Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Power of the Press

Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) at a typewriter
On the plane back to Hong Kong I watched several movies to keep me entertained and one of them was All The President's Men.

The 1976 movie is based on the book of the same name written by reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post who were trying to track down what happened at Watergate.

Set in the 1970s, it's interesting to see how journalism operated then -- typing out stories on typewriters and then sent to the news desk to be edited before it was typeset. There were many female secretaries and assistants to help out with answering phone calls, used rotary phones and massive photocopying machines.

All that has changed now with computers and cell phones. Once stories are written and pictures taken, a page can be laid out very quickly on the screen; it is amazing that papers were churned out at all in the tedious way before.

In any event, the story is about how two "hungry" reporters who doggedly try to keep the Watergate story alive even though they at first have few leads that go cold. They persist, going through every shred of information and when they get a copy of a list of people on the fundraising committee to re-elect President Nixon, they try to personally visit every one in the hopes of getting something new.

Although they are denied the information they are looking for, their persistence is impressive. They also use interesting tactics including reverse psychology.

Finally they get a big break when Deep Throat, Woodward's source, begins leading them in the right direction with the big hint of "follow the money".

When watching that movie, one has to wonder if Woodward and Bernstein types would be able to do the same kind of investigating in China.

It seemed very similar with multiple people at first willing to give information and then all of a sudden changing their minds, or denying anything ever happened. The fact that they were able to even speak to high-level officials is practically unheard of in the mainland.

Some journalists in China have resorted to going through as much available in the public record as possible, such as The New York Times, Bloomberg and now The Wall Street Journal on their investigative reports on senior officials' families' accumulation of mind-boggling wealth. And when their stories are blocked, it's pretty certain the articles are true even though the government issues flat denials.

Others use the internet to expose corrupt officials and the information spreads like wildfire so the authorities have no choice but to sack the offending person in charge as quickly as possible to avoid further embarrassment.

While incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping started to make waves with his declaration to seriously clamp down on corruption and has already taken down a few corrupt officials, reforms can only go so far.

It is the freedom of the press that will be a viable counterbalance to keep power in check.

Until that happens in China, the country will continue to be ruled by an administration that will continue to protect itself instead of acting in the best interests of the people.

So we probably won't be seeing the Chinese version of All The President's Men anytime soon. But we can hope.

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