The Freezing Point Story: Using News To Influence Today

(Southern Weekend)  By Shi Yan (石岩).  December 15, 2005.

"In the 1950's and 1960's of the last century, the cadre class in China enjoyed so-called 'special privileges', principally the special privilege to access information."  Li Datong said, "At the time, the reading material of the senior cadres was hidden from the rest of society."

He grew up in such a family.  But today, he regarded his job as being breaking down the information barrier.

Li Datong is the man in charge of the Freezing Point weekly magazine at China Youth Daily.  He was once a child of a member of a "black gang" and he was a 'illegal migrant' expelled out of Beijing.  He spent 11 years on the grass plains of Inner Mongolia.  He never attended university.  In 1979, he joined China Youth Daily.  In ten years' time, he went from local reporter to editor to department director and learned all about the entire process that happens to a newspaper article.  In 1995, he founded the Freezing Point special feature page within China Youth Daily.

In the recently published The Freezing Point Story, Li Datong reviewed the last ten years after Freezing Point was founded.  At first, it was strong in presenting common people.  The last few persons in Beijing whose job was to remove the feces buckets at night; Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt who tried to enable their children to attend school up in the mountains of Hunan; the orphan of an American Flying Tiger pilot living as a lower-class citizen in China ... the twists and turns in the lives of these ordinary people made this newly founded special feature very popular among various social strata.

But the story of ordinary people is not the only thing about Freezing Point.  The controversy about the debate competitions; the problems of language instruction; the moral questions from the movie Saving Private Ryan -- these are the hot topics faced by the four or five members of this news "mill".  Around year 2000, Freezing Point began to be more concerned about the direction of our era: from thinking about "common problems" to directly reporting on news events, Freezing Point made a transition from "soft" to "hard."

Since the first year, Freezing Point built the tradition of collecting the reports in a book.  But the publication of The Freezing Point Story was still enough to generate attention and debate.

Some people praised this book as "basically written with newspaper language, the words flow easily and they are colloquial, the rhythm is good, long and short essays have good twists and the reading is unobstructed."  There are those who praised the news viewpoints as being distilled truth.  But there are also those who accused the author of narcissism and being behind the times in his journalistic views.

Our reporter interviewed Li Datong earlier about these issues.

Reporter: You often quote the saying, "News has a lifetime of one day."  But the Freezing Point articles continue to be published in collections.

Li: Freezing Point is not a news page in the classical sense.  Freezing Point is not about news articles.  If I were the news page editor, I would not be doing it this way.  I would have pay attention to the events that are happening.  Freezing Point has never reported on developing stories.  What happened in "The last feces buckets of Beijing"?  What happened with "Fifth Uncle and Fifth Aunt"?  Nothing whatsoever!  All of Freezing Point's special articles are not news.

Reporter: Then what are they?

Li: Let me relate a short story.  A certain department head went to attend a parents' meeting.  The teachers emphasized the political thinking education of the children.  They have to read this and they have to read that ...suddenly, a parent got up and asked the teacher, "Do you let the students read Freezing Point?  It is better than any thought educational material.  We let our child read every issue."  This parent did not believe Freezing Point was news.  Actually, our position is that we do not need "valuable information" with time requirements.  The information has news value because people care and not because it is about suddenly breaking news events.

Special feature articles are vastly different from the ordinary breaking news.  How many Pulitzer Prize winners were based upon breaking news?  Special features obviously have the function of informing, but its principal purpose is not simply informing.  We select certain people or events in order to focus on current social conflict, bewilderment, pain and inadequacy.  It is about the social reality of contemporary China.  The special feature article has a certain way to portray and express that is not present in ordinary news reporting.  Would you cry when you read a news article?  Quite a few readers said that they cried their eyes out when they read The Freezing Point Story, just as some said they laughed at other sections.  You have to note that the book only recounts briefly the stories that we have reported on.  Special feature articles must have the power to move and touch people.

There are certain commentaries that assume that The Freezing Point Story reflects my personal views on journalism.  Actually, in this book, I used the stories to express my viewpoints on the special features.  But the essays outside of these stories represent my views on journalism.  Unfortunately, I cannot use the stories in this book to express my viewpoints on journalism.

Reporter: But right now if it is not a special news feature, it would not be satisfactory to just record and not analyze?

Li: The key characteristic of a special feature is not analysis but lively and vivid presentation.  Freezing Point has only special features that are more than 8,000 words in length.  There is a difference between an 8,000-word special feature and a 4,000-word special feature, and even bigger difference with a 1,000 word essay.  What is the purpose of standard news?  To inform!  But there is nothing in Freezing Point that is worthy of informing people about.  There are some people in Beijing who carry feces buckets.  Do I need to inform you?  I don't need to.  Why do people need to read it?  It is about a certain destiny, a certain sentiment, a certain emotion that we can be moved and resonant together with.

Recently, we published "From Being Well-Off To Poverty" in which we wrote about how a family needed to take care of health problems.  This family used to be a well-off family in a county city in Inner Mongolia with the intention of buying a private vehicle.  Ever since the housewife got ill, they could not afford the expensive medical fees and the husband was reduced to begging in Beijing streets until she died.  The last vestiges of dignity were wiped out.  Wang Xiaobo said the majority of this society is silent and nobody heard or cared about them.  There is a minor detail: the subject of the interview contacted many media but no one wanted to listen to the story.  Finally, we decided to interview him.  He sent an SMS to thank our reporter with more than 60 "thanks".  You can imagine how he felt.  This report got 3,700 responses at the Sohu website that day and led everything else.  Does everybody want to know this?  No!  This is because everybody realized that this is the trap that awaits them: if I get sick and I don't have medical coverage ... if this goes on, it is too dangerous and I cannot afford to become ill. 

Reporter: That is to say, when you wrote this book, you specifically aimed at this type of essay?

Li: When I edited this book, I was mainly recording a particular lifestyle.  As a journalist and an editor at a newspaper, how does he live?  How does he actually live?  I hope that this book will be read like a novel, with all sorts of characters and stories showing up.  There are conflicts and people's fates rise and fall.  I think that during the progress of the book, there is an interaction between a newspaper editor and contemporary China.  Everyday, you are stimulated by various kinds of information.  As an editor of an influential newspaper, how do you react to these stimulations?  On what basis do you disseminate information to society?  These things are seldom recorded.  I believe that the public should understand how this profession works, because this profession affects their lives in an intimate way.

This book is not the result of especially deep contemplation.  It follows sentiments.  At one point, I was wondering about the target readers of this book.  I was most interested about those who work in the same profession, but I do really want those outside of the profession to get interested.  I know that portions of the content is for journalism students.  If necessary, I will offer an explanation.  For those readers who are interested in Freezing Point and want to understand the professional angle, this book ought to be quite attractive. 

Reporter:  In your book you said, "When I read it at the time, I have a question mark inside my head."  You said that news is not about recording history, but it is about influencing today.

Li: This is commonsense.  Does it require any discussion?

Reporter:  How much do you feel news can affect reality?  We often hear colleagues complain: I can expose specific incidents one at a time, but I cannot challenge the underlying logic.

Li: That is a different problem.  Why do we journalists often feel discouraged?  This is because the social system is inadequate.  In any healthy social system, opinion monitoring would be part of social monitoring and this would be a part that is a vanguard that tells the other sectors of society about what is happening.  If something is abnormal or illegal, then the other monitoring systems of society will rush in.  That would the characteristics of a healthy system.  Take the example of the Watergate incident.  Nothing would happen if just the journalists reported it.  The other parts of the system came forth: Congress came forth, the Department of Justice came forth, formal investigations began and the President resigned.  I can report an Antony Leung affair to say that he purchased a car whose price rose by several hundreds of Hong Kong dollars afterwards.  Why?  The ICAC followed up immediately about how he bought his car.  Leung had no choice but to resign.  The news media instigates the other monitoring systems.  For example, if it is reported that a certain hospital charged a patient five million RMB, the central government investigative team would show up immediately.

We cannot say that we will give up because sometimes this works and sometimes it does not work or that our job is not complete unless we accomplish everything.  We do not have to worry about whether the other parts of society is working.  When we have to look at someone in the eye, we can say that we did what we should do.

Reporter: When you put it that way, do you feel that you are like Sisyphus ?

Li: No.  Progress will move ahead in this way.  Some people will always hold on and persist.  I don't care if there isn't any use.  My job is to inform.  If I did not inform, then I am derelict in my duty.  Besides, the other parts of the social system will not be immobile a hundred percent of the time.  Why would one report on the Sun Zhigang incident?  For the sake of history?  Did it move?  It moved.  It got rid of the evil law.  Did it not influence today?

The only good journalist is the one who wants to influence today.  It does not matter if you cannot influence today for now.  If you can persist to record, you will still be a good journalist.  By contrast, the most terrible thing is to be cowardly and irreverent.  If it does not matter if I report it, then why should I report it?  It is dangerous and it requires effort, so I won't report it.  That is the true danger to this profession.  The Chinese society is one that is moving ahead, but it is not a perfect system.  In any society, journalists have only one obligation: to tell society what is happening.

Further, this cannot affect the belief about the effectiveness.  One may believe that if I report it, then the problem will be solved.  The responsible information that gets the public attention is something that subtly changes how people think and act and has educational value.  It makes people think hard and it increases the sense of citizenship and so on.  These things influences the world today.

Recording is the second pursuit of Chinese journalism.  This pursuit is not mistaken, for it sticks to the professional bottom line.  Many of our reports are like that.  SARS.  The people are dead already.  But many people need to know how they died, why they died and why nobody knows.  This type of information should be recorded for later generations to contemplate.

Reporter: Your characterization of the ten years at Freezing Point was that it went "from soft to hard."  Did something change in your own journalism values, or did the society in front of you change?

Li: It is the expectation of the public for Freezing  Point that caused this kind of change.  At first, we just reported some stories and everybody liked it and were moved -- basically, this was the track.  But we cannot be always like that.  We must perform some function in monitoring.  Not too much, because opinion monitoring requires a great deal of effort and usually leads to litigation.  We only have two or three reporters, and we cannot afford it.  But once you publish such an article, then everybody else shows up at your door.

"Hard" reporting is news reporting.  This is about investigating and exposing a news event, and some of them have successfully changed reality.  

Right now, we have a division of labor.  Our observation page needs to more lively, and our special feature page needs more help on thoughts and culture so that we can contribute towards nurturing civics in society.  This includes our publication of Lung Yingtai's essays, because it nurtures civic awareness.

Reporter: Your characterization of "hard" include something with a strong time effect as well as about transitioning from a warm and fuzzy type of thing to exposÚs.  This is your standard of "hard"?

Li: The so-called "hard" is about reports that directly intervene in social reality.  The reason why I report on something is to change reality.  For example, in our "The Accusation Was Found To Have No Basis", the Public Security Bureau sent out undercover investigators on the third day of our report to the family.  In the end, the entire public security bureau office staff who arrested people without cause to collect fines was dismissed and the several hundreds of thousand of RMB squeezed from the people were returned.  But there are other instances in which nothing much can be done as in "The Repeatedly Rejected Appeals On The Death Penalty Verdict," because our final efforts saved the lives of the accused, but the sentence was still life in prison even though they had ample proof of innocence.

The characteristic of soft reporting is to show thoroughness and depth in reporting an incident.  There has to be a very strong direction about social reality.  And everybody loves to read it.  But hard reporting is straight news investigation, without exaggeration, with no opinion or criticism mixed in.  Pure investigative reporting does not permit opinion, and even the terminology on criminal investigation is left untouched because those are the facts.

Reporter: I want to ask a question about "the art of living."  In theory, many of the things for people from the 1950's like yourself are ossified.  What are your persistent beliefs over the years?

Li: You cannot turn an entire generation of people into a concept.  There is a very vast difference from one person to another.  In any age, due to class, education, experience and occupation, there are big differences within the generation of people.  It is all the more true in a society that is becoming increasingly diversified.

For our generation, it is usually said that we were formed by the idealism and heroism of the 1950's.  This type of formation is illusory, but it must have left some traces.  For example, we seldom feel any terror, and this is probably due to Red Cliff (红岩).  (laughter)

Reporter: That is quite significant.  You went from a person who enjoyed special information privileges to someone who distributed information to other people.  This may prove the force of information itself.

Li:  Yes, yes.  When we went to the countryside, we never stopped learning.  That was very important.  When we were tending the herds on the grass plains, we took two cartloads of books when we moved.  They were all famous books from inside and outside China.

Reporter: Who is "we"?

Li: We were a band of children of "black gangs."  Ten people.  At the time, we were forced to leave Beijing and we ended on the grass plains.

Reporter: Did you even have the right to join a village brigade?

Li: No.  I left with my hukou.  I stayed for ten years.  I did not attend university.  But that was an advantage, because I was not formed by doctrine.  I have studied all the theory and books translated in the 1980's.  I have not missed anything.  In our heads, we have all the values and concepts about journalism developed over the past few centuries.  Some people say that these theories are out of date, but actually these people are too young to know.

The value concepts of journalism will never be out of date.  It is a very mature system of values.  We are moving closer to this value system right now.  Will it change quickly?  Will it happen it ten years' time?  It won't.  The reason why we have the same language as our colleagues elsewhere in the world is based upon the mature value concepts about journalism.