Last Monday, the Guardian’s Shangai correspondent Benjamin Joffe-Walt filed a harrowing report from Taishi village, a major flashpoint in a struggle for grassroots democracy in China. Joffe-Walt reported that his travelling companion, Chinese activist Lu Banglie, had been pulled from the taxi cab and beaten until left for dead. The details of his account suggested injuries so severe that it seemed improbable that Lu Banglie could have survived.
He did – the day after the Guardian report ran, Lu Banglie was interviewed by Radio Free Asia and, while he confirms that he was severely beaten, it’s clear that some of the spectacular details from Joffee-Walt’s account were inaccurate. The inaccuracy of The Guardian report have damaged that paper’s credibility in the region and has given fuel to the arguments offered by Chinese state media that western media outlets aren’t reporting stories in China accurately or fairly, and are breaking laws to cover stories.
The Guardian’s reader’s editor Ian Mayes offers a column today that hangs Joffe-Walt out to dry. Telling us that Joffe-Walt is only 25 years old, has six months of journalism experience prior to joining the Guardian and had been working for the Guardian for five weeks, he manages to give me the impression that the Guardian had the wrong man in place to cover this story. His story goes on to describe several psychological examinations the Guardian asked Joffe-Walt to undergo and the conclusion of one doctor that, under a great deal of stress, guilt and fear, “Joffe-Walt had lost touch with reality.” Mayes observes that the Guardian is trying to accomplish two goals in reacting to Joffe-Walt’s story:
The Guardian clearly has to protect its reputation. It also recognises a duty of care to Mr Joffe-Walt. The two things are not incompatible.
While they may not be incompatible, I’m not convinced the Guardian has done either. Instead, I’ve got less confidence that the Guardian is well-positioned to cover this story, and I suspect Joffe-Walt’s future journalistic career is in severe jeopardy.
In the meantime, Taishi’s failed to become a major story in western media, and the brief blip of amplification the story recieved in the blogosphere appears to have died down. (See the graph above, from Blogpulse’s Trend Search tool.) My colleague Rebecca MacKinnon believes she knows why:
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.
As Rebecca noted in an earlier post, the core story surrounding Taishi – the efforts of a community to seek justice and the government’s terrified reactions to citizen empowerment – is a vastly larger story than whether Lu Banglie was beaten into unconsciousness or to death. But without the hook of an activist killed by thugs, the complex unanswered questions about Taishi – Why did Beijing find activities in Taishi so threatening? Why did villagers withdraw the petition to recall their village chief? – are going unexplored by western media.
They are not, fortunately, going unexplored by citizen journalists. EastSouthWestNorth continues to cover the Taishi story closely, including the new media accuracy angle of the story. But it seems that Lu Banglie’s survival may have enabled the death of this important story in the Western media.
Thanks for covering the story. I think when you say ” But without the hook of an activist killed by thugs, the complex unanswered questions…” you’re exactly on. I don’t know where to start exploring the story, or how to cover it in anything approaching a useful or meaningful way for my readers.
It’s a good question, Adam. For me, covering the story has meant trying to tease out a simple timeline and offer some context for why the story is relavent in the face of larger issues about China. But I agree – it’s hard to understand without a much better understanding of China, village life in China and Chinese politics than I currently have…
I think if there were one reason and one reason only for the story dying, the survival of Lu would be it.
But there is also now the added problem of no fresh developments. Taishi might be an incredibly important issue, but nothing visible’s happening. It’s hard to sell no-news to news organisations.
It’s hard to write a story that says: nobody has any idea what’s going on in Taishi, but trust me, it’s very important. As to a timeline, take a look at it in EastSouthWest: long, third-hand and old, very old.
By sealing off the village, the local authorities seem to have successfully stifled any meaningful coverage of the unthinkable events going on inside.
That just leaves watching Beijing. I’m guessing they will keep face, keep mum, see no evil etc. I think in the end Taishi falls victim to the inevitably shallow nature of most mainland China news reporting:
Ongoing long-term endemic problem? Can you simplify it into a human interest/human rights angle? No? Then pass.
Immediate, sexy thrill? “SuperGirl” you say? Give us 1,000 words by tomorrow, with pictures.
It never ceases to please me to see western media, particularly the guardian, being shown up for the sensationalist anti-sino trash that it is, thank for this blogpost, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
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