Inside The Wall Street Journal, tensions rise over ‘sick man’ China headline

  • >> Marc Tracy, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-02-23 14:54:08 BdST

A Chinese flag flutters at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China Oct 25, 2019. REUTERS

More than four dozen journalists at The Wall Street Journal challenged their bosses and criticised the newspaper’s opinion side in a letter that was sent to top executives Thursday, the day after China announced that it would expel three Journal staff members in retaliation for a headline that offended the country’s leaders.

In all, 53 reporters and editors signed the letter. They criticised the newspaper’s response to the fallout from the headline, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” that went with a Feb 3 opinion essay by Walter Russell Mead, a Journal columnist, on economic repercussions of the coronavirus outbreak.

The letter, which was reviewed by The New York Times, urged the newspaper’s leaders “to consider correcting the headline and apologising to our readers, sources, colleagues and anyone else who was offended by it.”

Describing the headline as “derogatory,” the letter was sent Thursday from the email account of the China bureau chief, Jonathan Cheng, to William Lewis, the chief executive of Dow Jones and the newspaper’s publisher, and Robert Thomson, the chief executive of News Corp, the Rupert Murdoch-controlled parent company of Dow Jones.

Cheng, who did not sign the letter, wrote in a separate note that he was passing the letter along to the two executives, adding that he believed their “proper handling of this matter is essential to the future of our presence in China.”

The in-house criticism brought to the surface long-standing tensions at The Journal between the reporters and editors who cover the news and the opinion journalists who work under the longtime editorial page editor, Paul Gigot. As at other major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, the news side and the opinion department are run separately.

Gigot oversees the unsigned editorials that represent the newspaper’s institutional voice, the op-ed columns like the one by Mead and the criticism in the arts and culture sections. He also hosts a program on Murdoch’s network, the Fox News Channel.

Foreign news media organisations in China tread a difficult path. The nation’s growing economic and political clout makes it an essential story. Chinese officials covet attention from the global stage, and images of foreign reporters jotting down their comments at news conferences are a staple of state-controlled evening news shows.

The Chinese government uses visas for foreign journalists as leverage, doling out and retracting credentials as a way to influence news outlets. Foreign news media organisations face pressure to steer clear of sensitive topics like the wealth and political pull of the families of the country’s leaders.

Like many other international news organisations, The Times among them, The Journal is blocked online in China, and the “Sick Man” headline was brought to wide attention there by state-controlled media, amid nationwide concern over an epidemic that has infected over 76,000 people in China and killed more than 2,400.

China was sometimes described as the “sick man of Asia” at the end of the 1800s, in “the depths of what we now call China’s ‘Century of Humiliation,’” said Stephen Platt, a historian of modern China at the University of Massachusetts. The empire had then lost a series of wars and had feared being divvied up by imperial powers.

“Nobody in their right mind would confuse China today with China at the end of the 19th century,” Platt said. “I think that’s where the insult lies, this harkening back to this terrible period and somehow implying that it’s all the same.”

On Wednesday, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a transcript provided by the Chinese government that Chinese officials “demanded that The Wall Street Journal recognise the seriousness of the error, openly and formally apologise, and investigate and punish those responsible, while retaining the need to take further measures against the newspaper.”

The statement added that “the Chinese people do not welcome media that publish racist statements and smear China with malicious attacks.”

The Journal has not made a formal apology. The closest it came was when Lewis, the publisher, said in a statement Wednesday that the headline “clearly caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people, which we regret.”

Susan Shirk, the chair of the 21st Century China Centre at the University of California, San Diego, said that there was reason for the newspaper to refrain from making an apology now that the Chinese government had demanded one.

“The Chinese government has been coercive in its demands for apologies from all sorts of international groups on issues that are essentially domestic political issues,” Shirk, a deputy secretary of state under former President Bill Clinton, said. “This has the effect of interfering in freedom of expression in our own countries.”

A majority of the reporters and editors who signed the letter are based in the newspaper’s China and Hong Kong bureaus.

They included the three journalists whom China ordered to leave the country Wednesday: Josh Chin, the deputy bureau chief in Beijing and an American citizen; Chao Deng, a reporter, who is also an American; and Philip Wen, a correspondent and Australian citizen who reported on an Australian investigation of a cousin of President Xi Jinping of China as part of an inquiry into organised crime. The Chinese government gave the journalists until Monday to leave the country.

The letter argued that “the public outrage” over the headline in China “was genuine” and said the “Sick Man” headline should be changed online.

“We are deeply concerned that failure to take such action within the next few days will not only inflict further damage on our China bureau’s operations and morale in the short term,” the letter said, “but also cause lasting damage to our brand and ability to sustain our unrivaled coverage of one of the world’s most important stories.”

The letter also noted that people at The Journal had raised concerns about the “Sick Man” headline before China announced that it would revoke the journalists’ visas and order them out of the country. It also questioned whether the headline was “distasteful,” given the coronavirus outbreak.

A Dow Jones spokeswoman confirmed that the executives had received the letter and said in a statement, “We understand the extreme challenges our employees and their families are facing in China.” The company added that it “will continue to push” to have the visas of its three journalists reinstated.

Cheng, the China bureau chief, and more than a dozen others who signed the letter did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition to criticising the headline, the letter took issue with an unsigned editorial published by the newspaper Wednesday, after China’s announcement that the journalists would be expelled.

In the punchy style the editorial page is known for, it got right to the point: “President Xi Jinping says China deserves to be treated as a great power, but on Wednesday his country expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters over a headline. Yes, a headline. Or at least that was the official justification.” The editorial went on to argue that the Chinese government had revoked the reporters’ credentials to divert attention from its “management of the coronavirus scourge.”

The editorial acknowledged criticism of the headline but defended it as echoing a description familiar to American readers that cast the late Ottoman Empire as the “sick old man of Europe.”

Shen Yi, a lecturer on international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, said The Journal’s headline displayed a sense of racial superiority. The language was similar to comments by Kiron Skinner, a former director of policy planning at the State Department, who had said that with China, the United States had “a great power competitor that is not Caucasian,” Shen wrote in a recent essay.

“The increasing prominence and scope of this sort of language gives you a feeling for the despicable thoughts that underlie it,” Shen wrote. “Even now, in the 21st century, some US officials and elites still deep in their hearts know and understand the world through the framework of the suzerain and its colonies.”

Mead, the writer of the op-ed, suggested in a Twitter post Feb. 8 that he was opposed to the headline, writing, “Argue with the writer about the article content, with the editors about the headlines.” He declined to comment for this article.

In defence of the headline, The Journal and its supporters have pointed to the right to free speech and the newspaper’s separation of its news and opinion departments. The writers of the letter said the main issue was “the mistaken choice of a headline that was deeply offensive to many people, not just in China.”

The Washington Post first reported on the internal debate at The Journal.

China’s announcement that it would expel the three journalists occurred one day after the Trump administration designated five major Chinese news organisations as foreign government functionaries, rather than journalistic entities, a move that drew the ire of the Chinese government.

The expulsions, the first since 1998, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, were condemned by the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Journal leaders met with newsroom employees to discuss the headline before China condemned it. In one meeting, Matt Murray, the editor-in-chief, seemed to agree with the complaints but said there was not much he could do about the headline because of the strict separation of the news and opinion sides. In a second meeting, journalists pushed Lewis, the publisher, to change the headline, to no avail.

The letter offered several examples of Journal reporters who said they were impeded while trying to do their jobs. A researcher interviewing people on the streets of Beijing was surrounded by a crowd and called “traitor,” the letter said; and a “senior doctor” in Hubei province, where coronavirus seems to have originated, retracted an interview with the newspaper and told others not to speak with its reporters.

One of the journalists who signed the letter was Chun Han Wong, a Journal correspondent whose press credentials were not renewed by the Chinese government last year. Wong shared a byline with Wen on the article that described the legal scrutiny of the Chinese president’s cousin.


© 2020 New York Times News Service