As I sit down to write tonight, it was almost exactly one week ago that news of the Ma-Xi meeting broke, and I thought it would be instructive to look at the role of the media in this episode. I’m going to do this through the lens of three reporters.
The first is Ho Chen-chung 何振忠 from the United Daily News. Ho was the first reporter called on to ask a question at Ma’s press conference. There was a reason for this. After answering Ho’s question, Ma feigned surprise that Ho was there and then praised him for being present once again at such an important historical juncture. Ma then showed a copy of the story Ho had written in 1992 in Singapore. This story forms the basis for Ma’s insistence that the 92 Consensus does indeed date to 1992, so Ma’s comment was intended both to kiss up a friendly media outlet and also to bolster his ideological position. (I wrote about the UDN’s reporting of events in 1992 here.) The UDN eagerly soaked up this blatant flattery, publishing this story basking in the enormous face Ma had given them. For a paper that considers itself to be the newspaper of record in Taiwan, the New York Times of Taipei, if you will, this was tremendously gratifying. To complete this circle of mutual love, Ho lobbed a big fat, juicy, softball right into Ma’s wheelhouse, asking what expectations Ma had for the next president to be able to accomplish the five concrete plans that Ma and Xi had agreed upon. Look, I know Taiwan has a partisan media, but this was a little too cooperative for me. The point of having experienced reporters is that they are supposed to have a sense of context so that they can ask incisive questions. There were lots of tough questions waiting to be asked, but Ho amiably gave Ma an opportunity to say exactly what Ma wanted to say. This episode took me back to 1992 in more ways than one.
The second person is Clara Chou 周玉蔻, who is no stranger to the limelight. She made scenes during both Zhang Zhijun’s and Ma Ying-jeou’s press conferences, demanding that they answer inconvenient questions. If I had to describe her in one word, it might be “screechy.” Nevertheless, even if I suspect her actions were motivated as much be ego and a desire for the spotlight, it was extremely welcome. The media is supposed to ask tough questions, and it should call attention to politicians who try to avoid those questions. If China wants to swallow up Taiwan, it should be aware that it will have to digest an aggressive an impolite media that will not passively repeat government platitudes. Chou sent that message loudly, clearly, and shrilly.
The third person is Tsou Ching-wen 鄒景雯 from the Liberty Times. Tsou scooped the rest of the media and the legislature twice, first by breaking the news of the meeting and then by reporting that the Ma administration was considering softening the language of the 92 Consensus. With these two stories, she single-handedly shaped the media coverage of the entire episode, both domestically and internationally.
Tsou broke the story only about 12 hours before the government wanted to announce the news, but those 12 hours were critical. As far as I can tell, the government planned to report the trip to legislative leaders in a closed-door session on Wednesday morning, and then they would hold a press conference announcing the trip to the public. This would have let them have the first shot at framing the story. Reporters are like the rest of us, and they will use what they have at hand to write a story. They would have all had government press releases and information packets, and many reporters would have relied heavily on that to write their first stories. They would have heard about opportunities for peaceful interaction, that 80% of the public supported top-level meetings, how this would build a bridge for future presidents, and so on. Some reporters would have sought out opposition reactions, but it would have taken a few hours for a surprised opposition to come up with a coherent response. The first stories would have come out in the United Evening News, which is now the only afternoon newspaper left and is, along with its sister paper UDN, among the most friendly to the Ma administration. The UEN doesn’t have a big audience, but it has a big influence on how the evening TV news channels frame their news. In short, the government would have had the first opportunity to present its story, and the opposition would have been playing catch-up.
However because Tsou broke the story 12 hours before the government was ready, this is not what happened. She posted her story at 10:30pm, which was too late for the evening TV news cycle, and the newspapers only had very basic coverage for the next day. Even her own Liberty Times didn’t have time to put together too much coverage of the story for the next day’s paper. However, this was not too late at all for international news outlets, especially those based in the USA and Europe. Their problem wasn’t time, it was sources. Since the government bureaucrats were all gone for the night, they didn’t have anyone to interview. Here, civil society and the internet stepped into the breach. Respected media outlets don’t normally quote blogs, but they quoted my 4:00am post, which I wrote through bleary eyes while lying in bed. I certainly wasn’t the only source like this. By the time the government officials started working in the morning, a narrative had already started to form. Ma was a lame duck president with low popularity trying to build a personal legacy by doing something that he hoped would rescue his party’s dismal hopes in the upcoming election. From the start, public opinion and awareness that the KMT was facing an election defeat were major ingredients shaping nearly every international media story. Instead of writing glowing stories about a major diplomatic breakthrough, there were stories about an impotent president throwing desperate Hail Mary passes. The Ma administration never really recovered control of the narrative in the international media. Domestically, instead of walking into a press conference completely unprepared, the press corps went to work foaming at the mouths and in full attack mode. Why was this visit negotiated in secrecy? Did Speaker Wang know about it? Who was the leak? Why did Ma, being an unpopular lame duck, think he had the legitimacy to take this initiative? The TSU legislators showed up, screamed for the cameras, and stormed out. NPP leader Huang Kuo-chang led a group of demonstrators and gave a fiery speech denouncing the move. Instead of controlling and leading the media, the Ma administration was on the defensive right from the beginning. They recovered somewhat, but the early combative tone ensured that the administration’s discourse would never dominate the domestic public discussion.
Tsou once again scooped the rest of the press corps on Friday, when she reported that Ma was considering softening the wording of the 92 Consensus. I’m not sure how much of an effect this had, but it did cause MAC Chair Andrew Hsia to have to answer inconvenient questions about this topic before he wanted to. It also might have played some role in convincing Hsia to later report that the MAC bureaucrats wanted to include the detailed version of the 92 Consensus and that Ma was responsible for softening the text. It looks to me like Hsia, a career civil servant, decided that he did not want the professional bureaucrats to have to take political responsibility for Ma’s decision.
This week Ho and Chou got a lot of media attention, but Tsou was the reporter who made a real difference. Tsou Ching-wen gave real meaning to the idea that the media is the Fourth Estate and plays a critical role in maintaining democracy by overseeing the government. Tsou Ching-wen, this week, you are my hero.
[edit 2015.11.11: Maybe that last paragraph is a bit too effusive. Storm media today has a story (original and translation) speculating that the DPP leaked news of the meeting to the media. I had assumed that it had been leaked to Tsou by some contact within the KMT or the bureaucracy. It’s a lot less impressive reporting if the source is a political party strategically leaking to friendly media at a time calculated to maximize their strategic interests.]