Editors understandably want access. But the desire for access can corrupt.
The top brass at Bloomberg News are reportedly holding back a planned article that would embarrass the Chinese government, for fear their correspondents will be kicked out of China. The editor-in-chief says the dilemma is similar to what reporters faced in Nazi Germany.
Of course China today is not exactly the same as Nazi Germany, but that does not mean the lessons of the 1930s are irrelevant. Unfortunately, Bloomberg News seems to be learning the wrong lessons from the experience of the Hitler years.
According to a front page expose in the New York Times last week, Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler is blocking publication of an investigative report that would reveal "the hidden financial ties between one of the wealthiest men in China and the families of top Chinese leaders."
In a recent conference call with Bloomberg reporters in Hong Kong, Winkler reportedly said, "If we run the story, we'll be kicked out of China." Winkler "said he had read a lot about foreign journalists working under the Third Reich and wanted to formulate a strategy for staying in China as long as possible."
Winkler's fears of Chinese government retaliation are not far-fetched. In response to unflattering articles about China published by Bloomberg and the New York Times in recent years, the Chinese regime has refused residency visas for new journalists from both organizations and has sometimes blocked Chinese citizens' access to their web sites. This sort of behavior is par for the course among dictatorships.
Editors understandably want access. But the desire for access can corrupt. Going easy on dictators may ensure access to the country in question, but it also sometimes results in reporters writing puff pieces that bolster the regime.
A classic example is the case of Adolf Hitler's vacation home.
In November 1938, the British magazine Homes & Gardens published a fawning feature story about Hitler's house in the Bavarian Alps. "This bright, airy chalet…commands the fairest view of all Europe," it declared. "This is the only home in which Hitler can laugh and take his ease--or even 'conduct tours' by means of the tripod telescope which he himself operates on the terrace for his visitors."
One wonders if Hitler could see Poland or Czechoslovakia from there.
The article continued: "The guest bedrooms are hung [with] the Fuhrer's own water-colour sketches…The Fuhrer has a passion about cut flowers in his home…The curtains are of printed linen or fine damask in the softer shades…" It also described how on some days, "the Squire himself [Hitler] will stroll through the woods into hamlets" nearby, where he "gives a 'Fun Fair' to the local children."
The New York Times was not much better. Six weeks before the Homes & Gardens article, a Times correspondent in Berlin filed his own gushing description of Hitler's mountain retreat. The home "is simple in its appointments and commands a magnificent highland panorama," he wrote. "Herr Hitler in principle detests the big cities, where 'the houses are thick and the sewers annoy the air.' He craves moderate altitudes and highland breezes."
These were the results of journalists having access.
Such disturbing examples of journalistic irresponsibility had serious consequences. Articles depicting Hitler as a fashionable interior decorator or affable country gentleman helped dull American and British public awareness of the Nazi menace.
How can editors today tell the truth about totalitarian regimes without fear of reprisals? Maybe by doing what they didn't do in the 1930s: sticking up for each other.
If the major news media outlets would band together and collectively inform Beijing that they will all withdraw from China if they are censored or punished, the Chinese would have to sit up and take notice. China, after all, is desperate to be treated by the rest of the world as a normal, reasonable country with which one can do business. International trade is China's lifeblood. A strong stand by the news media of the Free World would threaten that.
Coincidentally, the New York Times' expose of Bloomberg appeared on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. That nationwide pogrom against Germany's Jews was facilitated by Hitler's perception that the international community --including the Western media-- was afraid to confront him. The behavior of Bloomberg News in the current crisis is sending China's government that same dangerous message.
The failure of the other news media to take a principled stand will only compound the problem.