Leave the AP alone

The China Post

In recent days, a furor has erupted over the treatment of Vice President Annette Lu by the foreign press.

After Vice President Lu announced she was running for president, the Associated Press ran a story that included background about how mainland China’s Communist Party-controlled press has castigated Lu by calling her the “scum of the nation.”

The story was published in various forms in newspapers and websites around the world, including on CNN.com, where it ran under the headline “Taiwan’s ‘scum of the nation’ runs for president.”

The story and headline prompted outrage from Lu, and many lawmakers in Lu’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have demanded the government expel the AP reporter who wrote the story.

In our view, taking such actions would be extremely unwise and unproductive. Rather than further ruin our democratic reputation by getting into confrontations with the international news media, our politicians should try to understand better how the international press operates. Indeed, this entire controversy is based around commonly held misunderstandings and misperceptions about the foreign news media.

Perhaps most importantly, our politicians have a fundamental misunderstanding about what the AP actually is.

The AP is not itself a media outlet, but rather a supplier of content to media outlets that pay a fee to subscribe to its service. The AP supplies stories to its clients, who can then change the content and add their own headlines, depending on how much space is available.

Vice President Lu’s demand that AP interview her is therefore ridiculous, since the AP’s clients can simply choose not to run such a story anyhow.

AP’s subscribers commonly change the order of paragraphs within stories in order to stress items that may be especially newsworthy in the local market. For example, if an AP story contained a few paragraphs about a country that has diplomatic relations with Taipei, we might move those paragraphs toward the top of the story, or even split them off and run them as a separate story.

The AP has absolutely no control over how media outlets cut or add to their stories, or how they write headlines. In addition, there is widespread confusion about the U.S.-based CNN.

The media outlet that ran the “scum” headline, CNN.com, is not exactly what we would ordinarily think of as “CNN.” CNN.com is just the part of CNN that manages the network’s web page content. It seems that anything carrying the CNN brand is the cause of ceaseless amazement to Taiwan’s politicians, who are either delighted or furious their names have been “on CNN.” These people don’t realize that there are a wide variety of operations bearing CNN’s name. There is a CNN news channel and a separate “headline news” channel for the domestic U.S. audience, and there are CNN news channels produced especially for audiences in Asia and Europe, there is a Spanish-language CNN channel, and so on.

Lots of times when we are told a Taiwan event has been reported on CNN, it has actually only been on the Asian version of CNN, and domestic U.S. audiences have never seen the story at all. A story running on CNN.com is even less significant, and Lu’s advisers should be aware of that. Politicians also completely misunderstand how the foreign news media operate. When wire service reporters file their stories in Taiwan, subeditors, usually in Hong Kong, check through the stories and make a headline suggestion. These edited stories and headlines may be changed again by editors at the AP’s New York headquarters, even before newspaper and web page editors begin the process of fitting them to available space.

Many Taiwanese mistakenly believe that since AP is American, it represents an “American viewpoint.”

By this logic, people believe the France-based Agence France-Presse represents a “French viewpoint,” Britain’s Reuters represents “British viewpoint,” and Germany’s DPA a “German viewpoint.”

In reality, all of these wire services provide content to clients around the world. They are all competitors, and write solely from the standpoint of what their clients all around the world need. Unlike the Chinese-language press, which have no set style of writing, it is common for foreign news media to put background information into almost every story for readers who lack knowledge about even the most basic facts. Unfortunately, an article about Taiwan in the international press has to provide so much background that often times there’s precious little room left to actually say what happened that day. While the DPP may not appreciate this fact, the international news market looks at Taiwan news stories with a view towards monitoring whether events on Taiwan might provoke a war with mainland China. This is because a cross-strait war would have a serious impact on the world economy and inevitably drag the United States into a fight with Beijing.

Unless our government were to somehow eliminate this issue by achieving peaceful relations with Beijing, it is highly unlikely this angle will disappear from the international press anytime soon.