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8 December 2013

NY Times Frets China Crackdown on Journalists


http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/08/public-editor/the-thorny-challenge-of-covering-china.html

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 world’s second-largest economy — a country that doesn’t 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 world.

The answers are playing out on newspaper front pages and websites, in newsroom personnel decisions and on corporate balance sheets.

Consider some of what’s happened:

• Last year, The Times published a story by David Barboza about the enormous wealth of China’s ruling family. The article won a Pulitzer Prize — and caused the Chinese government to shut down The Times’s 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 was killed.

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 He criticized The Times for “sabotaging a competitor” by describing the news in the unpublished article.

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 Bloomberg’s corporate mission — was “much more accurate” and made the interview unnecessary.

Bloomberg’s insistence that its China exposé simply wasn’t 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 executive’s 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. Winkler’s conference call, in which he spoke to the reporters, are “verifiable,” The Times’s 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 competitor’s news decision at the top of The Times’s 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. “I’m concerned that we won’t be able to do the unfettered coverage we need to do for our readers.”

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 Kong.

• The websites of The Wall Street Journal and Reuters were both recently blocked, and Bloomberg’s has been blocked for many months. And after officials ordered some companies to stop paying for Bloomberg’s data terminals — central to the company’s 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., “doesn’t flinch” from running critical China stories.

James L. McGregor, former Beijing bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, offered this blunt assessment in The Times’s Nov. 25 article:

“It’s looking increasingly like as a media company, you have a choice in China. You either do news or you do business, but it’s hard to do both.”

So far, The Times — and, to varying degrees, its competitors — has continued to “do news.” That’s 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: public@nytimes.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 China.

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