"If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed.
If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed."
– Mark Twain
The Straits Times has long held itself out to report responsibly. For example, in response to criticism from Talia Seet about the way the Straits Times described the riots in Little India as the "Little India riot" ("Calling it 'Little India riot' is convenient but inappropriate" (23 December 2013)), the Straits Times responded:
WE MAKE every effort to report responsibly, but we would be remiss in our role as a newspaper not to tell it like it is…
THE execution of Jang Song Thaek, the No. 2 man in North Korea, took Beijing by surprise and will adversely affect bilateral relations.
Beijing's displeasure is expressed through the publication of a detailed account of Jang's brutal execution in Wen Wei Po, its official mouthpiece, in Hong Kong, on Dec 12.
According to the report, unlike previous executions of political prisoners which were carried out by firing squads with machine guns, Jang was stripped naked and thrown into a cage, along with his five closest aides. Then 120 hounds, starved for three days, were allowed to prey on them until they were completely eaten up. This is called "quan jue", or execution by dogs.
The report said the entire process lasted for an hour, with Mr Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader in North Korea, supervising it along with 300 senior officials.
The horrifying report vividly depicted the brutality of the young North Korean leader. The fact that it appeared in a Beijing- controlled newspaper showed that China no longer cares about its relations with the Kim regime.
Two days later, the Global Times, associated with the People's Daily, a Chinese Communist Party organ, followed up with a sternly worded editorial saying that the abrupt political change epitomised the backwardness of the North Korean political system. It warned the Chinese government not to coddle North Korea any longer, saying that the majority of Chinese were extremely disgusted with the Kim regime.
The incendiary story, plus the stern editorial, provided a measure of the extent of Beijing's loathing, which is quite understandable…
This generated quite a storm around the world, with some news agencies repeating the fantastic story at first, followed by various reports refuting it. New York Daily News ran a report titled "Report of Kim Jong Un’s uncle being eaten alive by dogs false: reports" (6 January 2014), while Time's report read "A Dog of a Story: Why Kim Jong Un Probably Did Not Feed His Uncle to 120 Hounds" (3 January 2014).
Rather than candidly admitting its mistake and apologising for its lapses, Readers' Editor Yap Koon Hong instead penned a rather half-hearted admission coupled with yet another fantastical spin about how "truth is often as nuanced as the currently proverbial fifty shades of grey" in a piece titled "Fact, opinion and media's fifty shades of truth" (13 January 2014):
MR CHING Cheong, a Straits Times senior writer and an old China hand, did not see it coming and neither did his supervising editors when they signed off on one of his regular commentaries about East Asia which the paper published on Christmas eve last month ("Jang's execution bodes ill for China").
His piece lit up the Western media shortly after the new year but not in a way he meant because they were piqued by its peg rather than its point.
Mr Ching had fleshed out his opinion with an attributed update of a shocking killing in Pyongyang to illustrate his assumption about China's exasperation over an unhinged North Korea. One peg of the update was a story making the rounds in East Asia's Chinese-language media which offered a contrarian, grislier account of the execution of Pyongyang's No. 2 (Jang Song Thaek) by its No. 1 (Kim Jong Un) who was a nephew to No. 2.
Instead of a firing-squad felling, the latest version claimed that Jang and his henchmen were dogged to death and feasted on literally by a pack of canines driven crazy with hunger before that by a forced fast. All this, so it went, happened under the gaze of young nephew Kim. Cherubic Mr Kim had also commanded 300 of his political and praetorian elite to witness the culling, in case they missed the memo on the consequences of crossing No. 1.
It was not so much the horrid tale that prompted Mr Ching to use it in his commentary but the fact that the story was picked up by Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po newspaper which Mr Ching knew to be a proxy for purveying China's political attitude.
Forty-eight hours later, The Global Times, another Beijing proxy, launched a second broadside by rebuking Pyongyang for the primitivity of its political system.
The two timed attacks convinced Mr Ching that China was signalling that it had had enough; Beijing was recusing itself from the thankless task of tamping the lunatic unpredictability of East Asia’s political wildebeest on behalf of the world.
Until Mr Ching’s commentary, major Western media were oblivious to the story. Blame it on the long festive holiday out West or the likelihood that most journalistic grunts manning the frontlines of Western media cannot read Chinese.
If they did, they would have caught the story in prominent Chinese-language publications like Hong Kong's Apple Daily and Taiwan's China Times which had published it well before Mr Ching included it in his commentary.
A third possibility, that the West ignored the story because they knew it wasn't true, is unlikely. If they had, then the major media on both sides of the Atlantic would not have subsequently gobbled up the story virtually unverified, the very same reason critics scolded The Straits Times for doing.
In the United States, NBC News, The New York Times, the New York Daily News, online's The Daily Beast and the Washington Post ran or reacted to the tale. Ditto the Daily Mail, the London Evening Standard and the Guardian in Britain.
These publications copied the story from Mr Ching’s commentary, and largely credited the tale’s traction to The Straits Times.
It was unfortunate but understandable that they mined Mr Ching's article for the news they missed, rather than for the reason ST published it.
News drives media content and commands a hefty premium on readers' attention. So, the first sniff for media professionals like editors and journalists when they hunt for content globally is usually directed at information, raw and reflexive, rather than analysis which requires focus and reflection.
What could be meatier than a bizarre, undiscovered anecdote about men being used as canine fodder that ratchets up the imagination and reels in the reader; and plausible too, given Pyongyang’s Kim-quilted reputation for Caligulan depravity? Thus was Mr Ching, and ST, caught in the crosshairs of criticism for rushing to print without verifying the "truth".
But the truth in media is as much a function of opinion as it is of fact. These two elements meet in the newspaper, sometimes with conflicting consequences, as Mr Ching's article showed.
Readers often think that newspapers must publish only the ultimate Tao – unimpeachably verified facts – and if they do not, editors and journalists are being tardy and unprofessional. In fact (and this is technically an opinion, see what I mean?), truth is often as nuanced as the currently proverbial fifty shades of grey.
In practice, getting the facts to tell the truth can be next to impossible anywhere. It virtually is in a closeted state like North Korea.
Also, facts may not necessarily be accepted as the whole truth and nothing but, even if they are certifiable. The reason is that a publication not only reports what happens, it also publishes what it – or any number of people – thinks happened.
The truth can be opaque in nations with an open media as well. Otherwise, the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy should no longer be a story that remains muddled and addled by the lack of "truth", 50 years on. The only certifiable truth is that he was shot dead. The rest remains, well, opinion.
If one were to read Mr Ching's commentary from the first word to the last, it is plain that he was offering an opinion of what the latest political tea leaves were presaging about China, not a definitive news report about how Jang was killed.
To be sure, the article should have offered a clearer layer of caution apart from scrupulous attribution. Given the incredulity of the tale, the article should have declared the story's lack of independent verification.
Still, the critics who insist that ST should have established iron-clad validity prior to publication should also ask themselves why they would dismiss this version of events, and believe the first. Both were premised on assumption, not factual verification.
If truth in publication is predicated solely on facts, no account of the way in which No. 2 was executed should have seen print. Every version thus far is based on conjecture.
Pyongyang's official version did not say how he died, only that he did. Even if a formal description had been issued, could it be believed? It would have originated from the same official agency which reported as fact that Kim Il Sung – founder of Pyongyang's communist dynasty and the current Kim's late grandfather – was conceived divinely and saved the world by the mere fact of his birth.
It is true that a newspaper's duty and credibility depend on getting the facts right. It is equally true that the inability to verify the accuracy of a story may still require a newspaper to run it because of the tale's portent.
For better or for worse, this is the Tao of media practice, which is the daily grapple in deciding how to offer readers an informed, best guess about what happened and why, when there is no factual way of knowing.
That was what Mr Ching did and ST published, as most reliable newspapers would.
This "explanation" is just unfortunate.
Furthermore, the Straits Times is guilty here of a terrible doublethink. On one hand, Yap emphasises the importance of factual verification when he slams the dismissal by critics of such a version of events as "premised on assumption, not factual verification" and affirms that "a newspaper's duty and credibility depend on getting the facts right". Yet on the other hand, he contradicts himself by spinning a strange concoction about how "truth in media is as much a function of opinion as it is of fact" and how "truth is often as nuanced as the currently proverbial fifty shades of grey".
What gives? So much for "[making] every effort to report responsibly" and "[telling] it like it is"!
Though the explanation based on unverifiability of certain facts and scepticism about Pyongyang's official version may appear reasonable, it is still inadequate. An a priori dismissal of Pyongyang's official version of events as untrue based on how it is "the same official agency which reported as fact that Kim Il Sung… was conceived divinely and saved the world by the mere fact of his birth" is little more than the ad hominem fallacy and genetic fallacy put together.
If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.
A simple apology would have sufficed.