Sat, Dec 02, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Johnny Neihu's NewsWatch: Mr Pulitzer grabs you by the quote

Johnny gets all flustered about a report on Taiwan by one of the world's most reputable newspapers. Is a picture worth a thousand words? Yes, especially if the words come from the mouths of the disingenuous.

By Johnny Neihu 強尼內湖

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 (陳水扁) predicament to account, leaving poor me with but scraps.

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 (盛治仁), a professor of political science at Soochow University. As pointed out elsewhere, this gadfly academic was a core member of the Shih Ming-teh (施明德) "red shirt" protest movement against the president. The funny thing is, old Emile thinks it's OK to pass judgment on Chen's presidency with his Soochow hat on without declaring a conflict of interest. And it isn't the first time.

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 (宋楚瑜) for stealing millions before running him as a coalition partner? Your "cleaner politics" invests in blind populism and demagoguery. Didn't admit that to the New York Times, did you? So, Emile, you can stick your hypocrite's righteous indignation right up your sabbatical.

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