'A Very Good Paper,' II
August 15, 2001
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A corporate spokeswoman for the New York Times sends the following letter in response to yesterday's Smartertimes, which noted the discrepancies between the New York Times's account of its interview with the Butcher of Beijing, Jiang Zemin, and the account of the interview in People's Daily, the Communist Party organ:
"Today's Smartertimes.com says that President Jiang Zemin's comments reported in The People's Daily did not appear in The Times. However, the remarks are part of the written Q&A we posted on our Web site. The printed newspaper disclosed their existence and referred readers to the site. Following is the URL:
Please let me know if you have any questions."
Clicking through on the URL discloses the following sentence: "As a condition for granting The New York Times an interview with Jiang Zemin, the president and Communist Party leader of China, the Chinese government required that the newspaper submit written questions. Following are the questions submitted by The Times and the president's written responses as translated by a translator provided by the Chinese government."
As for the disclosure the Times spokeswoman refers to in the printed newspaper, here's what it consisted of: "On the Web: Questions from The Times and Jiang Zemin's responses are available at the New York Times on the Web: www.nytimes.com" A news article in the Times also refers in passing to "a written answer."
Well, it's progress that the Times has now disclosed, through its spokeswoman in an e-mail to Smartertimes, what the paper had not disclosed to its readers who rely on the printed newspaper: That "as a condition for granting The New York Times an interview with Jiang Zemin, the president and Communist Party leader of China, the Chinese government required that the newspaper submit written questions."
The readers of the Times may have gotten a different impression from the Times news article, which reported that the interview "was initially suggested by Chinese diplomats." The impression left there is of the Chinese angling for an interview with the New York Times. The impression left by the notion of "a condition" of written questions submitted in advance, however, is more of the Times editors treating the Butcher of Beijing the way that a Conde Nast celebrity-wrangler deals with a publicist for a hard-to-get Hollywood celebrity. (Times: We'd really like an interview. Chinese Diplomat: Well, we want a guaranteed cover , we want the questions submitted in advance and in writing, we want the photographs to be by Richard Avedon, and you can't ask him about anorexia or the break-up with Brad Pitt.)
It turns out that at least two of the questions the Times submitted in advance and in writing -- on arms sales to Taiwan and on U.S. missile defense -- were also asked in person. And it turns out that the answers to the written questions contain some newsworthy comments that didn't make it into the article or excerpts printed in the Times newspaper. For instance, Mr. Jiang says that without strong political leadership, Communist China would "fall apart like a heap of loose sand." Mr. Jiang also claims that he has "no knowledge" of the case of an elderly Chinese physician who warned villagers about the dangers of AIDS spread through blood donations and was then threatened by provincial authorities.
Any questions, the Times spokeswoman asks? Here are a few (submitted in writing, the way the Times deals with Mr. Jiang):
1. According to the Times web site, "A condition for granting The New York Times an interview with Jiang Zemin" was that the newspaper submit written questions. What were the other conditions? Was the personal appearance of the Times Company chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. at the interview a condition? Was the lack of a same-day response to Mr. Jiang's comments by spokesmen for Taiwan or for human rights groups a condition?
2. Why did the Times consider it worth devoting space in the print edition to photos of frolicking beachgoers at the resort where the interview took place, and to Mr. Jiang's comment that he considers the New York Times "a very good paper," but not to the Chinese government's conditions for granting the interview or to Mr. Jiang's comments about AIDS and about the "heap of loose sand"? Or to the comments on Taiwan and press freedom that were reported in the People's Daily? If something had to be relegated to the Web site, why not the beach photos and the Times self-congratulation, rather than the substantive answers from Mr. Jiang?
3. Will the Times submit written questions in advance as a condition for being granted an interview with any news source that asks for such treatment? Or does the Times have different rules for brutal Communist dictators than it does for everybody else?
Republican-Backed: An article in the national section of today's New York Times reports, "Before passage of a Republican-backed law five years ago, only an immigration judge could order the deportation of someone who arrived without valid travel documents. Now, and immigration officer can exercise that power, called expedited removal, on the spot, a move intended to cut down on fraud." The Times description of this as a "Republican-backed law" is a classic example of the newspaper's tendency in news articles to blame everything bad on Republicans. Here's how USA Today described that immigration law back in 1996: "White House and congressional negotiators carved out an agreement on immigration after three days of nonstop talks. It goes before the Senate today as part of a spending bill to fund the government for the fiscal year beginning Tuesday. The bill passed the House late Saturday on a 370-37 vote. After Senate approval, it goes to President Clinton. He is certain to sign it because, besides the spending bill, the package gives him nearly everything he wanted on immigration. But it represents a retreat for GOP congressional leaders and presidential candidate Bob Dole. The immigration bill attacks illegal immigration by doubling the Border Patrol to 10,000 agents, making it easier to deport illegal immigrants, and allowing states to deny them driver's licenses. But it also attacks legal immigration by making it more difficult for low-income people to sponsor immigrants.. . . Clinton hailed the final package, saying it attacks illegal immigration 'without hurting innocent children or punishing legal immigrants.'" The immigration law changes were the outgrowth of the recommendations of a commission headed by another Democrat, Barbara Jordan, a former Congresswoman from Texas. Given the role of Jordan and of Mr. Clinton, it seems like a real stretch for the Times to describe this change to the immigration law simply as "Republican-backed."
Lost in Virginia: An article in the metro section of today's New York Times mentions "the National Right to Work Committee, a conservative advocacy group in Washington." In fact, the group is based not in Washington but about 15 miles away in Springfield, Virginia.
Interfaith Weddings: An obituary in today's New York Times reports, "Although both Conservative and Reform rabbis perform conversion ceremonies, only Reform rabbis generally are willing to perform interfaith weddings." This sentence, in an obituary of a Reform rabbi, strikes a wrong note. Why mention Conservative practice without also noting that Orthodox and Reconstructionist rabbis perform conversions? Some Reconstructionist rabbis are also willing to perform interfaith weddings. The Times view of the Jewish religious spectrum seems strangely constrained.
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