There are many reasons why I wished I could have been in Seattle the first week of October. I enjoy the SPJ National Conventions for the camaraderie and skills enhancement sessions. This year, if I were in Seattle I would have seen the session on “News we know but dare not tell.” Don’t get me wrong, I participated in the event – but I was on the Hong Kong side of the historic link up. We only got audio in the studios of Radio Television Hong Kong, but the 300-plus journalists in Seattle got to see us. A little more than a dozen journalists, journalism students and politicos were seated in RTHK Studio 1A to discuss self-censorship in the media with the American journalists that attended the session in Seattle. At least, that was the original idea for the program. It is a topic of daily concern here in Hong Kong and one of growing concern among U.S. journalists. But Sept. 11 changed the thrust of the session. Instead of focusing on self-censorship as an issue by itself, the topic was incorporated into a larger discussion on how the media can be manipulated by the military – especially in the current situation. Major Robert Bateman of the U.S. Army opened the session in Seattle with a bang. “Let’s face it,” he told the journalists, “the public doesn’t like you as much as it likes us.” The groans we heard coming from Seattle indicated that several in the audience saw more than a little truth in the matter. “We are studying the media constantly, but the media is not studying us as closely,” he said. “Therefore the military has the advantage.” Bateman said ideally he would love to see a reporter with each rifle battalion. But, he added, that would only account for 300 reporters. In the Gulf War, he explained, there were more than 2,300 journalists who had to be accommodated by the military while maintaining operational security. He said reporters traveling with the soldiers would help keep the military honest. Had reporters been with U.S. troops in My Lai in Vietnam, he said, the massacre there would not have happened. “I want you with our troops to prevent that from happening again,” he added. Moving closer to the original topic of the day, self-censorship, a member of the audience in Seattle raised concerns that the reporters and news organizations may be too willing to accept the Pentagon line without question. No matter how gentle the Pentagon press handlers may be, he said, there is also the problem of the media not doing its job. “There are no whips in the press room,” he said, “but in this case [the media] is like a well trained dog that will do circus tricks without the sound or threat of the whip.” Taking this cue, a member of the Hong Kong legislature and former journalist Margaret Ng stressed the need for better training for journalists to avoid being used as tools for propaganda. “Yes, the media needs to be sensitive [to the military’s requests for secrecy], but they should be able to be allowed to report as soon as they can,” she said. Hong Kong Baptist University journalism professor and commentator Tim Hamlett wondered if it was difficult for the American reporters at this time. “After all,” he said, “you have the politicians wrapping themselves in the flag, and the public is going along with that.” Numerous participants from the U.S. side agreed it was tough to keep the trust of the American public while, at the same time, remaining neutral and objective about the current story. Several American journalists criticized those news anchors who wore lapel pins or other piece of jewelry to show their “patriotism.” U.S. moderator Paul Ferguson of CNN changed tack and asked CNN senior China analyst Willy Lam and Hong Kong Economic Journal managing editor K.C. Chan to discuss how the Chinese-language press in China and Hong Kong had handled the Sept. 11 story. Willy started with the press in China. The Chinese media, he explained, took several hours to report the terrorist attacks, showing a division among the country’s top leadership as to how to react. Once the decision was made to air scenes from the United States, he said, they were limited to just the pictures with no commentary. Willy moved beyond the question to discuss the status of journalism in China. Changes are taking place, he said, that might make for a better-packaged product but not necessarily a better news product. “With WTO accession, China will allow foreign ownership of magazines, but the content will still be in the hands of Chinese officials,” he said. K.C. Chan added, that in Hong Kong, the coverage has been thorough and has reflected a wide range of opinions. He noted there was some concern raised when the U.S. State Department tried to get the Voice of America to not broadcast an exclusive interview with the head of the Taliban. “This has serious consequences for Hong Kong,” he said. There are elements in Hong Kong, he continued, that would have used the example of the U.S. government censoring its own broadcast outlet as an excuse to do the same thing to RTHK. Fortunately, said Chan, the VOA stood up to the State Department and aired the interview. (It should be noted here that the Society of Professional Journalists convention praised the editorial staff and management at VOA for standing up against the pressure from the State Department. See Resolution 8 on Page 7 of SPJ Report in this issue of Quill.) Chan added that Hong Kong papers face pressures not unlike those in the United States. “If a businessman is unhappy with an article, he might pull his advertising from the paper,” he said. “These are problems we all face, and Hong Kong has many newspapers.” An American journalist noted that stories about automobile dealerships and lawyers are always carefully scrutinized. The car dealerships buy a lot of advertisements, and the lawyers can sue. “I can do any story I want,” he said, “as long as it doesn’t cost the paper more than $100,000 in lawsuits.” Just as the United States and Hong Kong participants were developing a better understanding of each other’s problems, a solar flare caused the satellite link to be lost. The Hong Kong participants continued the discussion for about another hour. One member noted the discussion on how the U.S. media and the military relate to each other was important. “Hong Kong reporters have no experience with the military,” he said. “So we will be depending a lot on the U.S. and European reporters to let us know what is happening and why. It was good to hear how the Pentagon tries to control the coverage.” From reports I heard later, the U.S. group also continued their discussions until they were finally run out of the room to make way for another event. The program was organized in the United States and Hong Kong with the help of RTHK, which provided the studio space, equipment and staff; CNN, which provided the satellite time; and KIRO in Seattle, which took the CNN signal and sent it into the SPJ convention site.
Dan Kubiske is vice-chairman of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee.