Who Was First?

The following is the translation of a blog post by reporter Zhao Shilong in response to a Southern Weekend (in Chinese) report about who was the first to report on the death of Deng Xiaoping.  To my mind, priority was not the issue than the manner in which the news operations worked in China in 1997 (and is it any different today?).  In any case, you should remember that this represents only one person's opinion.

(Zhao Shilong's blog; 赵世龙的BLOG )  Reuters was not the first media to report the death of Deng Xiaoping.  February 12, 2007.

[in translation]

On February 19, 1997, the great architect of reform/opening in China Deng Xiaoping passed away.

This year will be the tenth anniversary of the death of Xiaoping.  There are many more essays now commemorating this old man of the century.  On February 8, 2007, Southern Weekend reporters Zhang Yue (张悦) and Zhao Lei (赵蕾) wrote in their report on the tenth anniversary of the death of Deng Xiaoping: the Reuters news agency was the first to report the death of Deng Xiaoping.  They wrote that the chief Reuters correspondent Jane Macartney was the first to report the news.

When I read that, my mind flashed back and I reviewed the events many years ago.  After checking with many parties and confirming with Mr. Lie Fu (former general manager of the <Contemporary Person 原现代人> newspaper and the Guangzhou representative of Hong Kong investor Yu Pinghai), the final conclusion was this: that assertion is inaccurate.

The fact was that was that the satellite television channel Zhongtian (中天频道) of CTN (which had two channels -- Dadi (大地频道) carried lifestyle and entertainment information while Zhongtian (中天频道) was a 24-hour-a-day Chinese-language news channel.  At the time, Zhongtian had reporters based in the United States, France, United Kingdom, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan.  The investment was more than 800 million RMB) in which Hong Kong's Yu Pinghai invested was the first in the world to report the news.  At the time, CNN, CBS, AP, AFP and Reuters all cited the news from CTN and this broke the monopoly in which all major news had from the western media previously.  This was one of the proudest achievements of Yu Pinghai.

This matter was confirmed by former Zhongtian channel deputy chief editor Cao Jingxing who is now with Phoenix TV.  At the time, Zhongtian received confirmation from senior Beijing officials and sent out the news that Deng Xiaoping had passed away at around 1 am.  Immediately, they received telephone inquiries from western news agencies including Reuters and Associated press.  According to the confirmation from many important witnesses, CTN's Zhongtian channel reported the news more than forty minutes before Reuters and Xinhua.

(When CTN was established, the "miracle kid" Yu Pinghai held Hong Kong <Ming Pao> newspaper sold to him by Jin Rong, Guangzhou's <Contemporary Person> newspaper (with investments of more than 100 million RMB to set two Chinese firsts: the first joint venture newspaper in China and the first color newspaper in China), Hong Kong's <Contemporary Daily News>, Wuhan's cable television channel and CTN.  Yu was apparently a media mogul (or China's Murdoch).)

Southern Weekend wrote: 

According to Jane Macartney, a friend asked on Monday, February 17, 1997 to meet with this Reuters reporter in China while saying: "I must meet with you."  This friend's husband had been going every day to the present-day 301 hospital (Chinese People's Liberation Army General Hospital).  She told Jane Macartney that Deng's health has failed.  At the same time, Jane Macartney received news that several central government leaders were returning to Beijing ahead of schedule.  On this basis, Reuters published the news on that day that Deng Xiaoping was critically ill.

Yet, during the ten years before 1997, foreign media had reported the death of Deng Xiaoping erroroenously many times.  The most typical case was in 1995 when the foreign media reported that Xiaoping was dead.  At the time, Hong Kong television was not being monitored as tightly on cable television as right now.  The people living in the Pearl River delta watched this piece of erroroneous news several times on television.  But prior to 1997, there were many reports that Xiaoping was in bad health.  The Hong Kong television stations had prepared the relevant information and archived films about the life of Xiaoping.  They were ready to hit the 'play' bottom and show the films as soon as confirmation came.  If Xiaoping had really passed away, then most of the television sets would be locked onto the Hong Kong television channels.

According to the Southern Weekend ten-year anniversary report: 

On that occasion (ten years ago), Jane Macartney thought it was true.  On Tuesday, at her request, all the Chinese-speaking Reuters reporters in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, United States and anywhere else were brought to Beijing.

But Jane Macartney and others were not the only ones who learned the information.  Many other things were used to cross-validate.  At the time, some foreign correspondents near Zhongnanhai's west gate observed the appearance of the limo fleets of leaders entering the site.  That evening, a brash reporter from The Wall Street Journal even went to Deng's house for confirmation.

The confirmation process by the foreign correspondents could only occur secretly.  Some reporters saw that that the fifteenth floor of the CCTV meeting was brightly lit that night, which meant that their leaders were still working against normal practice.  This was a sign that something big has happened.  Another colleague who went to People's Daily also sent back similar information.  Furthermore, there were more police officers at Tiananmen Square.

Earlier on February 17, 1997, then Southern Weekend reporter Zhao Shilong (that is, myself) attended an editorial meeting at Southern Weekend and reported the news that "Deng Xiaoping was in ill health and likely to pass away."  Zhao also said that his "deep throat" revealed: "This will happen over the next two or three days."  Those present included Shen Hao, Xu Lie, Jiang Yiping and others.  But since there were several erroneous media reports previously, those present refused to believe.  Zhao Shilong (myself) said that his information came from an authoritative person who was a CCTV insider and that CCTV had prepared the relevant material for broadcast.  Xu Lie said that they would wait until the afternoon/evening to watch Hong Kong television.  At the time, we could watch the four channels from Hong Kong TVB and ATV, but we could not watch Yu Haiping's CTN.  There were no reports concerning Deng Xiaoping's ill health or demise on Hong Kong television that day.  Therefore, Xu Lie believed that Zhao was succumbing to a rumor.  Zhao Shilong (myself) disagreed and reminded him and Shen Hao about the importance of the matter.  But since he could not produce any strong proof, the whole matter was treated as a joke and glossed over.

On Monday, Zhao Shilong (myself) (who had recently left Guangdong-Hong Kong Weekend to go to work for Southern Weekend) told his former colleague and then Guangdong-Hong Kong Weekend news editor Xie Fangwei (he would come to Southern Weekend one year later to become the deputy director of the news department) and Chen Mingyang (he would move to Southern Weekend at the same time as Xie Fangwei and he is presently the deputy chief editor at Southern Weekend) about this matter.  At the time, Xie Fangwei was non-committal about this affair.  He had already set his page and the front page was going to be a major article on Huang Liguo of the famous Jiangnan Liguo.  If Xie trusted me, he would have to forsake that article.  I recalled that I told Xie Fangwei around noon on February 17: "You must have a plan to immediately vacate the pages that you had edited previously and be prepared to substitute with the news of the death of Xiaoping.  You should go right now to research the relevant materials and make advanced preparations for that report."  Xie Fangwei had professional journalistic standards and he listened to me.  He began the secondary research and he went to obtain the research data from the library.  He also told the reporters to stand by.

On the afternoon of February 19, I once again brought up this matter with the Southern Weekend leaders and asked that they pay attention.  The reply was that "Let us watch the 630pm news on Hong Kong television to see if there is any news."  The 630pm news on Hong Kong television did not reveal anything about any serious illness or death of Xiaoping.  Therefore Zhao Shilong (myself) left work in a depressed mode.  I remembered that in the middle of the night before daybreak, Southern Weekend chief editor Jiang Yiping called.  This chief editor that her workers referred to as "Elder Sister Jiang" said: "Little Zhao, I'm sorry to interrupt your rest.  Please come into the office as quickly as possible to attend a meeting.  What you told us a few days ago has come true.  At just past 2am in the night, Southern Daily received notice from the provincial party committee that Comrade Xiaoping has passed away ..."

The exact time when comrade Xiaoping passed away was 21:08 on the evening of February 19, 1997.  At the time, the medical team determined that there was no hope.  The medical team leader and cardiac unit director Tao Shouqi and 301 hospital deputy director Mou Shanchu officially announced that they "had stopped attempts to resuscitate."  The Xinhua News Agency announced at 2:44am that Xiaoping has passed away.  It has been ten years already in a flash.

In the February 8, 2007 report in Southern Weekend: 

As the Reuters' chief correspondent, Jane Macartney was given the autonomous power to report.  But the news of the death of Deng Xiaoping was truly too significant and Reuters had made a requirement previously: the death of the last great personality of the twentieth century is to be released only after receiving confirmation from Xinhua.  

To publish or not to publish?  Jane Macartney called her supervisor.  After some hesitation, the supervisor gave an answer with a unique Chinese characteristic: It will be up to you.  

In retrospect, Jane Macartney felt that she was 99% confident, but she was still 1% uncertain.  "If you are a minor newspaper, you can make a bet.  If you are a major newspaper and you make the wrong bet, you are finished," said Lin Guangyao.

The Reuters staff in Sanlituan (Beijing) was waiting.  The whole world was waiting.  The news feed machine from the Xinhua News Agency stayed silent.  The pre-written reports waited silently in the databank of ready-to-release materials.

After two hours of waiting that almost reached breaking point, Jane Macartney spoke.  She said: "Forget it.  Let's release it."

The red-colored headline had only one phrase: "Deng Xiaoping has passed away."

That moment was 2:42 am on early morning of February 20.  Two minutes later, the telephone rang.

In the "ready-to-release databank", another item was sent out at the same time: "Deng Xiaoping has passed away," said the Xinhua news agency.

Before dawn, the Reuters headquarters in the United Kingdom said that "among all the global news agencies, Reuters was the first to announce the death of Deng Xiaoping.  Reuters beat Associated Press, Agence France Presse, Bloomberg, ... "  When the news came through, a Beijing editorial staff male employee broke down and cried.

The language in the above reporting was beautiful, but the fact was that CTN's Zhongtian channel had already reported to the world that Deng Xiaoping had passed away at 2am before Reuters reported that news.  They were more than 40 minutes ahead of Reuters.  Therefore, Reuters was either ignorant or else they were dishonest and wanted to claim credit.  Ten years ago, Southern Weekend wanted to check if the source of information could be in error.  I remembered that many foreign releases were checked, but the Reuters report claimed by Jane Macartney to have been sent on February 17 about Deng Xiaoping being in critically ill health was not among them.  At the time, there was nothing from any media inside or outside of China.  It could be that Jane Macartney is lying.  This was supposed to be the glory of Chinese media people in Chinese journalism, but it was lost because Southern Weekend made a mistake in verifying the source of information ten years later.

Ten years ago, the unprepared Southern Weekend lost a disheartening battle.  On Wednesday morning (January 20), most of the pages were usually already set.  Noon was usually the final sign-off time.  On the afternoon of Wednesday, the paper was printed at the various printing locations and distributed around the country.  On Thursday morning, this popular newspaper became available at newspaper kiosks all over China.  Since there was only less than half a day of time left, Southern Weekend could only pull out certain Xinhua news items on the front page and insert a photographic memorial album.  Guangzhou-Hong Kong Weekend heeded the reminder from Zhao Shilong (myself) and it obviously did better than Southern Weekend this time.

On that morning, Zhao Shilong (myself) was sent out to Xinjian county, Nanchang city, Jiangxi province to cover the death of Deng Xiaoping.  He was obviously depressed as he set off.  When he returned, he wrote the front page story one week later in Southern Weekend to commemorate the passing of Deng Xiaoping.  But any news person would know that Zhao has missed the wonderful opportunity to ascend to the peak in the news battle.  For many news workers, that kind of opportunity will not occur again in their lifetimes.

Notice in Southern Weekend (February 15, 2007): In last week's article entitled <How the news of Xiaoping's death spread across the world>, it was reported: "Of all the world-class news agencies, Reuters was the first to publish the news that Deng Xiaoping had passed away."  Certain readers misunderstood that this implied that Reuters was the first media outlet to report this news.  This note serves to clarify.