The problem with writing a weekly column these days is that a lot of good stuff is already taken up in the blogosphere. The View From Taiwan, for example, held a Nov. 25 New York Times analysis on President Chen Shui-bian's (
Or morsels, perhaps? If Taiwan's blogopians will forgive me for treading over familiar ground, I have an ax that needs a last few hundred words of grinding, and it's all about quotes.
Regardless of content, quotes deliver verisimilitude. They also lend credibility by outsourcing opinionated language, allowing sources for the rest of the material to go unnamed. And the more quotes you include, the more you can paper over bias or lack of balance. The "objectivity" of verbatim speech is a reporter's friend.
Then there's the status of the interviewee. When consulting "experts," the merit of the person in his or her field is rarely discussed. The assumption is that "expert" authority will not be scrutinized too closely.
Diligent reporters compensate by seeking alternative viewpoints, in which a quote is contested and tested. But others simply jump from context to context with token, uncontested quotes to add color and gravitas. Next time you're bored shitless, pick up a newspaper and study how quotes are used (better still, don't read a newspaper, take a trip into the mountains and live life the way it ought to be lived).
But, dear reader, lest you accuse me of heading toward postmodern discourse analysis (and if you did, I would tell you to stick it up your Derrida), consider that I'm referring to simple phenomena. Below are examples from the New York Times article.
The reporter, Jim Yardley, actually came to Taiwan to research it. This in itself is worth celebrating. Beijing press corps hacks prefer to file Taiwanese stories from the capital of the Central Kingdom after a few phone calls (maybe) and surfing the Web. It's hard to see where else their information comes from. And overall, Yardley's piece seems better than most weekend warrior efforts by the Beijing press pack. But look a little deeper. Look at the quotes.
First is Emile Sheng (
Was Yardley really not aware of Sheng's shenanigans with Shih? How could he not have been? If he was aware, where was the background in the story?
"Right now," Sheng opines, "[Taiwanese democracy] is a disgrace, and it is quite humiliating. But once we get past this, I think Taiwan's politics will get a lot cleaner."
A "disgrace" and "humiliating," Emile? Where were you when the pan-blue camp was whipping up violence over a valid presidential election result in 2004? Or when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) withdrew charges against James Soong (
Next up is People First Party Legislator Hwang Yih-jiau (
Surely, if Yardley were more informed, he would have noted that Hwang's party vilified the judiciary for declaring the 2004 election result valid, and to this day cripples oversight of the executive by blocking appointments to the Control Yuan. Hwang is on the Procedure Committee that won't even permit debate of key bills on the legislative floor. This chump lecturing on the separation of powers? That's funny on so many levels. Next!
Ah, a cameo by Chao Chien-min (
"I think members of future first families will be a lot more careful."
Does Chao mean that future first families will be "more careful" when they embezzle funds, or that they'll break with a century of tradition and act with propriety? Either way, this quote from the story's most authoritative source is like a Taiwanese autumn: tantalizing, but blink and it's gone.
Then we have Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (
"Only the Taiwanese people and politicians can understand the importance of keeping things completely confidential."
Thus, we can deduce that, as a half-Taiwanese, half-American, Hsiao only half-understands the importance of keeping things completely confidential.
This is not the first dumb-ass thing that Hsiao has said on the record. Who can forget this showstopping effort at a forum reported by the newspaper you're holding: North Korea apparently conducted its October nuclear test to "deliberately embarrass [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe" on his trip to Seoul ("Taiwan condemns test as threat to regional security," Oct. 10, page 1).
Brilliant stuff from Hsiao there, but what is most impressive about her Yardley interview is that she played the Xenophobia Next Generation card ("you don't understand Taiwanese culture") in front of a fellow American with a straight face. You go, girl!
But wait, there's more: "It's a political question, it's a moral question, but it's not a legal question," she says of the first lady accepting a dodgily financed ring. "We think it was very poor political judgment to take this kind of gift or live a lifestyle like that."
Hsiao should shut her trap on Wu Shu-jen's (吳淑珍) lifestyle. Yardley's readers wouldn't know why, but a lot of Taiwanese do. The Journalist magazine was punished for printing gossip attributed to Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), later denied, that Hsiao had a dalliance with the president that went beyond the dictaphone. Without declaring her interest in Wu's personal affairs, Hsiao should have deferred to others to launch direct attacks on her. So much for the "moral question."
Finally, we turn to Antonio Chiang (
"We worried that if the [Shih Ming-teh] demonstrations succeeded it would not be good for Taiwan's democracy ... It would be like Thailand."
So far, so good.
"But when the indictment came out, suddenly all these demonstrations went silent."
Hang on, Antonio. The demonstrations went silent some time earlier, with only a hard core of red barons continuing to occupy the urine stench-filled southeastern corner of the Taipei Railway Station precinct (now they're in a urine stench-filled room on Chongqing S Road). Then:
"Democracy without rule of law is very dangerous. Now, we are going to have rule of law."
What garbage is this, Antonio? At what time in the last 10 years or so has there not been rule of law?
Yardley finishes his story with a sexy flourish from Chiang: "We still have a lot to learn. Democracy is not so easy."
Well, this may make Taiwan's pre-eminent journalist seem worldly wise and weary, but it's actually a crock -- and smears the average Taiwanese to boot. Who are "we," precisely, Antonio, and what is there to learn that "we" don't already know? It's very easy to say "Democracy is not so easy," but how hard is it to say that some democracies are lumbered with politicians who would have their nation's organs and processes usurped by a foreign government?
This is not about ignorance or inexperience; it's about deliberate corrosion of democracy. Antonio knows this all too well; he's been around. So why is he pulling punches on the bigger picture with the New York Times? Was he infected with inertia by his do-nothing colleagues on the National Security Council? Or did Yardley cut out all the meat?
Antonio seemed to avoid the worst excesses of KMT thuggery in the 1970s and 1980s. Was it -- dare I ask? -- because he knew just how and when to pull his punches then, too?
These, then, are the people that Yardley relied on to bolster his article's authoritativeness. And the great majority of his readers would have no reason to doubt his words, or theirs. But if each one of the quotes is vague, misleading or compromised, then what is the rest of the piece worth?
Oh, and ... wait, could it be? Yes! The interviewees all speak quotable English. So, it seems one of the world's most prestigious newspapers can't afford a translator to accompany Yardley to Taipei. Is it simply a case of roll out the usual suspects who speak English and who gives a crap about the rest?
Jim Yardley won this year's international reporting Pulitzer Prize (with Joseph Kahn), no less. He knows what good journalism is. So I ask: Where did he get his list of English-speakers from? And how will he know what ordinary people think (and make claims thereto) if he only speaks to the English-speaking upper crust who "give good quote"?
It's not quite parachute journalism, but you expect more sophisticated Taiwan coverage than this from a New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner, even if he is based in Beijing.
Jim, you can quote me on that.
Heard or read something particularly objectionable about Taiwan? Johnny wants to know: firstname.lastname@example.org is the place to reach me, with "Dear Johnny" in the subject line.
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