reporting on China who have New York Times
accreditations from the Chinese government, including a photographer and
a videographer. All are in Beijing except Mr. Barboza, who is based in Shanghai.
The Times also has several correspondents and an editing operation in Hong
The websites of The Wall Street Journal and Reuters were both recently
blocked, and Bloombergs has been blocked for many months. And after
officials ordered some companies to stop paying for Bloombergs data
terminals central to the companys distinctive business model
the growth in sales slowed in China, a major potential market.
In short, the stakes are high and the circumstances difficult, both for
newsgathering and for news-based businesses.
From a news perspective, The Times has an advantage: It is still that rarity,
a family-owned news organization. As Ms. Abramson noted, its publisher, Arthur
Sulzberger Jr., doesnt flinch from running critical China
James L. McGregor, former Beijing bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal,
offered this blunt assessment in The Timess Nov. 25 article:
Its looking increasingly like as a media company, you have a
choice in China. You either do news or you do business, but its hard
to do both.
So far, The Times and, to varying degrees, its competitors
has continued to do news. Thats worthwhile, and challenging,
and not very likely to get easier.
Follow the public editor on Twitter at twitter.com/sulliview and read her
blog at publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com. The public editor can also be reached
by e-mail: email@example.com.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 8, 2013, on page SR12
of the New York edition with the headline: The Thorny Challenge of Covering
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