Lin Huai-Min On Taiwan Newspapers

The following contains a translation of a conversation between the publisher of United Daily News Wang Shiao-lan and the founder of the Cloud Gate Dance Theater Lin Huai-min.  Wang had invited Lin to come in and offer some advice for the newspaper.  Cloud Gate Dance Theater is a cultural treasure in Taiwan and Lin is an esteemed independent intellectual.  The transcript of the conversation was originally published in an internal publication of the United Daily News organization.  From there, it appeared in a number of forums and blogs where it generated a tremendous amount of interest.  

Why the interest?  Because everybody realizes that this is not just about United Daily News.  You can paint in any color flavor and look at any Taiwan newspaper, and the same set of problems apply.

(original Chinese-language articles at Letters From China and The 99th)

Lin: I have expectations about United Daily News.  Obviously, I hope that United Daily makes money.  But I also hope that United Daily is not so "blue."  United Daily News is now totally involved in the political struggles.  In my impression, I have rarely read about United Daily News saying something from this government as being good.  We know this position, but to turn this into a propaganda sheet for a political party ...

Wang: United Daily does not admit to that.

Lin: ... but, sorry, it is absolutely that kind of color.  This is even more severe than Central Daily News.

Is it necessary for a newspaper to be so detailed about national politics and entertainment figures?  This has become the full function of the newspaper, overwhelming everything else.  We do not need so much political news.  We only need the important news.

As far as United Daily News is concerned, as soon as something happens, the editorial says something and then the opinion columns say something.  But I know that already without even reading them.  Unless you believe that those are your readers and you have no intention of expanding the vistas of your readers, we can all continue to spin that whirlpool.  Basically, people are sick of these things.  I feel that you ought to try harder to be more objective.  The political characters are already fuzzy, they are play-acting, the newspapers follow them and then all of Taiwan is dragged in.  This is very serious.

United Daily News should become the newspaper of all of Taiwan, it should be a bit more objective and it does not have to have so much political news.  For example, when there is some news, you have two pages on the same incident, but these are just the instant comments from various reporters.  If you want to be a blue party organ, you can please everybody like an entertainment club.  But do you need so much space?  This is not news.  You go from the first two pages to page three and then page four, I don't even have to read it to know your position.  After a while, I don't need to read it anymore.  When it is really needed some day, it will no longer be effective.

I feel that you can have a position, but this is not the right way to handle it.  I am speaking on behalf of anyone.  But how can a newspaper become something like this?  This is very serious.  I feel that this is not good.

Wang: I thank you for your opinion.  We will discuss this.  You were very blunt when you said that United Daily is very blue.  When the KMT ruled, we also played the role of monitoring.

Lin: As media, you should know the difference between "impression" and "image."  If you need to explain it, then it is usually too late and too difficult.

This impression cannot be changed.  For the long-term development of Taiwan, you should make more space for discussion.  From page 1 to page 4, there has never been a public discussion.

Wang: There must have been?

Lin: No.  There were no issues in there.  There were only the ups and downs of political situations and political personalities.  The current national matters must include other issues besides the cross-strait relationship and the Three Communications?  We are not being informed.  The media ought to monitor those issues.  The strategies and tactics of the political figures are constantly shifting.  During elections, there are no issues because they are always talking about the lofty and unsolvable cross-strait problem.

Is there nothing else?  Are foreign migrants problematic?  United Daily News cares about many special issues.  You are concerned about socially vulnerable groups.  You use powerful methods and then suddenly you drop the subject.

Wang: Unable to sustain it?

Lin: Right.  Unable to sustain it.  Also, there are too few international news stories.  Right now, I know that many intellectuals avoid reading newspapers.  They can wait until Saturday and Sunday to watch Chen Wenqian's television program "World Weekly."  This is not just about the attractiveness of Chen Wenqian, but it is her contents.  Is it possible for the newspapers to go back to doing what they used to be able to do: a weekend review of national and international news with discussion: for example, Feng Xialung is ill and what are the important implications?  What is the Palestinian problem?  We must start from the beginning.  What is history?  What is the position of our government?  Right now, we have no sense of history at all.  From the angle of news, we need some remedial education.

For this WTO conference, if Taiwan did not send anyone over, the news just disappears.  The media made Taiwan feel that it is unconnected to the world.  The reason is that the first three pages of the newspapers were stuffed with stories about "chickens flying and dogs jumping."  They are now speculating about whether "Hsieh is out and Su is in."  I don't care.  Do you need so much space for that?  This is like a serial drama.  In the long term, this is very unfortunate for the country.

The Weekly Review must have an explanation of the background and the readers must be told how this is related to Taiwan.  Today, we must not cut ourselves off from the world.  But the people of Taiwan do not have that self-awareness.  Perhaps there are people who have the sort of self-awareness, but they do not speak out in the business community, or in the cultural community, or in newspapers and television.  Everybody has totally given up.  Given up.  I don't like it, but I feel that we are the ones who decide whether the bottom line is.  We draw a line and we tell ourselves: we cannot go down any further!  Taiwan cannot sink continuously, and the media must not push us along that way.

For example, if there is a new iPod product from Apple Computer, we should talk about it from the beginning as opposed to shoving it back to the consumer section.  We should dig things out in the front sections.  Right now, when we read about new products, it is completely tied in with commercial opportunities and there is no discussion of the direct relationships with our culture and civilization.  Is the iPod made in Taiwan?  We should know that.

Right now, Taiwan has a serious and urgent problem in having a vacuum in the middle.  All our information is connected to commerce and consumer culture.  We only know about products and prices.

I obviously hope to see more about culture.  The presence of movie and television news is an important selling point, but do we need so much every day?  Perhaps you can have a bit less.  You can get everything back on Sunday with an impressive publication.  You can move the movie and television section there, and you don't need it every day.  Frankly, if you all imitate Apple Daily, none of you can beat them.  This is because you have to wear a western suit, but Apple Daily does not.  You have to think about a way to adjust.  Apple Daily is very bold, and many things appear in the headlines.  Your "Minshengpao Weekly" is not enough.

Do we need so much news about Jay Chou every day?  Can the four pages on movies and television be reduced to two pages?  I don't know.  This is going to affect the base of the circulation department, right?

Wang: More or less.

Lin: Is there some unexpected gimmick?  Can we see something surprising?  For example, a full-page photographs, maybe of Lin Chiling or a famous painting.  Right now, everything follows Apple Daily, but you are not tough enough and so you are not as good.  If I were to start a newspaper, I would start a Hong Kong Economic Journal.  It is crisp and clean, and I can read about all the important things.

The cultural page in United Daily is not bad, but the discussion of the issues is still inadequate.  Sometimes, I feel very sorry.  On Monday, you enclose the New York Times Weekly Magazine and it is like a slap in your face.  There is so much content in the English-language section.  Compared to the little bit of Taiwan content written over so many pages, it is like United Daily is slapping itself.  I'm sorry.

About the media today, my positions will perhaps be described as too dated, too stern and too unprofitable.  But I am only offering an adjustment by a matter of degrees.  As far as I am concerned, it does not matter if Taiwan is unified or independent.  Regardless of where it is unified or independent, I still have to read these extremely uninteresting newspapers.  Even if unification occurs, we ought to unify with dignity.

At the grand opening of the Eslite Xinyi store, I went there and I almost cried when I saw it.  There, I saw human dignity and the expression of the Taiwan dream.  Within the section on chemistry, physics and reference books, there was an art section hidden in there.

The greatness of a culture is related to the media.  Right now, we only have a culture of quarreling.  We don't even have a language.

When a reporter writes a report, there is no concern for the language.  So the political figures have no language and the media have no language.  The most basic proper language in a society has been lost.  So you are unified by someone else, or you become the 51st state of someone else.  I don't care!  It is very sad that we don't even have a language.

The editorial pieces are sometimes well-written and sometimes not.  During the era of Yu Hang (note: former United Daily director who passed away at the end of last year), there was no fooling around as things were truly worked out.  Today, there are only positions and nothing else matters.  One is about selling the positions and the other is the political position.  There is no concern about the quality in the middle and there is no requirement for cultural substance.  Anything goes.  Everybody can suffer setbacks.  But the full-scale setback for all the intellectuals is frightening.

This can be extended to another problem.  Nobody carries any weight anymore.  The United Daily News did not nurture various types of columnists.

China Times has articles by Nanfang Shuo and Lu Yizheng.  You must read them.  They are not written by young reporters in a 'reactive' manner.  But you can't find them in United Daily News.  Chang Tsuo-chin has moved to the supplementary section.  If you nurture your columnist, you still insist that he follows your political position.  So he gets no credit and he has to "lease" out his space of free expression to you.  Therefore, this whole society does not have intellectual leaders.

This becomes very funny.  In the front, they are staging a political serial drama.  In the rear, the mode of expression is letters from unaccountable readers.  In the middle, nobody says anything.

There is no newspaper in the world that does not have columnists.  Apart from the editorial pieces, there has to be comments from people who carry weight.  But nobody wants to engage right now, and neither do the media.  The worst thing about Taiwan is that when Lin I-Hsiung spoke out this time, he was ineffective.  Even the taxi drivers criticize Ma Ying-jeou for being ineffective.  A newspaper needs one or two famous people to speak out, but there are no such leaders right now.  We have only a bunch of messy reporters in a bunch of messy media organizations.

If you don't nurture them, you won't get them.  Didn't the newspapers use to nurture them?  You spend three years to try this person or that person.  Then you tell them clearly, "If you want a column here, you can't show up on television ..." I like how Next Magazine does it.  Each issue, they offer Liu Da-ren and Zhang Hui-jing US$1,000 apiece each week and keep them there.  If he says something bad about the blues, you listen.  Previously, when Uncle Wang and Uncle Yu (note: United Daily was founded by Wang Tiwu and China Times was founded by Yu Jih-Jong), they would go and visit those people at their homes.  The two may be very stern and powerful in their own offices, but they would really go and humbly seek these people out.  Tao Bai chuan was found this way: "The reason why the gods deliver is that the faithful make them so."

I am concerned that there is no one voice in Taiwan that everybody is willing to listen to.  These voices must be nurtured and given a great deal of space, or else they get rarer and rarer.

The students today become whatever you give them.  If you don't give them the humanities, what will happen in thirty years' time?

The media influence the schools!  There are no core values now.  None at all.  Japan and Korea have not discarded them.  What does United Daily News care about?  These things cannot be stopped.  Frankly speaking, apart from national politics and the cross-strait subject, I don't see what United Daily News cares about.  Sometimes, there is an AIDS topic, but this does not mean that United Daily News cares.

The "relativity theory" section is good, because it means that there exists another kind of celebrity other than Lin Chiling.  There are people in there that I admire, because the media as a whole does not have any human touch.  I don't see any humans, unless it is an incident about an arson or rape.  But in the "Relativity" section, it touches upon history, human relationships and social classes.  I see "the people of Taiwan" only in that section.  In all the other sections, I only see ideological formations or price lists for consumption -- they are all propaganda.  "Relativity theory" is very good.  You should make these kinds of reports every day in that section, as opposed to once a week.  Human warmth should be felt.

Just what issues United Daily should support and whether it cares about nurturing people is something that you will need three or five years to solve.  For those issues that you care about, you must persist with them to change society.  You can't just do it occasionally.  You must fulfill your promise.  That is a core value.  The more you insist, the more likely society will truly change.

Wang: I thank you for bringing up this point.  During the past month or two, we have been discussing which subjects we should care about over the long run.  It does not have to be done by our newspaper reporters, for we can ask for help from outside experts.  Which issues do you think society needs care most of all?

Lin: Culture is one thing.  Foreign migrants, inequality of wealth, labor, corruption.  Insofar as culture is concerned, the cultural center is the biggest issue.  Culture is very abstract, but the cultural center is not abstract.  It is the pathway through which an artist communicates with the people.  It is easier for Cloud Gate to perform in New York City than in Fengyuan.  Our cultural center is ineffective.  When culture encounters problems of local interests, I think we can talk about them.  We need to cultivate vision and imagination and let the cultivation of the people decide everything.

United Daily News has literary prizes.  But I think that it can also have other kinds of prizes.  Such a person may be unknown, but he is changing a certain phenomenon.  Ten years ago, he may the unknown Wu Bai.  The identification of United Daily News with Taiwan can be expressed through this particular person.  This will show where your values are, and you don't have to give it to Lin Huai-min or Ang Lee.

Sorry to say, I can see only political values on United Daily today.  I cannot see any other values.  Therefore, as far as I am concerned, this newspaper has no value for me.  You might say, "I have mainland Chinese news and international news."  But I feel that this like a department store.  There are many seats in Eslite bookstore.  When I look at its values, it is more than just selling books.

I used to be able to see certain insistences in United Daily.  In earlier days, its political insistence made us even liked it.  Do you know what I mean?  But it is no longer there.  When I ride a taxi to buy a copy of United Daily, the driver would say loudly, "You buy United Daily!"  United Daily kept talking about group harmony, but your newspaper did not do it.  You participated in the group division.  You complained about others, but you were no better.  You threw rocks harder than the others, because you had the weapons.

You can still have your positions and insistences and you can be insistent on some subjects, but you should not insert yourself into other people's dirty business.  I don't see what Yu Shyi-kun can get out of this, no matter how well he does his job.  I don't think that this is good.  The New York Times and the Washington Post have their positions, but it is not like this.

Human rights is important.  Right now, I feel that all the human rights in the media have been given to the government.  It seems that the freedom of speech for the media has been obstructed.  But have you ever thought about how other people feel?  If you cannot return to communications among people, then the group division problem will never be solved as far as people are concerned.

If I were in charge of United Daily, I would give the Person of the Year award at the end of my first year to the people of Taiwan to start.  Even though this may be against some of my political positions, everybody must deal with this problem gradually.

For Taiwan, I see no hope.  Everybody is saying that this is due to the cross-strait problem.  But this is not so.  The reason why the cross-strait problem is unsolved is because something has gone awry with the emotions and cultivation of the people: as long as they have money and material goods and they can get by, it does not matter to them who is in charge.  Meanwhile, the people above are shouting at each other as if it really mattered.

The media is a flag that has to be run over the long term but nothing is being done right now.  Sometimes, it "poses" that it cares about society.  From the moment that Ah-bian pretended to be superman, everybody began to do the packaging.  But it was all pose and it was impossible to discern any genuine concern apart from the politics.  If Brother Ying-jeou is elected, will you scold him?  If you scold him, will it assist Su Tseng-chang?  A great deal of time is being spent on these kinds of considerations.

We cut ourselves off from the world.  We are so faraway from the international scene.  The media do not report.  It does not matter if you travel overseas and sight-see one hundred times because you are not being educated regularly.  The sight-seer passes a house and has no idea that this was Downing Street Number 10.  They don't even have commonplace knowledge, so they can forget about vision.

There are many problems with mainland China, but they have many people.  By proportion, they have a lot of intellectuals.  I went to Shanghai, I sat in my hotel room eight hours a day and I was interviewed three days in a row.  Each reporter brought along two to three pages of detailed questions.  They chatted with me about the current state of international dance, they asked me to borrow video tapes and they saved their own money in order to attend the Edinburgh Arts Festival for one whole month.  They reminded me of Taiwan in the 1970's.  You can go to Fudan University and look for yourself -- the library is open all night.

The youth of this generation in mainland China are hungry, thirsty and progressive.  I asked them what Taiwan should do.  They would said, "If it is good for them, then so be it.  Tibet, Taiwan, if they want to go, they should go."  This generation is astonishing.  But the situation in Taiwan is that no young people will talk to you about knowledge or the world.

But if your newspaper talks about these things, they will come.  The newspaper is the source of information.  If I have to give out an award this year, I would give it to Chen Wenqian.  Many people go home on weekend nights in order to watch her program.  This program provides a summary for everybody.  It is fresh and lively.  What can't a newspaper be like that?

Sorry for saying so much.

Wang: Very good.  Very good.  I am really grateful.

Lin: It is not that government policies cannot be criticized.  You can take the comments from both sides, and you can have a balanced approach.  You don't have to so harsh when you write.  You talk about the issues, and you can add the thoughts of the scholars.  You should only lay out the problem.  The other important thing is that good things should be published.  For example, why wasn't Ji Hui-rong of the women's organization on the front page?  Right now, I like to read Next Magazine most of all.  The writing is first-rate and its whole framework is very clear.

The media kept talking about the Three Communications.  But everybody only saw that if they happened, then people won't have to travel eight hours.  But nobody is talking about how we ought to prepare ourselves.  If everybody can reach a consensus, the legislators must treat this as an issue.

For the Kaohsiung railroad, everybody said that it was a mess.  But it is about to start operating.  What is the impact on Taiwan?  We have not discussed these matters.  What is the response to the avian flu?  We will begin to think about it after people start dying.  If we asked the Department of Health just what they intend to do, we will arouse attention.  People have been influenced tremendously be Apple Daily and Next Magazine, but there is another way for you to turn it around.  You only have to explain your values, you persist with them, you change your pages slowly and your influence will be established.

Wang: We are having internal discussions about how to develop the issues, including less about politics and the Three Communications.  But it is difficult to talk about the problems of Taiwan without talking about government policies, including livelihood, economics and culture.  I spoke with some colleagues last month.  United Daily News' position is that we support the Three Communications.  But we should go one step further by telling our readers: after the Three Communications, what are the good and bad things afterwards?

Lin:  The newspaper needs someone to deal with these types of information in depth over the long term.  You can keep bringing these problems up with Frank Hsieh, but not to attack him.  Right now, you keep talking about "Su in, Hsieh out" and "What kind of game is Chen Shui-bian up to?"  You keep telling us common knowledge that even taxi drivers know.  You are wasting space.  You are better off telling me something that I need to know!  We need to have hopeful, warm and interesting things which can make the front page.  We don't want political or entertainment propaganda.

As for "Su in, Hsieh out", this is just a report.  Frankly speaking, what do you have to say?  It is likely to be a year-old story.  What I mean is that you can talk about this, but it is wrong to turn a column into gossip.  The evening talk show with Tang Xianglung does it much better than you can.  So you should not be repeating this stuff.

Wang: During the maturing of Cloud Gate, did you encounter any conflict between elite culture and popular market demand?

Lin: Cloud Gate never had that problem.  While I read United Daily, I also read China Times and Next Magazine.  I love to read these days.  I am a "garbage can."  I have many popular and lower-class stuff.  When you watch "Wild Grass," you would not feel, "Wow, I don't understand this."  I ate at roadside food stands, I came from a rural village, my domain is wide and I never feel that knowledge or art is any big deal.  They are all the same.  When Next Magazine writes about how these crazy female students sleep around, I sometimes thinks, "Wow, he writes so well!"

I feel that the media are too lazy.  How come the same news comes out of evening television?  But when you scold people, you talk as if you have reasons when you have no professionalism.  This is completely dictated by the bosses.  You want well-crafted and breakthrough items, but you still end up doing it this way because this is how you make money and this is what the circulation department says.

I wonder if you can set aside a special space and then evaluate it at the end of the year.  Today, reorganization at newspapers occurs faster than they swap premiers in government.  They change things all the time, and the readers cannot find what they want.  When you read the New York Times, you know where to find what you need.  Furthermore, this has been the same across generations; if you want to quarrel, you can do it at the same location.

Everybody says that United Daily is conservative.  I hope that it can be more conservative and keep things steady.  If you want to change, you should do so once every three years.

Wang: Our sectional reorganization occurs slowly.  Minor adjustments are made, but there are seldom any huge changes.

Lin: Frankly speaking, when I am working, I have to cut off all news about Taiwan.  When I read those newspapers, I get unhappy.  It takes a week to recover my strength.

Each week, I read TIME magazine.  On Monday, I read the New York Times Weekly Magazine.  Then I read the International Herald Tribune.  I like the Tribune, because they have good writers.  Why don't you collaborate with them?

I just said earlier that perhaps you can put aside on color page a week to introduce cultural subjects.  For example, this week you can present Tadao Ando and Tsai Kuo-jung.  We in Taiwan are always picking up after what others have already done, such as hyping up Yo-yo Ma.  In the end, it seemed as if there is only Yo-yo Ma in this whole world.  Zaha Hadid and Murakami Haruki are hot in America, but we have never presented them.  They should be discussed, as they have done so in mainland China.  We cannot be limited only to LV and Nike.  We must seek cultural balance.  For example, Ang Lee is doing "Brokeback Mountain," but who is the author of "Brokeback Mountain"?  Who knows the answer?  She writes about the south and the remote parts of the country and she is in the American tradition.  I think that we ought to feed it to the readers.  Just one person a week.  Since you decided to do the New York Times Weekly Magazine on Monday, you removed the cultural page.  Why did you remove it?

I want to say that culture determines everything in the end.  Culture must be continuously nurtured, or else it is finished.  You watch how much LV is being sold in Taiwan and those so-called "society women" wear them.  That is frightening.  With culture, we can still win against Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong.  But we are now talking about "milk" and "chicken" all the time.  We need something for balance.

You look at Asahi Shimbun.  It has always had this tradition of having a pretty woman in a kimono.  We can also have Chen Jing too, on Sundays!  Then you can tell everybody about what the reading is about.  You don't have to do anything big.  Since you are unfortunate enough to have four pages of movie/television every day, you need something to balance it out.  So you set aside Sunday as a "lease" district, like the Sunday Times.  This shows how you are different; there may not be a lot of news, but it should be very rich in content and the readers will look forward to it.  Newspapers need very much to have vision, so you need to take a "gamble."

We cannot just talk about this around the table.  How do you explain that the Eslite bookstore can operate around the clock?  Or that Classical Radio has sold out all its advertising spots?  You can look at Next Magazine, but you cannot ignore this other group.  It too can be nurtured.  If you always go for the ready-made, there is no future for Taiwan.

Related ReadingLin Huai-min on Taiwan's papers, and their business strategies  Sun Bin