Thursday, October 29, 2009

NEWSPAPERS IN THE NEWS

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

(published in the China Daily on October 29, 2009 as "Enjoy black-and-white print while you still can")

The latest gloomy news from journalism's battered front lines is that the prestigious New York Times (NYT) is laying off 100 members of its newsroom staff. Paper-and-ink newspapers are in deep trouble, there's no doubt about that. But the NYT, as comprehensive as its news coverage sometimes is, is hardly in a position to offer the real story on its current woes, anymore than a psychoanalyst is able to objectively analyze him or herself.

What's bad for the NYT is not necessarily bad for journalism any more than what is good for the NYT is necessarily good for journalism. In recent years the NYT absorbed the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe and several other news properties with dubious results for investors and readers alike; then the organization that Gay Talese dubbed "the Power and the Glory" invested heavily in a showy new architectural citadel designed by Renzo Piano which was completed just as the economy started to go bad.

But with more than 100 newspapers closing down last year, including iconic newsprint papers in vibrant cities such as Boston, Seattle and Denver, not all the troubles at the NYT are idiosyncratic ones, but can be seen in a general perspective as part of a trend.

With advertising revenue plummeting, and real estate losing value by the hour, the NYT is in a free fall accelerated in part by its own greed.

But it is also a victim of more general downward market pressures; American newspaper readership is down 10 percent across the board in just the past year alone. The moribund economy, with no relief in sight, is leaving many a good newspaper exposed like a beached whale, stranded as capital ebbs away with the low tide.

As newspapers flap about trying to breathe another day, perchance return to familiar deep waters, Internet news aggregators soar, circling above like birds of prey for whom the shifting tide is an opportunity waiting to be picked.

Internet delivery of news is infinitely faster and more flexible. It saves millions of trees from the paper pulp mill and cuts down on the need for noisy delivery trucks and back-breaking labor, so what's not to like about it?

For a brief fleeting moment, consumers can have their cake and eat it too. Newspapers do the heavy lifting, while Internet news sites spread the information around for free, "lite" and easy.

But who will write the news when the newspapers are gone? Who are the new news gatekeepers? The Internet makes us rather too dependent on terminals and telephone lines produced and controlled by a handful of big corporations.

Another problem with the Net is its indiscriminate character. Falsehoods are floated as easily as truths, and although conscientious bloggers may help us navigate this terra incognito, there's no business model to sustain the most truthful bloggers, either.

More ominous yet, there's something called the digital divide which means people who don't care to use or can't afford computers are increasingly being left in the dark, reduced to second class citizens in an age awash in information.

Ironically, readers in countries such as Thailand, though hobbled by lower income, are likely to enjoy their treasured national newspapers a bit longer than Americans, because on one hand, salaries and labor costs are lower, and on the other hand, there is the social imperative to reach the large percentage of the population who can't afford the fancy new digital viewing devices and terminals.

Journalism can and must survive even the most calamitous paradigm change if society is ever to right itself and get things right. In times of economic and social stress, reliable information is more important than ever, incisive analysis a necessity. With the diminished brightness of the day, more and more watchdogs are called for. Shining light in dark places is more critical than ever.

But no press anywhere in the world is free, any more than a free lunch is free. Someone, somewhere along the line must bear the not inconsiderable costs of reporting and researching, vetting and editing, not to mention distribution and delivery in its analogue and digital formats.

A healthy society needs reliable news and information accessible to people from all walks of life at nominal cost, a role newspapers have played rather well for more than a century now.

Newspapers will undergo drastic makeovers, but so will the Internet information highway, which will lose some of its egalitarian luster when the pay-per-view toll booths are installed.

The new newspaper, will be, by necessity, a shape shifter.

It doesn't have to look like a newspaper, it doesn't have to be called a newspaper, but it has to deliver reliable news. And whatever it is that will ultimately replace newspapers must be, like newspapers in their prime, economically democratic.

If such a delivery device doesn't exist yet, someone will have to invent it.

As for the archaic but efficacious paper-and-ink information delivery device currently in your hands --for those of you not already reading this on-line; enjoy it while you can.

The author is Professor of Media Studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Doshisha University, Kyoto.

(China Daily 10/29/2009 page9)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

BLOWING IN THE WIND

by Philip J Cunningham

Is Japan changing for real? To get a better sense of how Japan is and isn't changing with the urbane Yukio Hatoyama at the helm, in the wake of the Democratic Party of Japan’s stunning electoral victory over the entrenched Liberal Democratic, consider these news stories from around the Japanese archipelago.

First, zoom in on the half-unfinished Yamba Dam in rural Gunma, to see how a multi-billion dollar boondoggle can be stopped dead in its tracks. The LDP, incumbents of a half-century standing, have made an art of pouring money, largely in the form of cement, to rural constituencies scattered around the archipelago, rewarding electoral loyalty while denuding and desecrating the environment with dams, bridges and highways to nowhere.

Hatoyama, in power for little more than a week, suspended the dam project. If there is truly change in the air, it is in the realm of cutbacks on pork-barrel spending. The controversial supplementary budget, a last-dash effort inked by the LDP as it was sinking into obscurity, has been scrapped and the overall budget has been massively trimmed.

Now pull back from the rice fields and hills of Gunma and zoom in on the shimmering Tokyo megalopolis, the largest concentration of human beings on earth, with some 40 million people clustered within a 40 kilometer radius. Not too much green here, but not too many roads to nowhere either; instead a vast, vibrant, complex inter-connected living, breathing super-organism with an arterial system of asphalt and iron; electricity and light, a steady flow of trains and automobiles, but what, no international airport?

Only far-away Narita.

The LDP during the height of its power operated much as an authoritarian communist party might have done in the same era. A swath of isolated rice farms in Chiba was decreed to be the new Tokyo International Airport, even though the project was bitterly opposed by Narita locals from the start, and has been inconveniencing travelers ever since. Situated an incomprehensible 60 kilometers outside of city center, it's an airport only big-time investors in infrastructure and social engineers hoping to discourage the hoi polloi from traveling, could love. in effect banishing the gateway of Tokyo to Chiba.

It was the sort of inconvenience to which one could only sigh "shoganai" as it could not be helped, at least not while the LDP remained in power. Long after violent clashes ceased, Narita remained an armed, barb-wired camp, subjecting visitors to intimidating, but largely theatrical, Star War trooper controls.

Then the LDP loses power and within weeks the DPJ’s Land and Transport Minister, Seiji Maehara, makes a bold proposal, suggesting that homely Haneda Airport, located on Tokyo Bay, snugly close to downtown, be the new hub. What? Move the gateway of Tokyo to Tokyo itself? What an idea! And why not?

Narita, like its patron party the LDP, has too long enjoyed a monopoly at the expense of others. But it has been failing on its own terms as well; it's inconvenience has not discouraged Japan's stoic traveling set from spending yen overseas, but it has stemmed the inflow of tourists and their cash. Foreigners, especially those in need of connecting flights, or on urgent business, bridle at the thought of over-nighting in Narita or detouring through the rice paddies of Chiba on bus and on over-priced trains.

One only need to consider the new airports in Inchon, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to see how Japan isolates itself, with Narita looking more and more a relic of the 1970's sorry domestic politics.

Maehara's bold bid did not go unopposed, however, and he back-tracked the next day after Chiba governor Kensaku Morita (a former actor, he goes by his stage name) made veiled threats during a sputtering televised performance full of innuendo, suggesting the old guard won't give up without a fight.

Zoom away from the troubled waters of Tokyo Bay and zoom in on distant Okinawa, which bears the brunt of the US military footprint in Japan, not just because it is an excellent staging ground for Pacific Ocean policing, but because the better-connected politicians of Japan proper never really took to the sight of uniformed gaijin walking the streets of their prefectures. The result? Outlying Okinawa long ago got stuck with rather more than its share of US bases, partly a legacy of LDP politicking.

The DPJ owes it to the under-represented voices of dissent in Okinawa to re-examine decades of back-room deals, but here, again, Hatoyama, soon to meet Obama, must tread gingerly, lest the game of base allocation become a bitter contest of musical chairs with the US military.

A quick leap the length of Japan up to its northernmost extremity followed by a zoom in on some windswept islets suggests that the new government, like the LDP, is haunted by the past, despite its intelligent core leadership and early moves to improve relations with China and Korea.

Land and Transport Minister Maehara, still reeling from the backlash from his Haneda air hub comments, escaped the heat by flying north to the chilly Southern Kuriles, where he staged a nationalistic photo op courtesy of the brashly patriotic Coast Guard, publicly pining for the return of the Russian-held islands. Gazing at the hazy outline of the distant isles, Maehara, born in 1962, said he was "nostalgic" for the old days before the Kuriles were "illegally occupied" by Russia.

Nostalgic for what? The 1940's? The good old days when these desolate, rocky isles were used to stage a brilliant sneak attack on Pearl Harbor? If a bunch of rocks can evoke such passion, imagine the bouts of nostalgia a Japanese nationalist might experience at the sight of former territories such as Korea and Taiwan?

Yet another indication that the sweeping change of power in Japan has failed to sweep away all the cobwebs of the political realm comes from the Wakayama coastal town of Taiji, famous for its unnecessary and unnecessarily brutal whaling and dolphin kills.

No less a luminary than the new foreign minister Katsuya Okada has unwisely chosen to defend Taiji's defenseless slaughter of marine mammals by using the "culture" argument, which is to say, anything Japanese do that the international community disapproves of is okay, if it can be trumped up as a facet of Japanese culture.

This evokes the ghosts of the LDP past and hints of a Thermidor to come. "Culture" has been used by old school politicians to defend everything from keeping out Thai rice to refusing Russians entry to public baths, from creating structural impediments to foreign products and services, to refusing the full palette of human rights to Japanese of Chinese and Korean descent and resident foreigners.

Hiding behind the culture curtain is a willful act of obfuscation. It is a slippery slope of an argument, popular with tyrants and Taliban alike, and not a promising start for the leading diplomat of the new, reform-minded ruling party.

pc

Friday, October 2, 2009

CITY OF THE WORLD


SINO-US RELATIONS
(from the Bangkok Post, October 3, 2009)

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

As a native New Yorker far from home, I felt a surge of pride to see photos of the Empire State Building in the news. The fact that it was lit up in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China is what made it newsworthy.

Casting the upper floors of New York's pride and joy in coloured spotlights is nothing new; it's been done in honour of everything from St Patrick's Day and India Day to Columbus Day and July Fourth. As a New Yorker, one gets used to that.

Some people made a fuss about it and New Yorkers are used to that, too.

Of course, turning on the lights and shifting the colour wheel for American traditions is one thing; doing the same in the name of friendship with a foreign power is another, especially a powerful foreign power.

It comes as no surprise that a coterie of anti-China activists registered their dismay with a little protest at the main entrance to the towering edifice. Nor does it surprise anyone that a handful of politicians jumped on the bandwagon; feigning shock that "communist" China, of all countries, should be so celebrated, or simply channelling a generalised indignation against things not American.

Sadly, there's precedent enough for casting rivals as enemies and regarding anything foreign as suspect in America's long, convoluted history. But there have also been many shining moments when the clumsy, myopic God-favours-my-country-over-yours mentality has given way to a more gracious and congenial cosmopolitanism.

The French-made Statue of Liberty was controversial on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1870s; some French thought Americans too ungrateful to merit such a grand gesture, while The New York Times was the mouthpiece for Americans who termed it a folly not worth paying for.

Bartholdi's soaring statue, huge and patently foreign, was donated by a fledgling regime in Paris, still suffering the throes of political violence, to a wobbly US, still in shock from its own unusually brutal Civil War.

Luckily the artistic symbolism trumped politics in the end. Although the peculiar politics of its original conception as a Roman goddess-styled lighthouse for Ottoman Egypt during the early days of the French Third Republic have become obscure, its ultimate incarnation as a gift to the United States from the people of France has done much good.

Lady Liberty was a bold and provocative symbol of one country reaching out to another, a gesture duly reciprocated, a gesture of such power that it continues to inspire. It has helped Americans to better understand themselves and their better angels; a proud symbol of America's open door, of America embracing the world.

Of course, changing the colour of the spotlights on a tall building for a single evening hardly compares to the permanent installation of a soaring icon, most especially a timeless masterpiece of wrought iron and copper sheathing, majestically installed in the estuary harbour where America meets the sea.

But both gestures share an outward-looking cosmopolitan spirit. Americans in general, New Yorkers more particularly, have a proud history of embracing the world, even when it comes as a burden. It is no accident of geography that the United Nations is located in New York, it is an earned honour for a city that has been entrepot, middle ground and refuge for the world ever since its founding by relatively liberal Dutch settlers and laissez-faire Englishmen.

So a tip of the hat to China on the eve of its national day is not at all out of character for America's greatest city.

New York City is loved and hated to a degree hard to find elsewhere, because it is a city with backbone and the courage of its convictions, a port city so different from inland citadels that some conservative Americans see it as a foreign city, an un-American city, an unforgivably liberal city when in fact it is more radically American in political tradition than many of its detractors.

But a grand gesture can help people to rise above the fray, as was the case with the Statue of Liberty. One can deplore the horrible human rights record of both America and France in the mid-nineteenth century and still value the fraternal gesture represented by the Statue of Liberty.

Coming less than three weeks after yet another anguished anniversary of the devastating Sept 11 attacks, the Sept 30, 2009 light display carries special symbolic value.

The Statue of Liberty itself was closed to the public from the time of the attacks until this past July, and its re-opening is a symbolic lighting of a candle, a sign of re-discovered confidence, a fresh eagerness to look out and reach outward, after the dark miasma of the hate-stained post-9/11 period.

New York is reasserting itself as a world city, a city of the world.

For New York to reach out to China and offer a friendly high-five at a time like this, so soon after the world economy was nearly brought to a halt by the foolish, greedy machinations of Wall Street elitists, is good form; a kind of working-class gesture of humility congruent with New York's distinguished history as a big-hearted, cosmopolitan port.

China and America have, despite inevitable ups and downs, found themselves on the same side of history more often than not, whether it be parallel struggles against the predations of the British Empire at its peak, or the common war against Japanese imperialism.

From the days of the China Clippers to the Flying Tigers, from the efforts of missionaries and philanthropists to the fruition of Nixon and Mao's cunning and counter-intuitive alliance, America and China have found common cause. Illuminating the top of the Empire State Building in the red and yellow hues of China's flag for an evening is a fleeting but memorable wink of acknowledgement from one to another, as friends, if not equals.

Perhaps when the US reaches an important milestone China will offer a reciprocal wink back at the US, illuminating the beautiful Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium in red, white and blue.

If both sides work for peace and prosperity, it is not inconceivable that China's own home-grown version of Lady Liberty will stand again, a symbol of shared values and friendship.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.