ChinaBeat - Is Press Freedom Too Much to Bear?

Dec 12008

When I arrived to give a seminar to the news staff at Beijing Youth Daily, I looked at all those young reporters and thought I’d probably tell a few stories about what it’s like to be a reporter in Miami, then beat a quick exit.

All to the good, because my boss was then taking me to a Tibetan restaurant for dinner.

The first question: What did I think about the securitization of the Fed’s investment in banks in light of unprovable values in subprime-related debt? The first 15 seconds of my question was one long stutter.

The second questioner asked me whether I believed the yuan would maintain its current peg against the dollar and, if any adjustment were made, how would that affect global trade patterns and, by extension, commodity prices?

When I was their age, the deepest question I ever pondered was why the Beatles broke up.

The program lasted for hours, the questions kept getting tougher. And by the time we made it to the Tibetan restaurant I was hungry enough to eat a yak. So that’s what I ordered.

But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at the sophisticated questions. In China, there are essentially only state-owned media. And that’s enough to sound a clarion call to most Western journalists.

Yet, the media’s status as government-owned should not conjure images of, say, Cuba’s drab Granma or the old Soviet Union’s Pravda. The truth is that there is more good journalism going on here than one might expect.

And there is clearly a corps of dedicated journalists who persevere despite low pay, long hours and sometimes prickly relations with the government. (If you say that sounds a bit like the U.S. -- well, the differences between the two countries aren’t always as stark as we’d like them to be.)

Furthermore, an intense interest in both the U.S. election and its unraveling economy has led many Chinese publications to marshal resources. I recently met with two young reporters who were being dispatched to the States to discern the national mood. My advice: Go to Ohio.

Despite the world financial crisis, Chinese newspapers are thick and full of news. Magazine stands have no shortage of flashy covers. CCTV, the state-owned broadcasting giant, offers news programs for everyone.

I can’t help noticing at my gym, however, how many treadmillers are watching the soaps. The subway riders I see prefer sports and entertainment pages to the latest rundown on world affairs. Again, comparisons with the U.S. can be a bit unsettling.

These similarities have been noted by the students in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University, where my teaching position is sponsored by the International Center for Journalists.

The students come from around the world, including some countries where being a journalist can literally make you a target.

If there’s one thing besides a love for journalism they have in common, it’s knowledge about American culture.

Then, a message from a student, who comes from a country without press freedom, made me pause. Essentially, she wanted to know this: Do America’s much-admired press freedoms too often go to waste?

“I’m not going to put Palin’s wardrobe on the front page, but someone else will and make a living,’’ she said. “Though there might be a handful of people who will agree on my choice, what counts, finally, as everybody knows, is to make the newspaper survive as long as it can.’’

It were as if she viewed the U.S. public as a sort-of reverse Lake Wobegon -- where all the news consumers are below average.

I want to state emphatically: I have not once used the term “lowest common denominator’’ in my classroom at Tsinghua. The student had reached her conclusions about the decline in American intellectual curiosity all on her own.

Was getting the scoop on Madonna’s divorce settlement the kind of thing the Founding Fathers were thinking of when they wrote the First Amendment? Let’s face it: Probably not.

The student added that she wondered to “what degree should freedom of the press be considered a moral issue?’’

I wished I had a good answer, one that would include references to the concept of American exceptionalism, maybe mention John Winthrop’s famous sermon about the city on a hill.

My journalistic snobbery, however, is undercut by the fact that I’m one of those people who need People.

I told her that, while there are plenty of people in the world who disagree, in my opinion, yes, press freedom is indeed a moral issue, a universal one.

The responsibility of striving for that ideal, she added, “might be something a single person cannot bear alone.’’

How could someone so young be so smart?

I told her she was right. Unless it’s wanted by people, who collectively form a society that shares common values, it probably isn’t going to happen.

It was one of those moments when you realize the great thing about being a professor isn’t what you teach, but what you learn.

One day, I’m sure, this young woman is going to return to her homeland. And as a truth-seeking journalist, she is going to bear a great burden.

I just hope she’s not alone.