Lurid tales printed

NEWS MEDIA CHANGING WITH CHINA

journalists bribed

August 08, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- China's Communist leaders often worry that the trend toward a more free-market society will lead to corruption and vice, and China's news media seem to be fulfilling some of their worst anxieties.

When Chinese journalists go to a news conference these days for instance, they usually walk away with a lot more than news: Packets of money -- containing payoffs of $10 to $50 -- are routinely dispensed to ensure reporters' attention.

Favorable articles can be placed in China's leading national newspapers for $175 or more. TV news crews often won't even show up to cover a planned event without first negotiating their under-the-table payments.

No news media outlet -- including the Communist Party's newspaper, People's Daily -- is immune to the corruption. "Whenever I see any article anywhere about a new product or a new company now, I just assume that there was a bribe paid," says the top editor of a Beijing-based publication.

The news media scams lately have become so pervasive and take so many forms that a popular saying among Chinese reporters goes: "The first-class journalist buys and sells stocks. The second-class journalist buys and sells ads. The third-class attends briefings for fees. The fourth-class moonlights. The lowest writes articles for his own paper."

All news media in China are state-owned, and the Communist Party still exerts tight political control over them. But in many other ways, the party and state appear to be losing control to the highest bidder.

The party's leadership is concerned enough that on Wednesday, it issued the second public appeal so far this summer for improved journalistic ethics -- a decidedly ironic appeal given the distortions of truth that it has imposed on China over the years through its control of state news media.

The plea for more ethical reporting likely was prompted by the recent cracking of a national corporate bond swindle that took $175 million from more than 100,000 Chinese investors, a pyramid scheme that reportedly has led to the arrest of several Chinese reporters for bribe-taking.

Few Chinese journalists think the party's appeals will make a difference, because the corruption is rooted in their low pay (about $80 a month in Beijing), excess demand for the limited advertising space available in Chinese news media and relatively high ad rates. Put simply, it is cheaper and more efficient in many cases to buy the services of a Chinese journalist than it is to pay for an ad.

But reporters' graft is just one of the ways in which Chinese news media are adapting to China's shift to a market economy. Strapped for operating funds as their state subsidies are being slashed, the news organizations also are peddling themselves at every turn.

The entire front pages of several national Chinese papers have been rented to advertisers for as much as $200,000 per day. The state news agency and other news organizations have their own public relations or advertising firms that help to guarantee clients positive news coverage.

A few state newspapers simply have sold or leased their mastheads or publication licenses to companies, giving up all editorial control for cash. Some have been turned over to pornographers.

In a few instances, the new pressures of the marketplace have led to more aggressive and accurate reporting of financial information. In certain rare cases, some of China's myriad social problems have been reported.

But the most conspicuous result has been the rise of "xiaobao," or tabloid-style papers focusing on the lifestyles of China's rich and famous, lurid crime tales and almost anything that offers an opportunity to put a picture of a pretty woman on the front page.

Most of the major national newspapers now publish "xiaobao" each weekend. But the most popular, even in Beijing, is Southern Weekend, published in Canton, the capital of freewheeling Guangdong province.

The cover stories in Southern Weekend this summer -- stories usually accompanied by pictures of parts of women's bodies -- included: the rise of sexual harassment by telephone, four easy ways to make money without working hard and details of an alleged love affair between the famed singer Julio Iglesias and a Shanghai singer.

"For the new generation of Chinese journalists," says another Beijing editor, "our readers are gods, and we must compete to attract them.

"China is changing, and the Chinese public is changing from being a political public to an economic public. People want to better their lives, to know more about new things in the world, and we must give them what they want," he says.

Some analysts predict that following the market trends will lead the Chinese news media to break free of the Communist Party's control.

But China remains the world leader when it comes to jailing its journalists, according to a survey last year by a French press organization.

Even the most basic political news -- such as Premier Li Peng's illness this summer -- still does not find its way into any corner of the Chinese news media, testifying to the strength of the party's control.

And many Chinese journalists are cautious about making too much of their news organizations' moves to attract more readers.

"You shouldn't get too high an expectation about the changes in the Chinese media," says a Beijing reporter. "The changes are not political, and they don't mean that a free press is emerging.

"There's more 'soft' news, more financial news, more sports news. But that's all we can write about."

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