These comment pieces in the Wall Street Journal are two of the finest pieces of commentary we have seen for a while. James Murdoch is rightly hiding his head in shame after defending the Chinese bullies just as the US is in a diplomatic crisis with them and the New York Post is squirming as it tries to push Rupert’s corporate agenda and cover the China story properly.

On Sunday, April 1, there erupted the as-yet-unresolved dispute between the U.S. and China, over the flight path of an American EP-3 reconnaissance (or spy) plane and its subsequent collision with a Chinese jet fighter that was tailgating it in international airspace. Wang Wei, a Chinese pilot known by U.S. intelligence to have a history of daredevilry and recklessness (hats off to the information gatherers at the Pentagon for this handy bit of arcana), died as a result of the collision. The EP-3, crippled by the body blow from the Chinese jet, plummeted to an unwished-for landing on Chinese soil. The crew of 24 was taken prisoner by China, and the plane was sequestered, resulting in a diplomatic standoff in which Beijing seeks an apology and Washington, correctly, refuses to give one. So much for the potted history of a week in which there was, to use a journalist’s phrase, no other story in town.

On Monday, April 2, I had a note from a friend at News Corp., parent company of the New York Post: “You may want to keep your eyes trained on how the Post covers the current crisis between the U.S. and China over the downed spy plane.” My interest piqued–the Post is, after all, owned by Rupert Murdoch, a media magnate with interests in China–I resolved to adopt the idea as a case study. How would a tabloid, noted as much for its robust patriotism as for its instinctive (and unsubtle) sense of right and wrong–a paper I’ve described, in an enthusiastic past column on this site, as “a saucy, yapping, pesky, irreverent tabloid that lifts the heart and stirs the humors”–cover a story in which young American servicemen and -women were being held hostage by the repressive regime of the country in which its proprietor has a huge financial stake?

Here’s what I concluded, after looking at five issues of the Post, from Monday, April 2, to Friday, April 6: The paper took great pains to play the story down; and on some days, I’d say, it could have been accused, fairly, of attempting to bury it.

Not once, in five days, did the New York Post feature the U.S.-China confrontation as its main front-page story. The “full frontal” tabloid treatment, in other words, was quite astonishingly absent, something that would, I think, have been inconceivable if the EP-3 had collided with a Russian plane, for instance, and the crew kept under gruff guard on the Kamchatka Peninsula, or some such remote Russian equivalent of Hainan Island.

By laudable contrast, the more liberal Daily News of New York, the Post’s closest competitor, gave the China story the full-frontal treatment on two days out of the five I examined–on Monday, the day after the collision, and on Wednesday, the day after President Bush called on China to end the crew’s detention and repatriate the EP-3.

In addition, the Post, which prides itself on opinion pages that are startlingly cerebral for a tabloid (and whose intellectual tenor is quite at odds with the “front of the book”), ran but a single editorial on the U.S.-China crisis in five days of tense standoff. And only on one day was there a critical op-ed on the subject. That was on Thursday, when George Will–a man to whom no editor or proprietor can dictate terms–asked, in his syndicated column, “Why Is Beijing Blowing It?” But even here, the Post felt compelled to run an opposing viewpoint alongside Mr. Will’s, in a very un-Postlike striving for balance. So there was, reproduced from the Los Angeles Times, a piece by a retired U.S. Air Force officer, headlined: “If Tables Were Turned, We’d Hold Their Plane.”

Set out, below, is a filleted account of how the Post played the story, day by day. Although it is a comparison of apples with oranges, both the New York Times and the Washington Post gave the story front-page above-the-fold treatment on every day from Monday to Friday, and didn’t stint on editorials and op-eds. And The Wall Street Journal ran powerful editorials on Tuesday (when it ran two on China) and Thursday, as well as essays on the subject every day from Tuesday to Friday.

(Note: The story broke too late on Sunday to allow for either editorials or op-eds in Monday’s papers.)

Monday, April 2

Did the Crisis get “full frontal” treatment in the Post? No.

So what did? “PLAY BALL! Yankee Fans Rooting for Another Subway Series.” With a picture of Roger Clemens practicing. (The Daily News gave its front the China story: “LET ‘EM GO,” it declared, with a picture of Adm. Dennis Blair pointing to a map of the area in which the collision occurred.) The Post’s decision might be described as the most pusillanimous performance of the week. Was the Post the only major newspaper in the entire country not to “splash” with the China story? If so, that is a distinction of the most dubious variety.

Where did the spy-plane saga play? Page 5, stuck under a piece about Barbra Streisand. The story was flagged in a 2-by-1-inch front-page box.

Tuesday, April 3

Did the Crisis get “full frontal” treatment in the Post? No.

So what did? “Fans to Straw: YER OUT,” on the drug saga, and with a picture of, Darryl Strawberry.

Editorial on China? No. There were, instead, editorials on the Edison school debacle, on campaign finance reform, and on George Pataki.

And an op-ed on China? No. Pieces on Rudy Giuliani, Jesse Jackson and the trying of children as adults.

Where did the spy-plane saga play? On pages 6 and 7. The story was flagged in a 5-by-2-inch front-page box (bigger than the preceding day’s).

Wednesday, April 4

Did the Crisis get “full frontal” treatment in the Post? No.

So what did? “SLAIN FOR A SNACK,” about the murder of a pizza deliveryman in Brooklyn, along with the victim’s photograph. (The Daily News gave its front page to the China crisis: “TIME’S UP,” it said, sonorously, along with two pictures, one of a grim-faced President Bush and one of a detained serviceman’s sister clutching a framed portrait of her brother.)

Editorial on China? Yes, entitled “A Crisis With China,” but one so mealy-mouthed, and so desperately keen to appear balanced, that one wonders whether the editorial arrived in the editorial page in-tray from on high. Certainly, this piece of commentary bore no resemblance to the Post’s usual nationalistic opinions, nor even to its lively editorial prose style. It was a classic example of the meandering, on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other style of editorializing that would not have looked out of place in the New York Times on a dull day.

And an op-ed on China? No; there were, instead, pieces on “The Sopranos” (admittedly by William F. Buckley), McCain-Feingold and corporate welfare.

Where did the spy-plane saga play? On pages 4 and 5; the story was flagged in a 6-by-2-inch front-page box (slightly bigger than the preceding day’s, in grudging recognition, I presume, that the story had reached its most piquant point yet).

Thursday, April 5

Did the Crisis get “full frontal” treatment in the Post? No.

So what did? “DOUBLE TROUBLE: Ricky Martin Lookalike faces 30 years in rape spree.” (Need I say more?)

Editorial on China? No. Instead, editorials on tax relief, education policy, and Hurricane Andrew.

And an op-ed on China? Yes. As mentioned above, there was a syndicated piece by Mr. Will plus a piece claiming the U.S. would act exactly as the Chinese if the roles were reversed.

Where did the spy-plane saga play? On pages 4 and 5; the story was flagged in a 3-by-1-inch front-page box (smaller than the previous day’s).

Friday, April 6

Did the Crisis get “full frontal” treatment in the Post? No.

So what did? “HILL NO!”–“Clinton says she’ll NEVER run for Prez.”

Editorial on China? No; editorials on power shortages in California and terrorism in Israel.

And an op-ed on China? No. Pieces on the latest newspaper recounts of Florida ballots, and on medicine, education and the environment.

Where did the spy-plane saga play? On page 7; the story was flagged in an anodyne 2-by-1-inch front-page box that said: “Chinese OK New Diplo-Crew Visit”

What conclusions should one draw from all this?

Clearly, the U.S.-China face-off was one the Post could have done without. As a source at News Corp. told me: “Writers and editors at the Post are on pins and needles over this story, not knowing what we can and can’t say. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been given any direct orders from above to take it easy on China. Then again, nobody has to be told.”

My News Corp. source continued: “Keep in mind, too, the distinction between the Post and other News Corp. properties. The Post, I believe, is the only one of Murdoch’s publications on whose masthead his name is featured. He considers it ‘his’ voice, in a way that his other publications aren’t.” (Indeed, the new issue of The Weekly Standard devotes five pages to two tough editorials on China, bearing the headlines “A National Humiliation” and “None Dare Call It Tyranny.”)

There is a depressing message in all this. What, after all, are the qualities one associates with a good tabloid? Bluntness, for one, and fearlessness. Yet the Post, instead of getting stuck into one of the biggest stories of the year so far, shrank timorously from the tale. A paper I normally enjoy, and often admire, fell short–far short–of its own standards.

It can’t have been an easy week to work at the paper, In the dream world of Post journalists and editors, there would be no China. That way the newspaper could always be what it’s so darn good at being–a saucy, yapping, pesky, irreverent tabloid that lifts the heart and stirs the humors. But we live in the real world, not in the geography of the imagination, where there are no proprietors to draw lines in the sand. And the real world, I regret to say, diminished the Post last week.

Mr. Varadarajan is deputy editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal. His column appears Mondays.

Now, this is the same author’s piece in the Wall Stree Journal from a week earlier.

Rupert masters the genuflection

Rupert Murdoch, a master practitioner of the corporate kowtow, has instructed his son James perfectly in the craft of craven submission to the communist regime in China. The young Murdoch–a college dropout, now chairman and CEO of his father’s Hong Kong-based Star TV company–gave an impressive, almost balletic, performance of the genuflectory arts last week in an address to the Milken Institute in Beverly Hills.

In words that astonished those gathered for the institute’s annual business conference, James Murdoch, all of 28 years, lit into the Falun Gong religious resistance movement in China, describing it as a “dangerous” and “apocalyptic cult,” which “clearly does not have the success of China at heart.” He criticized the Western media and the Hong Kong press for their negative coverage of human-rights issues in China, concluding with the lament that “these destabilizing forces today are very, very dangerous for the Chinese government.” Young Mr. Murdoch, who described himself as “apolitical,” counseled Hong Kong’s beleaguered democracy advocates to resign themselves to the reality of life under an “absolutist” government.

The youthful CEO made no mention of the 150 Falun Gong members who have died in Chinese police custody, nor of the approximately 10,000 who languish in prison. Nor did he mention threats to Taiwan, slave labor, Tibet, arbitrary executions or the removal for sale of organs from the bodies of those executed. But let us not go there.

The Murdochs have obviously had considerable success in China with their lapdog approach, and they must see no reason why this approach need change. This is far from the first time a News Corp. executive has brown-nosed Beijing since a gung-ho little speech, made by Rupert Murdoch in 1993. In that speech Mr. Murdoch said satellite television was “an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.” A month later the Chinese government clamped down on the installation of satellite dishes, much to the chagrin of Mr. Murdoch, who had purchased Star TV in the hope of capturing the satellite market in China. The media magnate had never run up against real totalitarians before, and was rather startled.

In a bid to undo the commercial damage caused by his speech, Mr. Murdoch abased himself immediately, dropping the BBC’s World Service Television from the China beam of Star TV’s satellite. This he did shamelessly, telling all the world that he’d always believed that the folks at the BBC were pesky liberals who were out to portray China in the worst possible light. No wonder that Christopher Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, called Mr. Murdoch’s decision to pull the BBC from Star’s menu “the most seedy of betrayals.” In an interview with Ken Auletta for a New Yorker profile, Mr. Murdoch said: “The BBC was driving them”–the Chinese regime–“nuts. It wasn’t worth it.”

Mr. Patten was later the victim of another seedy betrayal. His book, “East and West,” which was to be published by the Murdoch-owned HaperCollins, was dumped after Mr. Murdoch decided it was too critical of Beijing. In a pre-emptive smear, designed to ward off accusations that Mr. Murdoch was prostrating himself before the Chinese communists, flacks at HarperCollins put out the word that the Patten book was dropped for being “too boring.” This lie was nailed by the editor who commissioned the book, who lauded it as “probably the best written and most compelling book I have read by a politician since I came into publishing.” Mr. Murdoch, let us remember, suffered a huge moral defeat when he was compelled to apologize “unreservedly” to Mr. Patten, as well as to pay him an undisclosed out-of-court settlement.

There are other examples, some boorish, some insidious, of Mr. Murdoch’s willingness to sing Beijing’s tune. He has described the Dalai Lama as “a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes,” and has spoken of pre-1950 Tibet, before the illegal Chinese occupation, as being “a pretty terrible old autocratic society out of the Middle Ages. . . . Maybe I’m falling for propaganda, but it was an authoritarian medieval society without any basic services.” As Jonathan Mirsky, a peerless authority on China, responded in the New Statesman of London, “Murdoch is not falling for Chinese propaganda. He’s repeating it word for word.”

Mr. Mirsky has firsthand experience of how Murdoch-owned media have drawn in their horns on the subject of China. In the last year of his five-year stint as the East Asia editor of the London Times, Mr. Mirsky found that much of his copy–invariably critical of the Beijing regime–failed to make it into the paper. He felt compelled to resign. He had harsh things to say about Mr. Murdoch then, and he has harsh things to say about him now. In an e-mail to me over the weekend, in reaction to James Murdoch’s remarks at the Milken Institute he mused: “Nothing the Murdochs say about China surprises me. I watched the influence at the [London] Times. There, in the last year, reporting from Beijing has avoided all controversial subjects and all analysis, unless they were of huge news importance like the Falun Gong suicides.”

He goes on: “The Times has avoided the implications of the Falun Gong arrests, the defense of the Falun Gong to exist in Hong Kong by the Bishop of Hong Kong and the United Nations representative there. The Times reported the school explosion [in the town of Fanglin, in which 38 schoolchildren, forced by their teachers to make firecrackers for sale, died] but not Premier Zhu’s apology. Whenever possible on days when other papers such as The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, Washington Post etc were analyzing events, the [London] Times printed old stories about early discoveries about Christians–and others of that sort.”

Mr. Mirsky concludes damningly: “At the school explosion ALL outside media were excluded from the town except Phoenix TV, of which Murdoch owns a big piece, which echoed the Beijing line and missed the Zhu apology.”

What does one make of the Murdoch position on China? In my view, it is a form of corporate prostitution, something quite different from ideological blindness or agnosticism. After all, it’s one thing to make anodyne remarks about China’s need for stability and the like, and quite another to weigh in with specific censure against a religious movement, especially when that movement lays claim to being the best-organized opposition to a repressive and godless regime.

The younger Mr. Murdoch (clearly with his father’s blessing) accuses China’s dissidents of not having the success of China at heart. It is touching to see the Murdochs compensate for the unpatriotism of the Falun Gong, even though they are guilty of confusing the interests of the small coterie of people governing China with those of the Chinese people.

But the Murdoch method–demean yourself, for it’s the pragmatic thing to do–may, in fact, result in harm to News Corp.’s business interests. Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based China analyst, says the Murdochs should be more careful, even as a cold-blooded business calculation: “Many businessmen seem willing to do or say anything to get into the China market, including through the backdoor. However, this is a tricky venture because Chinese politics is going through unprecedented changes.”

Mr. Lam continues: “Rules and regulations–and more importantly, the cadres running the show–can change overnight. The millions of dollars spent, and the flattering remarks and half-truths uttered, by Western businessmen to curry the favor of a top cadre or his son could come to nought when the wheel of political fortune in Beijing spins in an opposite direction.”

From a more philosophical perspective, the essence of James Murdoch’s position, like that of his father, is a contempt for the First Amendment compact, or bargain: to wit, that news media are generally protected from government interference on the understanding that they act as a check on government. As a close Murdoch-watcher told me yesterday: “What the Murdochs have specialized in is trading newspaper support to governments in return for regulatory favors in nonprint media and business generally. While others may do this from time to time, they do it all the time, and without intermission.”

American conservatives often regard Rupert Murdoch as an ally, but they are quite wrong to do so. He has promoted social democratic governments in Britain (Tony Blair) and Australia (Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating) with as much alacrity as he has championed conservative politicians like Margaret Thatcher. Now, and nakedly, Mr. Murdoch is an apologist for the Chinese regime. The only qualification is that a government, or a politician must be ready to go along with his business requirements.

But China is run by sophisticated tyrants. They see the use of people like Messrs. Murdoch–pre et fils–and will use them. They are not taken in by the flattery, the unctuousness, the bowing of the corporate knee. They are not unduly impressed by the Murdoch attempts to be more Catholic than the pope when it comes to China. They know that he wants to make more money in China and that he is willing to pay any price to do so.

They also know that the Murdochs become less useful to China by becoming such obvious prostitutes. A little bit of discretion might have served James Murdoch better at the Milken Institute, not just in terms of public dignity, but eventually in terms of profit as well.

Mr. Varadarajan is deputy editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal. His column appears Mondays.

And if you want to understand the bigger picture, check out this piece a few days later in the London Independent.

Beijing breaks law for Murdoch

By Jason Nisse

In the latest example of one rule for Rupert Murdoch, another rule for everyone else, the media tycoon has been allowed to buy into China’s information revolution in clear breach of local law.

Mr Murdoch’s News Corporation, thwarted in its attempt to expand into US satellite TV with the purchase of DirecTV, has agreed a $325m (230m) deal to take a 12.5 per cent stake in China Netcom, which is building the country’s first broadband telecoms network.

It is jointly investing with investment banker Goldman Sachs and two domestic banks, but local analysts say News Corp will be the biggest gainer as it will be able to sell programming and information services direct to China’s fast-growing base of internet users.

There is one slight problem with the deal. It is illegal.

Chinese telecommunications law prevents foreign investors from owning any part of the country’s basic telecoms network – which is defined as including China Netcom.

The Beijing government has promised to change the law as part of its reforms to allow it to join the World Trade Organisation. But as the terms of WTO entry have yet to be agreed, the new law has not even been put forward for discussion. Any changes are not expected for at least another year.

Even the normally bland official news service in Beijing noted: “The deal is also significant because it is not entirely legal.”

Well-connected sources point to two factors behind Beijing’s decision to bend the rules for Mr Murdoch. One is the overt kowtowing by News Corp to Beijing, most blatantly shown by last month’s attack on opponents of the Beijing government by James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and the head of News Corp’s Asian operations.

James Murdoch said the democracy movement in Hong Kong should learn to get used to the absolutist rule of Beijing and not try to destabilise the government. His comments came after complaints about the coverage of the Taiwan elections and the Falun Gong protest on Phoenix, the cable TV network jointly owned by News Corp, available to over 40 million homes in China.

The second factor is the involvement of Jiang Mianheng, the son of Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin, in China Netcom. The controversial businessman is chairman of the burgeoning telecoms business.

Peter Fray

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