Fujian Media PK Xinhua

As noted in Internal Reference Materials in China, the Chinese government officials rely strongly on Xinhua to inform them.  But it is not the Xinhua reports that the masses read.  Instead, there are various internal Xinhua reports known as Internal Reference Materials (内部参考资料) that are circulated within officialdom. Internal reference materials are classified as national secrets and so no one can talk about them openly.

The following story is unusual because the Fujian media launched a public attack on a report published in Xinhua Internal Reference Materials.  In return, the Xinhua reporter agreed to be interviewed.  This is a strange debate because the two sides are fighting over a report that the public does not have access to.

(Youth Weekend)  The inside story of Fujian government media versus Xinhua.  By Ma Jun.  September 7, 2006.

On one side, there is the Zhejiang office of Xinhua News Agency.  On the other side, there is the Fujian government media.  The "exciting showdown" has been featured on many forums recently.

At the Tianya forum, the title was "Xinhua is angry!"  The CCTV forum had the title "Fujian Daily PK Xinhua."  There are other titles such as "The battle of words between Xinhua and the Fujian provincial party committee has not stopped," "An exciting battle of words over typhoon Saomai," and so on.

The incident began on August 19 when Fujian Daily reported on a speech by the Fujian provincial party secretary.  With respect to the news reporting on typhoon Saomai, the secretary issued strong criticisms: "Certain media, including journalists from outside the province, went to the disaster zones and made many untruthful reports based upon hearsay.  The Internet also sensationalized things."

This initiated a debate.  From August 20 to 24, the Fujian Southwest News Net of the Fujian provincial people's government under the management of the Fujian provincial party committee publicity department, published three essays from "netfriends" titled: "The Saomai disaster: where is the conscience of the media?" "The natural disaster is long gone, but we must not be brought down by man-made disasters" and "Concerning media behavior after typhoon Saomai."  The essays took direct aim at the Zhejiang office of Xinhua News Agency which went to gather news at the disaster areas in Fujian.

Two days later on August 26, Xinhua published "For the conscience of journalists -- the front line journalists' notes of the report on typhoon Saomai" (hereafter referred to as Journalists' Notes.  This essay was 7,000 characters long and signed in the names of four reporters of the Zhejiang office of Xinhua.  The essay explained the details and process of their work in the disaster zone.  In addition, there was a commentary titled "Reporting in disaster zone was smeared as 'man-made disaster'".  These appeared on the website of the Zhejiang channel of Xinhua.

Three days later, Fujian responded.  In the Strait Metro Daily under Fujian Daily, there was an essay titled "Fujian reporters gathered news in Saomai disaster zone; they saw and heard different things" on August 29.  This long news report that contained more than 6,000 characters made direct reference to Xinhua's Journalist Notes and rebutted item and item.

Here are some key excerpts from these essays:

... after disaster struck, the public watchdogs -- including certain mainstream media as well as reporters from outside our province who went to the disaster zone -- ignored how the masses helped each other, or the PLA soldiers contributed to the relief effort, or the local party and government officials actively helped people rebuild ... some of the reporters were even led by their publisher who came as a group to the disaster area.  Some of the reporters did not contact the local party and government.  They listened to hearsay rumors, exaggerated the scope of the disaster, fabricated sensationalistic details and published huge amounts of seriously inaccurate news reports and internal references.

 "The Saomai disaster: where is the conscience of the media?"
(Fujian Southeast News Net)

At Sina.com, there is a news item about the Fujian party committee secretary criticizing inaccurate news reports.  Within several hours, more than 500 comments were made already.  These comments accused the Fujian departments as being inadequate in their relief efforts and attacked the Fujian party committee secretary personally.  These repeated postings all had the same IP address.  Clearly, certain people with ulterior motives must be controlling things from behind the scene.  They are watching the fire from the other shore, and occasionally pouring oil.  Their only worry is that things do not get more chaotic.

"The natural disaster is long gone, 
but we must not be brought down by man-made disasters"
(Fujian Southeast News Net)

A certain reporter at an authoritative news outlet wrote: "Reporting in disaster zone was smeared as 'man-made disaster'" in response to three forum posts at the Fujian Southeast News Net ... this is the first time that the authoritative news outlet has responded directly to the merciless attacks.  Why did that reporter "pay attention" to the forum posts to the point of making a "formal clarification" personally?  This writet believes that they did so in order to retain their authoritative position!

"News media should not be brought down by authoritativeness"
(Fujian Southeast News Net)

At noon on August 13, we arrived in Shacheng town in Fuding.  We drove along the road by the harbor.  Suddenly, the driver cried out: "What is that in the water?"  We got out to look and we were shocked: it was a floating corpse!  Then we saw about a dozen more bodies floating in the sea.

(Journalists' Notes)
(Zhejiang office of Xinhua News Agency)

Actually, we arrived in Shacheng on the day before the reporters in "Journalists' Notes" did.  At 2pm on August 12, we got on the ferry from Shacheng town to Nancheng village.  But we did not see any floating corpses on the sea.

(Sights and Sounds)
(Fujian Daily reporters in Strait Metro Daily)

When the people heard that we were reporters, they rushed up to us and gave us their opinions about the rescue work.  Apparently, their missing relatives have still not been found.  One fisherman said that on the first day after the disaster, medical workers were invisible in the disaster area, and nobody organized any search for bodies.

(Journalists' Notes)
(Zhejiang office of Xinhua News Agency)

Actually, even before the fury of Saomai stopped, Shacheng town had begun sea rescue ... (followed by a large section about how the local government conducted the search and rescue).

(Sights and Sounds)
(Fujian Daily reporters in Strait Metro Daily)

So who is right and who is wrong in this Internet battle between Xinhua's Zhejiang office and the Fujian government media?

On September 4, our reporter contacted Fujian Daily's chief editor Wu Jiasheng but he refused to be interviewed.  Our reporter then contacted Xinhua's Zhejiang office reporter Zhu Liyi, who wrote the Journalists' Notes.  Zhu described what happened behind the scenes in this battle:

We are national media.  We were not crossing from one province to gather news in another province.  At the disaster zone, we were unable to locate any local government people.  Our report was a Xinhua Internet Reference restricted to provincial-level leaders or higher up, and it has been improperly distributed.

Youth Weekend: You people are reporters from the Zhejiang office of Xinhua.  Why did your director take you to gather news in Fujian?
Zhu: Xinhua is a national news agency.  Why does it mean for us to gather news across borders?  Fujian has no basis for saying that we
transgressed boundaries.

YW: Is there any precedent for a local Xinhua office to gather news in another province?
Zhu: As long as the main office agrees, this precedent has always been there.

YW: Did you get the approval of the main office?
Zhu: They could not agree more!  First, we informed the main office before we left.  Second, after we were done and we got ready to leave, the main office said that we must remain there until the Fujian colleagues arrive and take over.  They made sure that we didn't leave.  At first, we did not plan to go to Fujian.  Our director took us to gather news at Cangnan in Wenzhou (Zhejiang province).  Cangnan is next to Fuding (Fujian).  The two places are contiguous.  In Cangnan, we heard that many people died in Fuding and we also saw some Cangnan people heading to Fuding to identify the bodies of their relatives.  So we informed the main office.  Since we were the closest team to Fuding at the time, the main office sent us over there.

YW: The Fujian media said that you "ignored how the PLA soldiers contributed to the relief effort, or the local party and government officials actively helped people rebuild."
Zhu: There is one example which can illustrate the problem.  For example, if a family member of mine is in a hospital, my first question should be: "How is the health of my family member?"  Or should I be asking, "What things have you done?"  It is obviously the former.  I must care first and foremost about my family member.  This is a common rule in journalism.  Also, we reached the Fuding Publicity Department by telephone and we interviewed them.  Also, we kept looking for government officials at the scene, but we could not find any.  We were puzzled.

YW: Fujian media said that your report was a "man-made disaster."  Why do you think?
Zhu: Can a news report ever be a "man-made disaster"?  Besides, how did the person get to read our internal reference report?  At around 11pm on the night of the 13th, the Fujian Publicity Department director told us that the casualty figures as of that evening was more than 70 dead and more than 100 missing.  I feel that I must mention that the number of deaths increased sharply afterwards.  On the next day, it rose to more than 170. 

YW: What does that mean?
Zhu: This is to say that the disaster occurred on the 10th.  On the evening of the 13th, the Fujian provincial publicity department only had a low statistic.  But on the day after Xinhua went there, Fuding suddenly raised the announced number of deaths sharply.  We issued the internal reference report on that evening and revealed the truth.  After we published the internal reference, we can see some reflections as well criticisms at the Fujian websites.  But I am still puzzled as to how so many people knew about the internal reference report.  Our internal reference report is available only to provincial-level leaders or higher-ups.  Did some people get to see this internal reference through improper means?

YW: Are you certain that it was your internal reference that caused the debate?
Zhu: On the problem of the Fuding disaster at sea, apart from the Journalists' Notes that we published later on, the Zhejiang office did not publish anything else publicly.  If they did not read that internal reference report, then what can they accuse us of?  If they read it, then what improper means did they employ to access it?  Internal reference reports cannot be distributed in print form.  They cannot even be disclosed verbally.  So how did it get out?  At the Fujian Southeast News Net, many of the essays that are critical of us were written by "netfriends" employing a unique tone of speech.  Daqi Net therefore used the title: "So-called netfriends in Fujian PK Xinhua."  "So-called netfriends."  This is a meaningful expression.

YW:  The Journalists' Notes was signed by four reporters.  Who wrote it?  Was it an individual act?
Zhu: I wrote it.  This essay was distributed in two ways.  One took the form of a Xinhua feature article, and the other took the form of journalists' notes published on Xinhuanet.  Both were approved and signed by the leadership.  This was a formal report that recalled our experiences on this occasion.  This is not just an individual narrative published on the Internet.

YW: Did your leaders (such as your publisher) approve the writing of the notes?
Zhu: Many of our colleagues use msn nicknames such as "history witness".  As witnesses to history, we personally feel that we ought to write it down.  Then we happened to be having dinner together and the director was also there.  We chatted and we talked about writing this thing.  It is not clear which one of us came up with the idea first.

YW: Why did you have to write the journalists' notes?  In order to respond to the criticisms from the Fujian media?
Zhu: On the Internet, some people said that Xinhua struck back against Fujian.  But I think it is more complete to say that we mainly wanted to describe the process by which we gathered the news in Fujian.  I see that these notes have not been re-posted a lot on the Internet.  Why?  A friend of mine thought exactly the same way as you do.  He thought that the notes were directed against Fujian.  He told me that our steam bun had too much dough and not enough stuffing inside.  Therefore, the re-posting rate was low.  Our main goal was not to hit back.  We wanted to show this unprecedented disaster.

YW: I feel that you wanted to come up with steam bun first before you picked up your pen?
Zhu: I do not exclude wanting to use the notes to correct the record.  There is nothing wrong with that, right?  Objectively, among reporters, some people want to turn it into a bun.  But there are other reporters who think I only want to make a bun.  There can be more than one motive for writing the notes.

YW: Later, the Fujian Daily's team of reporters published an article to specifically rebut you.
Zhu: I saw that.  Their essay appeared in an unusual way that is rarely seen.  Faced with unusual things, it may be necessary to employ unusual methods.  (Laughs)

YW: I read certain disputes over facts.  Fujian Daily said that you exaggerated the scope of the disaster and fabricated certain shocking details.  For example, you said that you observed floating corpses on the sea, but Fujian Daily's team of reporters said that they did not see any floating corpses.  They are very dubious about this detail.
Zhu: We saw the floating corpses, and this proved that there were floating corpses.  They did not see any floating corpses, but that does not mean that there were no floating corpses.  This is a simple logical inference.  As for the floating corpses, we have visual images that can be used as proof.  But the news media, especially for a media outlet such as Xinhua, should not publish these kinds of photographs about the dead. On one hand, this is about respecting the dead.  On the other hand, this is about respecting the audience.

YW: In the report from the Fujian Daily team of reporters, it mentioned that the local government relief points provided free mineral water and instant noodles.  But in your report, the victims had neither water nor food.  What is this about?
Zhu: The typhoon landed on the 10th.  There were many corpses floating on the sea on the 11th already.  One fisherman told me that his voice was hoarse.  I asked why.  He said that he was trying to plead for the local government to organize to retrieve the corpses, but nobody would do anything.  There was a strong contrast.  In Changnan (Zhejiang), a house collapsed and more than 40 people were killed.  When we got to the scene, soldiers, police officers and firemen were crawling all over the place like ants.  In neighboring Fuding, I asked around for government workers, but the locals said that there were none.  I am only describing what I saw.  It does not mean that there was no one.  But in the face of the huge disaster, how could there be no a single government worker or PLA soldier?  This is unlikely.  We reporters did not see anyone at so many locations.  It was really puzzling.

YW: I have read the numerous attacks against you by Fujian.  Do you want to respond further?
Zhu: I don't know if there will be more 'interactions" or PK with Fujian.  Personally, I don't see the need.  I believe that the people have an idea about which way the scale is tipping and this cannot be dictated by power or authority.  I feel that the Fujian media did not have to say those things against Xinhua.  We only know what the truth it.  The Fujian media is more likely to know what the truth is.  I don't have the right to accuse anyone of anything.  I only act according to my conscience.  When we departed from Fuding, the local disaster victims grabbed our hands and cried aloud: "You must tell the truth for us!"  If those disaster victims should read those three essays from so-called netfriends at Southeast News Net, how would they feel?  I feel that is truly horrendous.

Related LinkMedia Coverage of Typhoon Saomai; Fujian's top official spars with Xinhua News Agency over Typhoon Saomei coverage  China Media Project