Thu, May 11, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: A plague on all their houses

It is traumatizing to experience a bad relationship, but it is absolutely sickening to have to read about one in the newspapers. And it is even worse when a child is involved.

Without knowing anything about the two individuals other than the unsourced rumors that passes for journalism in Taiwan's increasingly tabloidized media, it is quite easy to write Cary Sartin and Nadia Juan off as despicable human beings.

Perhaps they are both good people, caught in a personal misunderstanding gone horribly wrong.

But who knows? Who cares? It is much easier to reduce the two to mere caricatures:

Sartin can play the typical big-nose, a past-his-prime, midlife-crisis-suffering wealthy lothario of the type one commonly sees embarrassing himself dancing on the bar at certain nightclubs.

Meanwhile, Juan can play the "psycho xiaojie," a mentally unbalanced screwball determined to make a scene by crying and threatening suicide.

It's quite a pair of stereotypes the media has created. But even so, these he said/she said tales of woe are a dime a dozen, and can be seen on any half-baked soap opera, usually with far better looking and more compelling main characters. So what's the attraction here?

There are two reasons for all the fuss: prejudice and bad journalism.

First, the easy one: prejudice. Sartin is an American. A foreigner. And because a foreigner is involved, the case automatically gets more coverage. One can almost hear the thought process unfold, and watch as it exposes all manner of Orientalist/Occidentalist neuroses: "The foreigners are stealing our children! Aren't Taiwanese good enough to raise their own children, that they have to live with ... ugh ... foreigners? Do foreigners think they're better than us? How dare we lose face this way!"

Second, the more complex reason: bad journalism. As said earlier, the media is showing a predilection for relying on one-sided, unexamined "facts" as the basis of a story, while reporters are allowed to insert commentary that is mere subjective speculation into their reports.

Juan, as a former reporter, has widespread media contacts.

In Taiwan, one of the realities of life is that the media industry is inbred. Few media professionals haven't worked for several different media outlets, often with diametrically opposed editorial biases. The pool of talent is fairly small and extremely mercenary. And everyone knows everyone else.

Because of Taiwan's long history of authoritarian control, the media elite and government elite are often unthinkingly sympathetic about non-professional issues. After all, many people move back and forth between government and media careers with nary a second thought.

It might be too much to say that Juan has used her connections to create this lurid firestorm. But it is compelling to note that she has worked with or gone to school with many of the people working at the media organizations covering her story.

Your average person with no media or political contacts could not have managed to get so many politicians on his or her side so quickly, and have gotten so much coverage of an interpersonal conflict, the bulk of which covers only one side of the story.

The media should show greater circumspection in covering this issue, and politicians should not hasten to turn it into a political issue.

Foreigners in Taiwan must be warned that they will have to live with the deleterious effect of such blatantly xenophobic sensationalizing. And Taiwanese should be warned that when demagogues manipulate stereotypes and inflame people's passions, the whole nation suffers.

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