Wednesday, April 21, 2010



The New York Times set the tone for its recent China quake coverage with a devious headline:

“After Quake, Tibetans Distrust China’s Help”

What’s wrong with the headline, affixed to an April 17, 2010 report from China by Andrew Jacobs?

Let’s first consider headlines you are unlikely to ever see on the pages of the New York Times or any other decent newspaper.

“After 911, Jews Distrust America’s Help”

“After Katrina, Blacks Distrust America’s Help”

Now take another look at the NYT headline. It’s simply not up to good journalistic standards, is it? In fact it is insulting, if not borderline incendiary.

To say that “Jews distrust America’s help” is to be crude and insensitive. Such a headline commits a double indignity, slyly suggesting that Jews are not really American and Americans are not really Jews.

Ditto for any ethnic group you chose to test the decency of the headline with. Black, white, Irish, Italian or whatever ethnic group you like. It is insulting and it is inaccurate.

And it strikes close to home, so the NYT wisely avoids it.

Now what about China? Ethnic Tibetans in Qinghai are Chinese citizens. Even the Dalai Lama agrees with that.

So what business do the suits on 41st Street in Manhattan have declaring independence on behalf of ethnic Tibetans in Qinghai?

If you desire to play up ethnic tensions while reporting on an earthquake, as the NYT apparently sees fit to do, it would be linguistically more accurate to say that “ethnic Tibetans distrust Beijing” or “local Communist Party officials” or whatever group you seek to pit against the quake-ravaged citizens in that particular region of China.

Just look at those poor people, victims not just of nature's wrath but undemocratic governance as well!

Such schadenfreude is not unusual in tabloid journalism nor is it unknown at the uppity Times, which in a similar vein sensationalized the May 2008 typhoon in Burma to the point that a naïve reader might agree with calls for the US to invade and take over to save the Burmese from themselves.

The editorial voice of the "Gray Lady," often echoes the harangues of its star columnists Nick Kristoff and Tom Friedman. The tone is smug, the moral posture is high-dudgeon, framed as it is within a triumphalist American narrative. Americans make serious mistakes, and the NYT reports on many of them (when not besides themselves coddling sources in Washington and supporting various wars and so-called humanitarian interventions) but come what may, the royal “we” are basically the good guys.

NYT coverage of Asia is rarely free of agenda. Take China, example. Beijing has an undeniable record of economic accomplishment, which is reluctantly reported, but it gets hammered, not just for demonstrable faults, but for not being more like “us.”

Coverage of Thailand has taken on an oddly pro-Thaksin tone, despite the bloody machinations of the former authoritarian ruler, perhaps because he was masterful at going through the motions of a democratic process that Americans like to validate.

Earth calling the New York Times; people and places that do not adhere to your version of American values are not always in the wrong.

Despite some superb writing and crack investigative reporting, the NYT is infected by a ready-made Manicheaen narrative that sullies its objectivity. It’s as if the understandably partisan coverage inherent to sports, in which the home team can make mistakes but do no wrong, while the other team can accomplish good things but do no right, has leaked into the news pages as well.

It has recently been pointed out by David Rosen in Counterpunch, for example, that NYT coverage of allegations of abuse on the part of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, dims in comparison to the apparent glee with which the NYT has gone after the Pope for abuse scandals in distant Europe.

Sometimes the Gray Lady really is an eminence grise of sorts, embracing the status quo and maintaining political correctness close to home while wagging the finger and assuming a tut-tut, take-no-prisoners approach abroad.

Friday, April 16, 2010



(published in the Bangkok Post, April 17, 2010)

The sight of red-shirted protesters taking a break from the incendiary heat of political battle to gently douse one another with water in the spirit of Songkran past and present is a small but meaningful step towards repairing dangerous social ruptures and healing the pain of recent political violence.

By taking time out to celebrate a common cultural identity grounded neither in race, religion nor flag, but a delightful folk tradition that elevates fun-loving to a degree rarely seen elsewhere, Thai street combatants have shown a depth of character and resilience that bodes well for resolving civil discord and restoring a sense of normalcy.

The Khao San Road area was hard hit by conflict but was also the site for some transformative fun of the sort that had the world media raising a collective eyebrow.

Going from bullets to buckets of water in a few short days is jolting to the senses, and confounds the media narrative of doom and gloom in the streets, but it does show a glimmer of hope for a peaceful resolution to a seemingly intractable conflict.

The basically good-natured, transformative capacity of both the crowd and the crowd controllers has been evident all along, though last Saturday's shocking violence threatened to be a game changer.

Up until the outbreak of violence on April 10, the exact origins and motivations of which have not yet been clearly established, protesters and security forces alike showed enormous restraint, humour and patience in conjuring up creative, non-violent ways to do their thing.

This, not the aberrant outbreak of gratuitous violence that is attributed by many protesters and the government alike to a malevolent third force, should be the guide to future actions.

It is critical that conscientious individuals on both sides of the barricades retain their essential autonomy and goodness and not be carried away by crowd psychology and group dynamics to the point of hurting others.

Soldiers and rebels alike need to isolate, identify, contain and eventually help adjudicate any criminal behaviour acts, whether attributed to rogue soldiers, terrorists or fellow partisans.

Meanwhile, protesters of any colour or stripe should feel free, and be free, to continue to air grievances, exercise free assembly and free speech, with the understanding that violence be avoided at all costs.

And while soldiers and government officials need not be treated with fawning respect, they too deserve to be kept free of bodily harm.

If and when violence does break out, as it did on ''Black Saturday'', it behooves all to step back and reflect deeply, rather than seek revenge in the heat of the moment.

Unexplained acts of violence continue to put the nation on edge. Whether violators of the peace are agents provocateur or just ''normal people'' who tragically get carried away with unbridled emotion, it is important to stem the tide.

Hardline, hardcore tactics do not serve the best interests of the crowd or those duty-bound to control the crowd.

As annoying as traffic disruptions due to demonstrations may be, as irritating as songs and slogans of society's discontents may be to those entrenched in the status quo, the temporary closure of a major intersection is tolerable if not democracy-affirming, in comparison to dictatorial control.

If an army clique or coup group should in the days ahead pre-emptively deprive the people of their basic rights and freedoms in order to get the traffic moving again, then the chaotic days of yellow shirts and red shirts will seem carefree in comparison to the jack-booted world in which tanks take the place of protesters and the noisy media is reduced to a slick propaganda machine.

People of all political persuasions, vehemently though they may disagree about certain issues, should cooperate at least enough to prevent the axe, currently hanging by the thinnest of threads, from smashing down on dissent of all kinds. There is an unfortunate tendency for both the media and the powers-that-be to focus on a crowd and begin to take seriously its claims only when it gets violent in word and deed. There needs to be a reversal of this trend. In order not to validate violence, peaceful gatherings crying out for social justice should be listened to with the utmost earnestness and respect. Those with the stamina and political will to continue peaceful protest ought rightly do so, showing their solidarity, willpower and goodwill through rightful words and rightful actions.

At this delicate juncture, it would be a tactical mistake for either protesters or army people to make a sacrificial lamb of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, tempting though it may be to clear the deck for the sake of political theatre.

Mr Abhisit is a thoughtful, reflective leader who appears to possess both the brains and decency necessary for compromise and dialogue, though he needs to unmoor himself from the tainted political machine that propelled him to power.

The likely result of forcing Mr Abhisit to step down on account of bloodshed provoked by other political actors is that either the military will step up, or chaos will ensue, further undermining the chance for democracy to take root and instead paving the way for a return of the kind of strongman rule that past generations of students and citizens sacrificed so much for so long ago.

Those who feel they have been deprived full participation in all the best that Thailand has to offer, have the right, and indeed the responsibility, to help correct social injustice, even if it means taking to the streets and disrupting some traffic.

But to attack the person of the prime minister or army encampments or media installations shows neither goodwill nor common sense. Anyone with a whit of familiarity with Thailand's history of bloody coups recognises the pattern; coup plotters sow discord, spread hate and seize state organs to assert political/business dominance with the help of military factions behind the scenes.

Do the downtrodden protesters from the farms of Isan and the North really want to be proxies in a humourless and unforgiving power-grab?

The Songkran water-splashing suggests otherwise. Despite difficulties, Thailand's quintessential free spirit is alive and well. If cool heads can prevail and incendiary incidents are not allowed to spiral out of control, then peace has a chance. Every small act of peace-making, every gesture of tolerance, and every attempt at dialogue contributes to reversing a dangerously negative polarity. With time, patience and persistence, the sundered social fabric may at last be mended and rewoven in a just and more equitable way.

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