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Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Kudos here, detention there


LOS ANGELES -- Journalism free from government constraint just isn't for everybody. It certainly wasn't for Richard M. Nixon while he was president. Unrestrained investigative journalism of the Watergate variety ultimately pushed Congress in the direction of potential impeachment and shoved Nixon onto an exiting helicopter.

Nor is aggressive journalism necessarily appropriate for every country in every stage of development. Journalists need to be properly paid (so that they don't rely on bribes for income), and they require a professional education to reduce sensationalism and reporting errors. This certainly isn't for the People's Republic of China, which presently has in detention more journalists than anyone.

But, to tell the truth, for all its vaunted First Amendment independence and other virtues, free-for-all, free-from-all-accountability journalism sometimes isn't for me either. Though a longtime reporter and columnist, I find myself repelled by the crass commercialism and the dumbing-down of the U.S. news media.

Such reservations aside, some of the most unforgettable characters I have met in life have been journalists. At the top of the list, surely, are Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and Ching Cheong of The Straits Times of Singapore. These two larger-than-life characters, whom I know personally in different ways, could not be more different, even as they are both now in the news.

Woodward was in all his glory last week when a former top FBI official, now 91, admitted that he had been "Deep Throat." This was the salacious moniker given to the chief confidential source for the series of sensational stories on the so-called Watergate scandal that led to a Pulitzer for The Washington Post, eventual fame and fortune for Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein and political ignominy and resignation for Nixon.

The self-outing by Deep Throat -- after some four decades of hard-kept secrecy -- authenticated Woodward and Bernstein's unwavering assertion over the years that not only had their key source not been fabricated (as critics had charged) but that he was a highly creditable whistle-blower (indeed -- the FBI's No. 2 official at the time).

Working for The Washington Post for decades, Woodward is America's high priest of the confidential source, and while U.S. journalists are in disrepute these days, it is frightening to think what would become of the United States without them - or at least without the best of them.

This brings me to Ching Cheong, a China correspondent for a leading Asian newspaper. I have known him for years as a quality reporter for The Straits Times, the leading English-language daily in Singapore. Whatever its limitations -- in this city-state, top officials mysteriously get treated by the news media with enormous respect -- its probably has more full-time correspondents assigned to China than any foreign publication, and its coverage of Southeast Asia, especially of giant Indonesia, is in my view, second to none.

But one of its best journalists, Ching, is now in detention on the mainland. While in hot pursuit of secret documents concerning the late Zhao Ziyang, a former top official known to be opposed to Beijing's clenched-fist handling of the Tiananmen Square crackdown that occurred June 4, 1989, my friend and colleague ran afoul of Chinese authorities. For the past several weeks he has been detained out of touch allegedly on charges of spying. His wife and his newspaper's management vehemently deny this.

I do hope this affable journalist is released immediately and is allowed to go back to work. It is hard to understand why Beijing is picking a fight with Singapore, which, while pro-America, is anything but anti-China, or with such a widely admired journalist.

The Hu Jintao government needs to accept that what will hurt China is not new revelations about Tiananmen, but a slow reversion to some new, modified version of Maoism, with its closed borders, closed minds and lack of vigorous intellectual debate.

Chinese journalism itself may be currently anemic, but some of its journalists (who have to tread carefully or else) are absolutely heroic and respect foreign journalists like Ching for his dedication to the craft of trying to tell the truth.

I personally do not know for sure whether he is guilty of any charge, but I would be willing to bet that, like Woodward, his work will receive far higher commendation from history than those who would seek to repress or discredit it.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Copyright 2005 Tom Plate


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