The Ideals of a Chinese Journalist

(Xici Hutong)  My Ideals as Journalist.  By Zhang Rui.  October 5, 2006.

[in translation]

Many people ask me: "Your blog is titled 'Journalism is an ideal.'  What does that mean?"  When I interview job candidates, I pose a question: 'Please tell me about the different ways in which journalism is a kind of ideal.'  There are all sorts of answers, all of which I regard as correct -- because to my mind, this question is unanswerable.

It is time for me to sit down in the autumnal sunlight to come up with an answer.  At the same time, I need to invoke the holy words of "journalistic ideal" to give myself strength and to offer my fellow warriors some direction as they wander in perplexity and confusion.

This unprecedented sense of happiness, mission and responsibility caused me to be nervous, ecstatic and embroiled.  I know that this is a sacred calling which allows me to escape my present depression, sorrow and helplessness.  Sad songs are heartbreaking and that is why I will only sing war songs.  My brothers, my fellow soldiers, we are not deserters.  We will leap up from the trenches in which we have sought shelter for so long in order to take the fortresses up front and arrive at the sacred land of our dreams.

What is it between journalism and me?  What is journalism?  How do we get away from the dictatorship on information?  This is a problem that I have been concerned about recently.  To some people, such problems are naive and risible, because they don't need to know how to exist as long as they can exist.  I cannot do so.  I need to understand.  Even if my ideas are negated immediately, I need a reason to exist and act.  I like to have a conscious life, in which I am not lost, pessimistic and abased.

There are many expressions and descriptions of journalistic ideals.  But today I regard them as either too broad or flawed.  For example, I once thought that the missions of journalism to be: To record history and to save the world.  Today, there are still so many debatable issues and these cannot be our true guides in reality.  Ideals should provide the direction of our practice.  Romain Rolland said that pragmatism without ideals is pointless but also ideals divorced from reality are lifeless.  In the design of journalistic ideals, much is divorced from reality.  Such journalistic ideals ignore the 5000 year history and cruel contemporary reality of China as well as the possibilities of the new technogical environment.  Therefore, these journalistic ideals are like the rainbows of the evening -- they are pretty, but they will vanish quickly when darkness comes down.

The brothers and fellow warriors around me are those who heeded the calling of journalism and entered the field.  You held their fists tight, your faces were red and your young hearts were as full as the sails in the gales.  But after a few years, you feel listless and downhearted in this pointless game and you infect and pollute each other.  This is not your fault.  You were misled by the journalistic ideals taught at the university campuses.  To put it bluntly, you were the deformed children of elitism.  The glorious achievements of your journalist forebears were in fact about setting up another prison after they broke down the former one.  Under such callings of journalistic ideals, it is no wonder that you ended up in desperate straits in total despair, for those journalistic ideals are not worth a thought.  

For example, "the iron shoulders to stand up for justice" and "ingenuous craftsmanship in writing."  That is the journalistic ideal for the novice.  If you think about it carefully, then this is problematic.  It is much less powerful and impressive, and it is much less morally overwhelming than the words might suggest.  Ignoring the bit about the writing craftsmanship, let us now examine the "iron shoulders to stand up for justice."

Iron shoulders?  What are iron shoulders?  Is "iron shoulders" the courage to risk one's life to say something?  Besides, what qualifies as "iron shoulders"?  In an environment in which the quality of life is improving and the social situation has not risen to a life-or-death level, are we supposed to be journalistic warriors or journalistic human suicide bombers?  When we criticize tourists for lacking consideration, are we "iron shoulders"?  When we mock the official who drank himself to death, are we "iron shoulders"?  Under the existing conditions, can we offer deeper and more penetrating criticism of politics, diplomacy and culture?  If we can't do it, then does that mean that we are not "iron shoulders?"  If the answers to these questions are not obvious, then we cannot use "iron shoulders" to specify the directions for Chinese journalists.

Also, moral justice.  What is moral justice?  Journalistic attention is something that happens during changes.  Because when something is changing, there may not be obvious value judgments.  Our so-called moral judgment are mostly our own "values."  These are the values that we accept; they are not the truth; they are not what the people feel and think.  But we journalists have the power and we can propound our values loudly in the media and thus force it upon others.  Even if our interpreted moral justice is not wrong, do we have the right to impose it on others?

Therefore, there is a lot of logical open room for interpreting moral justice by way of our "iron shoulders."  As such, the interpretation of this ideal is an artificially contrived thing.

But certain professional journalists treat this as a journalistic ideal and they are going strong as they fight the battles.  I respect them for their strong characters.  But conceptually, I must say that I have my doubts.

As an example, there is a tough veteran journalist in Henan province.  Under his stewardship, many excellent critical reports were made.  Therefore, he upset certain officials and he was relieved of his duties.  Someone asked him, "Elder M, do you regret this?"  He said with moral justice that he has no regrets.  I admire him for his courage.  But on another question, he gave me the chills as if I was in an ice cave!  The young man asked him: "If your report caused the newspapers to be closed down and all the young people who worked for you to lose their jobs or even go to jail, would you have done these reports?"  Elder M replied with a question: "What has that got to do with me?  Obviously, I would have done it."

This is the perverted character that comes out of the "iron shoulders" ideal of journalism.  They have placed their perceived "moral justice" as the highest value and everything else (such as the life or death of the newspaper and the fellow warriors) was not worth mentioning.  In order to achieve his "moral justice," he was willing to march bravely over the dead bodies of his fellow warriors.

I'm curious.  If Elder M's moral justice was about tp save the people, then are not the brothers and warriors by his side also part of the people?  Why are your ideals more valuable and noble than the lives of others!  Worse yet, when we are oppressed, we are full of resentment and we want to resist.  But these idealistic colors that taint the journalistic ideals render the followers into willing slaves who forsake their youth, passion and even their lives on the altar of those ideals!

Sad!  Sad!  Sad!

Elder M is a likeable elder, and therefore he expressed his thoughts without holding back.  But this provides us with an opportunity to reflect on this elitist concept of journalistic ideals.  At most Chinese newspapers, most of the leaders will not express their ideals in this manner.  In their minds, they believe that everything under the heavens follows one principle and this is about who rules the land.  This elitist concept of journalistic ideals is about how eunuchs get promotions and pay raises.

I despise this!

When journalists who have never met sit down, the easiest consensus is about the increasingly tight news controls.  Yes, this news environment forces us to block and filter much information from the public.  But we have not thought about how the greatest blocking and filtering was not caused by the news environment.  Rather, they occur because of the unique nature of mass media.  This is an original sin for the mass media such as newspapers and television from day one.  The fact is that even without news control, in countries such as the United States which has freedom of press, the mass media are censoring the news on their own.  Even as they are resisting news dictatorship, they are building their bigger, more brutal and more heartless information dictatorship of their own.  Big Brother in <1984> was not just the power behind the screen, but the screen itself.   It is the technological nature of mass media and their natural deficiencies which are blocking and censoring.  If we want to live in the environment of mass media, we cannot help but impose information dictatorship on the masses -- this f*cking thing is really depressing.

I was chatting with a friend and he used an example to illustrate this.  I am even hoping that this example can provide a new definition of journalism -- a concept about journalism in this new media environment.

My friend hypothesized: Zhang Rui is getting married.  Is this news?

Obviously it is not.  Under our present definition of news, it may be possible to make this a piece of news if this simple fact can be expanded.  For example, the marriage-obsessed Zhang Rui is getting married for the 100th time; Zhang Rui is marrying Zhang Ziyi; etc.  We think those kinds of information is news because we think that news is what is valuable or interesting to most people.  Please pay attention to the definition of "most people."  Who is being neglected?  What is being neglected?  That is the fatal flaw of mass media.

Mass media necessarily has to ignore some people, because mass media has limited space and time.  It can only provide the facts on what most people care about within the limited space and time.  This becomes a dictatorship in which a small number of people are ignored.

This is what happens at one level.  Let us go back and look at the information about "Zhang Rui is getting married."  Is this piece of information truly not news?  For my friends and family, the importance of this piece of news far exceeds that the super-important news of "Chen Liangyu falls."  For the mass media whose principal function is to provide information, why can't you provide such information to my friends and family?

Based upon the technological capabilities of mass media, there are two unsurpassable flaws:  First, space and time are limited.  Disseminating this kind of news has too little value when compared to the impact and commercial values.  Secondly, the mass media audience is anonymous and therefore the mass media cannot know whether "Zhang Rui gets married" is needed by its audience.

Let us think about this further.  Let us suppose that there is a medium which can provide individualized, professional news based upon the individual interest, preferences and tastes of each reader.  Wouldn't that have much greater communicative effectiveness?  Wouldn't this liberate the minorities from the information blocking?

I am narcissistic, and therefore I often think that God sent me down to this country in this time of change to choose journalism as my profession for a profound reason.  I feel that God takes care for me and I am thankful for this reason.

Yes, I am lucky.  That is because I live in the Internet era.  The internet can realize by and large the journalistic ideals that the mass media cannot.  This ideal can be simply described as: let each person have the ability to obtain the information that he/she needs in a timely manner at low cost.

This journalistic ideal is premised upon three key concepts: timeliness, low cost and need satisfaction.

Timeliness: This redefines the concept of time in journalism, by replacing "at the time" with "timeliness."

Low cost:  The user has lower cost in terms of money, time and action.

Need satisfaction: No garbage information (this refers to garbage information for sports fans as oopposed to garbage information to Super Girl fans) that interfere with other information.

This presentation of journalistic ideals does not have any of the moral strength of "iron shoulder moral justice."  Roughly speaking, it has the cold tone of technocrats.  But I can appreciate the warmth, passion and even resistance against the cruel realities beneath this calm statement that had no apparent charismatic value.  It made me excited to realize that this journalistic ideal has the possibility (both politically and technogically) of being realized in the present Internet environment.  The horns of heroism are sounding in my ears as I cannot stay calm anymore.

I have a dream.  I dream that everyone can freely enjoy the news that he/she needs without being blocked or censored by political forces and mass media, and that he/she shall not be misdirected by the self-righteous journalistic judgments.

I have a dream.  I dream that I can provide vast amounts of fact so that everyone can make his/her own judgment about our era and our nation -- even if such judgment may be risible and naive, it is still many times better than being slaves to thought masters.

I have a dream.  I dream that information democracy will improve the quality of our lives, that we can understand information at low cost, that we can then make decisions about our lives and that the children in western China can share the benefits of information democracy with the rich people in the east.

All of this can be realized.

All of this shall be realized.