China-focused news editors have had numerous causes for celebration in the past few months. The various scandals surrounding the dethronement of Bo Xilai, the dramatic nighttime escape of blind activist Chen Guancheng, and the upcoming Party leadership have provided a maelstrom of newsworthy scoops and sensational headlines.
But for consumers of China news, the furious twister of media coverage has strewn rubble in its path in the form of false details and unconfirmed rumors. Consider, for example, last month's “Ferrari-gate,” in which New York Times reporters exposed the falsity of a claim made by the Wall Street Journal that Bo Guagua was driving a cherry-red Ferrari when he went to pick up former Ambassador Jon Huntsman's daughters for a dinner date one night in Beijing. According to the New York Times, the younger Bo was not in fact driving a red Ferrari, but was rather driven to the dinner in a chauffeured black Audi. In the larger scheme of things, such details are inconsequential. But the debunking of such assertions in media outlets as highly-esteemed as the Journal inevitably serves as an unsettling reminder that factual reporting in China remains enormously difficult.
At the heart of the difficulty of reporting in China is the government's tight control over the media and information within society. Sources willing to talk about sensitive issues are tough to find and those that do insist on remaining anonymous for fear of being punished by the government—making fact-checking an even more arduous task than it already is. The undeniable influence of the government on Chinese news media outlets diminishes the degree to which their reports can be taken at face value. Journalists in China are aptly described as “dancing in shackles.”
But for all the tribulations of China-based journalists, consumers of China-related news also have a tough job. They must constantly work to discern fact from rumor, and sensationalism from reality. First there was the Mike Daisey affair, whose ostensibly factual account of Chinese factory worker exploitation in Shenzhen as presented on the popular U.S. public radio show This American Life was later exposed as a “combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license.” Then there was the whole Bo Xilai debacle, with its myriad unconfirmed reports regarding the cause of Neil Heywood’s death and Bo’s alleged wiretapping of senior leaders. The latest round of rumors regarding actress Zhang Ziyi’s alleged illicit rendezvous with various high-level Chinese politicians (Bo Xilai included) came first from Boxun.com, a U.S.-based Chinese-language news website that covers many topics that are banned in the Chinese media, such as international political news and human rights abuses in China. Though in the past, Boxun—which bases many of its news stories on information sent by anonymous contributors—has been seen mainly as a “receptacle for wild rumors,” it has recently picked up credibility points for its “unusual[ly] accurate” reporting of the Bo Xilai scandal. Following the initial reports of Zhang’s alleged secret career, the rumor machine then kicked into high gear. Reports from Hong Kong newspapers claimed that Zhang had been banned from leaving China. But this claim was then quickly debunked by Damien Ma in the Atlantic, who uploaded a snapshot of a chance encounter with Zhang leaving the mainland on a flight to Hong Kong.
To be sure, media-driven mental whiplash is not unique to avid China watchers. It is, unfortunately, a problem common to all consumers of political writing. As David Blair points out in a review of Timothy Garton Ash's book Facts are Subversive: “As 24-hour news channels offer a relentless diet of the trivial and superficial, and the blogosphere pours forth deceits and conspiracies, finding real journalism which, in Lord Reith’s time-honoured phrase, ‘informs, educates and entertains,’ has become more difficult…If journalism’s purpose is to enhance our understanding of the world, who can think of an era when the fourth estate performed worse than today?”