By David Bandurski (班志远) — We’ve written extensively at CMP about the institutional causes of poor media professionalism in China — from the Lan Chengzhang case to the more recent “cardboard bun” hoax. Anticipating CMP fellow Lu Ye’s talk tonight on media corruption, we return again to the question of the deeper causes of poor ethics, questions that have larger implications for journalism and free speech in China.
Last month, in an article appearing at the online China Media Observation (CMO), scholars Ling Chen (凌陈) and Li Hongbin (李红兵) discussed the now-classic “cardboard bun” hoax, in which freelance TV reporter Zhai Beijia (訾北佳) was jailed for producing a fake news report about unscrupulous vendors filling steamed buns with a mixture of meat and cardboard.
[IMAGE: Screenshot of China Media Observation analysis of the “cardboard bun” hoax, September 21, 2007]
The CMO article described Zhai, and others like him, as “news migrants,” or xinwen mingong (新闻民工), a term suggesting journalists not under official hire, or bianzhi (编制), are the victims of social and political injustice in much the same way that “rural” migrant workers are second-class citizens under China’s two-tiered household registration system (二元户籍制度).
A legacy of the planned economy era, China’s bianzhi system means the government specifies how many employees can be hired for a work unit (company) and under what conditions. As Chinese media have commercialized, their personnel needs have outpaced the limitations of the bianzhi system. Freelancers, or permanent employees not on official hire (编制外), fill the gap. Owing to the limitations of the bianzhi system, however, these employees are not entitled to the same benefits (steady salaries, healthcare coverage, etc.) as their workmates on official hire (编制内). At CCTV, the latter are called the “imperial guard” (皇军).
“The investigation that followed the “cardboard bun” hoax shows that “news migrants” are not only the disadvantaged group (弱势群体) within the news industry,” the authors of the CMO article wrote, “but also an at-risk group (高危群体).”
The article concludes: “The ‘cardboard bun’ hoax demands that journalists, particularly ‘news migrants,’ take a hard look at their own behavior. But it also sends up a warning about the need to improve the working environment for ‘news migrants.’ For the media, protecting the legal rights of ‘news migrants’ is just as important as ensuring the truth of the news.”
The authors understandably stop short of suggesting alternatives. After all, improving the “working environment” for this at-risk group would entail fundamental changes to the way media are handled by the state in China. It would mean revisiting the dangerous question of who controls the media and questioning their political role as organs, or “mouthpieces”, of the party.
If news media were completely self-reliant (hiring whomever they please with their own resources to suit their commercial needs) they might become news organizations in their own right. And that danger gives bianzhi the edge in China’s current political environment.
So long as news media are eating the emperor’s grain (吃皇粮), they will do the emperor’s bidding.
The buzz over the recent “cardboard bun” hoax has now simmered down. But interest in the issue of “news migrants” and their situation has been heating up.
A temporary worker manufactured the fake news about “cardboard buns”. Why? And how was it possible?
A fake news segment was aired on Beijing TV. Why? And how was it possible?
And what can we say about the ensuing investigation and the administrative and legal procedures for dealing with the case?
The “cardboard bun” hoax continues to raises questions, and the reflection engendered by the hoax has overtaken the hoax itself.
In China’s media world there has always been a niche for this group of people [i.e.: temporary news employees, or “news migrants”] …
They can be full of idealism, doing journalism with great gusto, and yet the news outfits that use them cast them aside because of official hiring limitations and cost considerations.
They sweat and even bleed to get the story out, and yet get very little from the media they work for.
They work tirelessly to safeguard the rights and benefits of others, but their own rights are lost in the shuffle.
They are the first on the scene, but in the news profession they always come in last.
They work hardest to get the job done, but they are paid the least, and with the least protection.
They are the downtrodden of China’s journalism profession.
They share a common identity – they are “news migrants” (新闻民工).
Lan Chengzhang (兰成长), the reporter for China Trade News killed earlier [this year] was cut of this cloth, and so was Zhai Beijia of the “cardboard bun” hoax.
Zhai Beijia was first a reporter for China Central Television, but because he was a temporary employee (临时人员), a worker outside the official hiring system (编外员工) , he was brooding and unhappy. When he went to Beijing Television, he became one of the main forces behind the “Transparency” program (透明度) on BTV-7, the lifestyle channel.
“Transparency” is a special service-oriented program airing once a week at Beijing TV. It relies on real investigation by reporters and on first-hand evidence to look at market and consumer behavior, telling viewers how to tell the difference between real and fake products. The programs often involve undercover reporting based on leads of a more explosive nature. Ratings for the program are quite high. “Transparency” is ranked number four among the station’s news and current affairs programs.
[List of topics of Zhai Beijia’s coverage at Beijing TV, including problems like fake kabobs and dangerous pastries]. But the 28 year-old Zhai was only a temporary worker, not a journalist under official hire. He was exactly what we often call a “news migrant.”
For “news migrants”, the ability to finish tasks and get more work is linked directly to their work environment and the opportunities afforded them … In order to make a good impression on the boss at the media they work for, they have to be resolute, making no bones about finishing jobs … They are in a Catch 22: faced with things they can’t do and aren’t able to do [for moral and legal reasons], and don’t wish to do [for fear of the consequences], they must do them nevertheless. Zhai Beijia is the very portrait of this impossible choice facing “news migrants.”
In early June 2007, “Transparency” received a phone call from a viewer saying there were steamed buns made using pieces of cardboard. Zhai Beijia was given the task of following up on the story. In order to fulfill this task, he spent days buying steamed buns and trying them out. But he couldn’t find any buns made with cardboard, so what then? If he gave it up and had nothing to give his superiors he would lose the job and have no money whatsoever to show for it (as payment depended on his coming through).
Under very real survival pressure, Zhai Beijia decided to fake the story. Using the name “Hu Yue” (胡月) and pretending to be a the boss of a construction site, he went to Number 13 Shizikou Village in Beijing’s Chaoyang District, where he told breakfast cook Wei Quanfeng (卫全峰), a migrant from Shaanxi Province, and 3 others that he needed a huge order of dumplings. Later, Zhai Beijia went back to Number 13 with undercover filming equipment, cardboard boxes and flour and ground meat he had bought himself. Saying he needed to feed his dog, Zhai asked Wei Quanfeng and the others to soak the cardboard and mix it in with the meat to make 20 “cardboard buns.” All the while Zhai Beijia secretly filmed the process.
In producing the final program, Zhai Beijia edited the footage and added fake voice-over. The result was a fake news item called “Buns Made Out of Cardboard.” … The segment aired on July 8, 2007, at 7pm on Beijing TV’s lifestyle channel (BTV-7).
[Article relates the particulars of the ensuing investigation. July 16, police carry out an inspection of steamed buns at 26 vendors in the city, etc.]
On July 18, Beijing TV stated on its “Beijing News” program that the cardboard bun story was a fake and that its creator had been detained by authorities. The station apologized to the public.
In China’s news industry there are three levels of gate keeping. So how did the cardboard bun story get through? An employee at “Transparency” said that since the show’s inception it had never come across fake programming. When Zhai Beijia material was in the production process, they asked more than once about its authenticity. Zhai was adamant, so they went ahead with the segment.
From this response we can see two points. First, everyone had let down their guard, believing there had never been fake news on the show. Second, faith in [the show’s] employees had replaced strict news controls.
[How the story became major national news after airing, with help from new media, etc.]
When we look at how this story got through, aside from the issue of Zhai Beijia’s own professional conduct, we see that the major cause is the drive for profit. The television station’s priority was getting an explosive story that could draw viewers, and with this end in sight they weakened oversight. The journalist’s priority was getting his 5,000-yuan fee for the piece, thereby closing the gap with his colleagues under official hire (正编记者).
“News migrants” exist throughout our country’s news industry. Some have official press cards but are not under official hire. Others do not have press cards and use interview certificates (采访证) or work certificates (工作证) to report stories. Given the sheer number of such journalists, it would be unrealistic to get rid of them. This would be an irrational and extreme response. The heavy-handed tactics of some well-known television stations in China [presumably, like CCTV] — getting rid of all temporary personnel in one go, getting rid of all employees outside of the official hire system, including early termination of internships for college students – are not worthy of emulation. Liu Binjie (柳斌杰), head of the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), has said that fake reporters should be dealt with differently from those hired provisionally by media who are temporarily without news journalist identities (不具备新闻记者身份). As for the first, [said Liu], they must be firmly dealt with. As for the second, they should be issued the proper press credentials after completing testing and showing they can work successfully in the news media. We must, he said, continue to improve the entry system for journalism professionals through these special programs [of training and certification]. From this day forward, the credentials of all journalism personnel must be certified by administrative departments of the state [i.e., GAPP].
The investigation that followed the “cardboard bun” hoax shows that “news migrants” are not only the disadvantaged group (弱势群体) within the news industry but also an at-risk group (高危群体). After the hoax, both Zhai and Beijing TV paid a painful price.
On July 19, the All-China Journalist Association (ACJA) issued a firm notice saying the “cardboard bun” hoax would be dealt with severely.
On July 23, the Central Propaganda Department, State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) and GAPP issued a notice demanding that local propaganda offices, local offices of SARFT and the ACJA and news media learn from the mistakes of Beijing TV and ensure the truth and accuracy of the news …
[Zi Beigui is detained. Three employees at “Transparency”, including a vice-director and a producer, are fired.]
[July 26: 20 Websites issue a joint declaration against fake news (“抵制假新闻，净化网络环境”)]
In court, lawyer Zhang Jie (张浩) served as Zhai Beijia’s counsel. In fact, Zhai Beijia’s criminal detention had already attracted the attention of many legal scholars, who felt that the Criminal Law had no stipulations relevant to Zhai’s activity. In an interview with Caijing magazine, [CMP Fellow] Zhan Jiang (展江), a professor at China Youth University of Political Science, raised this question. The lack of a press law in China, said Zhan, made it hard to reach a verdict in the case.
During the court hearing, the debate between prosecution and defense centered on whether Zhai Beigui’s behavior was indeed criminal (构不构成犯罪), and whether his behavior was direct intent (直接故意) or indirect intent (间接故意). In the end the court applied the charges as made in the indictment from the procuratorate. According to the indictment, Zhai Beigui’s fabrication and dissemination of a false version of the facts was a criminal offense because it had damaged the commercial reputations of related business owners and the nature of the case was serious …
Truth is the very life of journalism, and false news is its enemy. A small number of news people neglect the law and party news discipline. In pursuit of a selling point they build up negative news or manufacture news altogether, disregarding the important social role of information and their own professional obligations. A few news media are lax in their oversight, superficially pursuing ratings and circulation, and this creates an opportunity for fake news, with thoroughly negative implications …
Without a doubt, the “cardboard bun” hoax led to a tightening of nerves in the media over the issue of “news migrants.” But the truth is that “news migrants” account for more than half of all journalists under hire for many media in China. The vast majority of them are good, and the law-breakers and problem ones are the minority. Speaking to the heart of the matter, “news migrants” are the keystone, the supporting beam, of China’s media. This group must, on the one hand, be controlled. They must not be allowed to work unchecked. On the other hand, this group must be protected. We cannot intensify the challenges facing them just because of the damage caused by a few, worsening even further the environment in which they work. The question of how to check and protect them is not merely a matter of fairly, impartially and legally protecting their rights, but directly concerns the healthy development of the news industry.
The “cardboard bun” hoax demands that journalists, particularly “news migrants,” take a hard look at their own behavior. But it also sends up a warning about the need to improve the working environment for “news migrants.” For the media, protecting the legal rights of “news migrants” is just as important as ensuring the truth of the news.