Yesterday ESWN mounted a defense of his reliance for Taiwan news on Apple Daily, a foreign tabloid in Taiwan, owned by a Hong Kong Chinese, that has achieved notable success in Taiwan recently, becoming the number 1 selling newspaper. ESWN defended this subtle choice of a paper that sells by showing Taiwan in a negative light with….
“It is common to just sit down and dismiss Apple Daily in Hong Kong and Taiwan as a 'rag' filled with 'lies.' That is missing the point. The point is that this 'lying rag' happens to the among the market leaders in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Either Apple Daily is doing something right, or else its readers are doing something wrong. The quote from the first story is: "To study the democratic development in Hong Kong and Taiwan, one must study Apple Daily."
At first glance this makes a kind of sense – we can study the democratic development of Taiwan by studying its best selling newspaper, which happens to be a sensationalist rag filled with lies (speaking of lies, Roland, did you correct that lying story about macking in Taiwan that you got from Apple Daily yet, that you thought was true? Didn’t think so). It is only when you start thinking about Taiwan's democratic development, which I have spent most of my adult life observing, that you realize how stupid this idea is. ESWN is just engaging in another subtle slam of Taiwan. Some people just can't abide our democracy here, it seems.
Just stop and think about what democratic development means for Taiwan. The changes here that I have seen in the last 15 years have been profound. On a hike on the East Coast last year I saw locals picking up their trash after they had eaten. The trail itself was cared for by a volunteer historical organization. Both of those are results of the rising civic culture and democracy in Taiwan -- in fact, a little noticed but tremendous advance due to the arrival of democracy was the shortening of the work week from six days to five, which means that people now have a day off to engage in activities like hiking, blogging, and political rallies. One could go on all day listing representative changes that range from better government service, better care for the environment, clean elections, privatization of bloated government firms, unrestricted travel abroad, and above all, the free speech that Apple Daily exploits. Any of these things could be chosen to represent Taiwan's democratization, although no one thing could (a point neglected by ESWN). It is also worth mentioning that this sensationalization of the news is not a Taiwan development -- it was introduced from elsewhere. So when you choose a foreign tabloid that sensationalizes the news to "represent" Taiwan's democratic development, what are you really trying to do? I submit the question answers itself
ESWN cites an article that he translated from Yazhou Zhoukan as some kind of support for his "considered" position (translated from ESWN):
“Even as democracy developed under the market economy, Hong Kong and Taiwan societies are facing a decline in cultural spirit. Behind each successful media organization there must be a certain value or ideology. Apple Daily is a newspaper with a strong individual style, and its boss Jimmy Lai is the soul behind this style. Apple Daily uses a crisp and clean layout design, inflammatory headlines and paparazzi-style news gathering methods to attract readers.It is a media product that is a tabloid in the core dressed up in a middle-class candy coat.Is the success of Apple Daily in Hong Kong and Taiwan the progress of democracy? Or the decline of humanistic spirit?Or the manifestation of cultural diversity?”It is a commonplace among certain commentators that Taiwan's "cultural spirit" and similar is in decline. No definition of "cultural spirit" is ever made, because of course, there is no such thing, and no decline, either. The myth of the Decline Away from the Pure Past is an archetype found in every society among conservative commentators, and in the Eden Myth of Christianity it even achieves religious status. In Chinese culture it is the stereotyped Myth the organizes the way people think about the present day, and can be pithily summarized as "No Matter What, Things Were Better in the Past." The author of this piece simply betrays his own political and social prejudices, not his actual knowledge of anything (I should hasten to add that one sad fallout from this is that Chinese tend to be excessively critical of their own societies, often not recognizing their own successes). I do like his pithy description of Apple as a "tabloid core dressed up in a middle-class candy coat." It's quite apt.
Reality: there is no "cultural decline" here on The Beautiful Isle, but instead, a post-martial law flowering that shows up at all levels of society, sometimes kitsch, sometimes vulgar, sometimes profound, sometimes obscene. In short, Taiwan is becoming a nation with a complex, multicultural society. As we would expect in a democracy, the tastes of the less educated and the lower incomes predominate.
Of course, there will always be those appalled or delighted by the fact that in democracies the hoi polloi have bad taste (they have awful taste in authoritarian states as well; they just don't get to exercise it) and would rather watch Korean soap operas than read Tang poetry or, as they were forced to do in the martial law period, study Confucius and memorize the Three Principles of the People. Anyone who took a look at the vast number of stores selling pornographic videos, the betel nut girls lining the streets, and the brothels found in every neighborhood, could maybe sorta guess that a newspaper that souped up the news with plenty of sex was going to sell. This does not represent Taiwan democracy, any more than the half-naked betel nut girls represent Taiwan democracy. It represents the well-known fact that sex sells. Apparently ESWN thinks this is a major insight into Taiwan's democratic culture.
The article translated by ESWN goes on to say:
The New York Times represents liberalism in the United States.The Washington Post represents conservatives in the United States.What does Apple Daily represent? In Hong Kong, Apple Daily became the representative of the democratic movement. In Taiwan, Apple Daily is the hero in exposing scandals among Taiwan political power holders. What is the difference in editorial direction and content between Apple Daily versus the New York Times and the Washington Post? Why do those traditional newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan (such as Ming Pao, Hong Kong Economic Journal, China Times, United Daily) that are closer in editorial style to the New York Times and the Washington Post seem to be ageing in a more democratic and freer social environment?
Skipping over the fact that the author confusedly locates at opposite ends of the political spectrum two Establishment newspapers, the Washington Post and the NYTimes, that are neither liberal nor conservative and extremely close in their political views, he does ask a semi-pertinent question: Why do those traditional newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan (such as Ming Pao, Hong Kong Economic Journal, China Times, United Daily) that are closer in editorial style to the New York Times and the Washington Post seem to be ageing in a more democratic and freer social environment?
The author answers himself:
In recent years, the Apple Daily-style media culture has turned news into a creative art. There is not much difference between entertainment news and so-called mainstream news. The Apple Daily-style news is a type of news that sets up hatred and opposition, and this style has slowly become the mainstream in Hong Kong and Taiwan media. How can a society under this kind of media culture develop normally in a diversified way? When the future democratic development in Hong Kong and Taiwan has lost the humanistic spirit, what kind of democratic politics will result? Should we blame Jimmy Lai? This is a chicken-and-egg question about whether the times created the hero or the hero created the times.This is, of course, an apologetic for the fact that Apple Daily engages in activities that used to be known as lying before people made up euphemisms like "creative art." The author's defense of Apple Daily is to blame society -- you know, that horrible democracy in Taiwan has forced Jimmy Lai's paper to slant and sensationalize stories, and focus on sex. Help! cries Apple Daily. Stop me before I show tits and ass again! Apparently this effect only occurs with papers from Hong Kong; the local Taiwan papers seemed quite immune prior to the advent of Apple Daily. The author fails to engage that point precisely because, well, it totally destroys his thesis.
Note too that the author again confusedly thinks there is something abnormal about sensationalist news selling well or that there is something "normal" about "diversified development." Hint to the author: normal diversity is an oxymoron.
The author's complaint reveals another Myth that traditionally organizes analysis of society in Chinese thinking: the opposite of control is anarchy. In our own culture the opposite of control is freedom, while anarchy is the absence of government. The Confucian mind places great emphasis on social order, and equates freedom with anarchy (one of the owners of Yazhou Zhoukan, the magazine that hosted this article, is the newspaper group Ming Pao, long a champion of Confucian ideals). Thus diversity, in his view, must be "normalized", otherwise, well, we'd have no control, and thus, we would be in a state of anarchy, which -- it is redundant to even say it -- is bad. Regrettably, the conceptual categories available to this writer do not include freedom. He does not even understand what it is.
The author at last reveals his hand in this paragraph:
In recent years, it is fashionable to talk about basing everything upon the people. But can a society without a humanistic spirit be based upon the people? Jimmy Lai and Stephen Chow are immensely popular. Is that the expectant response by the Chinese people to the transformation of democracy, or have we lost the ability to respect tradition and propagate tradition? Jimmy Lai has often said that he likes to read Economist, but would he publish a magazine like Economist?
What points does he make here? First, he thinks that society should be about:
"the ability to respect tradition and propagate tradition?"
Here's the thinking of the social authoritarian, hard at work. What are the two dichotomous opposites he chooses? Democracy on one side, the ability to respect and propagate tradition on the other. Are these really opposites? Of course not! What he is complaining about here is that people are no longer forced to kowtow to some idealized political construction called Tradition by the ruling authorities and are free to go about building the kind of tradition that they want to build. Our trusty writer is bemoaning an idealized past that never existed, and imagining that its disappearance is a negative thing. He is confused about what words like respect and democracy and tradition mean, subconsciousing thinking that they still mean Fear, Authority and Control, respectively. You can take the man out of the authoritarianism, but you can't......never mind.
What does our trusty writer think about tabloids? He argues:
The nature of a tabloid is to hype things up, to hate people who are rich and to despise people who are poor, to manufacture opposition and hatred, to play word games and to magnify human frailty, cynicism and conspiracy theories. Can a society whose opinions are led by a tabloid reflect the triumph of freedom of expression? Or the birth of fascistic democracy? On February 2, 2006, Hong Kong's Apple Daily reported on the front page about a Hong Kong tour group encountering a traffic accident in Egypt with many casualties. The headline was: "Three Hong Kong groups in Egypt went past without offering assistance; the wounded tourist complained in tears that Hong Kong people are cold-blooded." The words for "Hong Kong people are cold-blooded" were extra-large. But the content of the report does not support the conclusion in the headline that "Hong Kong people are cold-blooded." All it did was to quote the words of a principal, and there was no in-depth attempt to verify the reliability of the statement. This is the typical method by which tabloids hype up news through presenting the conclusion first and then end up with nothing definitive.
The author's analysis of Apple Daily's ability to report news is dead on. But note his strange rhetorical question:
Can a society whose opinions are led by a tabloid reflect the triumph of freedom of expression? Or the birth of fascistic democracy?
Here the question more or less rhetorically assumes what it is trying to argue, not the first time he's committed that basic logical fallacy (hilariously, the author goes on to complain further down that people do not know how to argue anymore, a problem he suffers seriously from with emotional appeals, errors of fact, omssions of pertinent counterarguments, and fallacious logic). This is mere engagement in emotional appeals. Nowhere has the author demonstrated that Apple Daily "leads" Taiwan's opinions -- no survey data, no quotes or citations, no support or argument whatsoever. ESWN has noted that Apple Daily is probably most popular among the young, who do not lead anything, except dissolute lives, that they promptly clean up when they get serious jobs and spouses. Like the young everywhere, come to think of it.
The second half of that comment is another one of our author's oxymorons, "fascistic democracy" and it contains a telltale -- the equation of Taiwan's current political situation with "fascism" is a common criticism of the pan-Blues here in Taiwan. The author's political slant is obvious and it is anti-Green. This is not a trenchant analysis of Apple Daily and Taiwan's media culture. This is merely highly disguised bog-standard emotional appeals and attacks on Taiwanese culture from the conservative Chinese Right, the kind of wearisome unimaginative tuneless logorrhea that the pan-Blue papers here commonly and proudly publish as "analysis" (perhaps the author might consider taking his vulgar, shallow work as indicating something about the state of thinking among commentators of his class -- in the same manner that he takes the vulgar, shallow Apple Daily as indicative of something about Taiwan). The insensate repetitiveness of conservative Chinese criticisms of Taiwan democracy is the product of a particular culture of mind in which tradition has long since vanquished creativity -- leaving only the sterile ability to replicate, instead of the living ability to reproduce. Conservative Chinese thinkers looking at Taiwan are just so many mules, braying in fear.
Observe further that the author once again uses a rhetorical question -- Or the birth of fascistic democracy? -- to make the totally illogical hyperbolic leap from one newspaper's popularity to fascism in society, pure comedy from a writer who says others can't argue -- though he admits later that Apple Daily does not dominate. In fact, he observes that things in Taiwan are still pretty good:
Taiwan is luckier than Hong Kong. Apple Daily is influential there, but it is not dominating. Taiwan newspapers have not all become like Apple Daily, as there are newspapers and magazines that still have the humanistic spirit. Taiwan has its own cultural anti-body, but the situation in Hong Kong is one-sided. In Hong Kong, they are all like Apple Daily. They don't pay any attention to grooming and educating reporters. More reporters quit and fewer veteran reporters remain. The art of in-depth investigative reporting in Hong Kong has vanished.
I can't speak for Hong Kong, but without any data to back it up, the author is simply invoking the Decline Myth. Once upon a time there was a great Hong Kong newspaper era, but now look at things! This might be true, but the author does not provide either evidence or argument for his position. Sadly, fallacious logic, unsupported arguments, and emotional appeals are the pattern in articles about Taiwan that ESWN chooses to translate.
One final thought: Yazhou Zhoukan is owned by Ming Pao and Tom.com, both Hong Kong-based firms. Ming Pao is a well known conservative publication. Gosh -- criticism of Taiwan's democracy from a conservative Hong Kong-based media publication. Who wudda thunk it?
UPDATE: Edited first paragraph after comments below
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