Ask anyone their opinion of Taiwanese media and you would get answers of all kinds — from interesting, dynamic and competitive to brain-dead, unprofessional and lacking in global perspective.
The truth may lie somewhere in between, but the discussion of Taiwanese media and its challenges would have to include growing Chinese influence and the local industry’s struggle between commercial success and core journalistic values.
A recent incident in Hong Kong and a column on Taiwan’s media provided a good opportunity to examine what Taiwan’s media is all about.
Kevin Lau (劉進圖), former editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao, was allegedly stabbed six times by two men on Wednesday last week when he got out of his car. He is now in stable condition after multiple operations.
Known for his strong criticism of the Hong Kong government, Lau was reassigned to another position in January. Observers were suspicious that the reassignment and the attack were both politically motivated, as China is reportedly seeking tighter control over the territory’s media.
The case was not the first time that a member of Hong Kong’s media has been attacked in recent years. Neither was it the first time Beijing had reportedly interfered with personnel changes in a media organization. China has used its influence and had advertisers withdraw their advertisements from media outlets that criticized Beijing and Hong Kong authorities.
While there has been no reported attacks on media members in Taiwan, Lau’s case could strike fear into local media circles at a time of growing Chinese influence on various sectors — media included.
So far Beijing’s influence on Taiwan’s media has been limited to the financial side, as several media organizations either have business ties to China or aim to develop such relationships. Self-censorship has become common among these outlets, with their complete disregard of human rights issues in China: Falun Gong, Xinjiang and Tibet, among others.
No one knows whether there will be another Lau in Taiwan if this nation continues its pro-China stance under President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration.
Meanwhile, an article published by Foreign Policy magazine’s Web site recently raised eyebrows. The article, titled “Freedom, Fried,” discussed the status of Taiwanese media and has been translated by many outlets and circulated on social media.
The author described Taiwan’s freewheeling media as salacious and superficial, focusing only on inward-looking, sensational and mundane reporting. Journalism has been so bad that antipathy among consumers leads them to find other news sources, he wrote.
The reasons the author ignored the “China factor” in the recent development of Taiwan media is unknown. Also intriguing is that the column quoted several employees from the pro-China Want Want China Times Group who sang the praises of Chinese media’s “sense of history and worldly perspective” without mentioning Beijing’s censorship.
Yet the condition the author writes of is common knowledge. Most journalists know when they produce another “junk food” piece.
Media insiders describe this as a vicious cycle: Sensational reporting generates higher readership and ratings and Taiwanese tend to pay little attention to international news, so media outlets keep feeding the public the news they like, rather than the news they are supposed to know about.
At the end of the day, either the media or the audience will have to take initiative and make a change that will facilitate a positive and virtuous cycle.
Facing a double challenge — from China and from within — Taiwanese media can be expected to see more hardship on the way to a new age. Local journalism has managed to do the unthinkable before — breaking the decades-long restriction of the authoritarian regime. Now it must happen again.