For the last month or so, as the parade of journalists reviews our elections here, I’ve been bracing for the stories. You know, the klewless, shallow, I’ve-just-parachuted-in stuff that marks the very worst the international media can produce, stuff that mainlines KMT talking points and causes errors we had thought killed to rise, zombie-like, from the ash heap of history.

Today, my nightmares were realized as Taiwan was assaulted by the Left and Right Coasts, with an awful piece by Edward Wong in the NY Times, bookended by a rather uneven article in the LA Times. Take your pick, and I suspect we are only at the beginning of the avalanche. Let’s start with the Wong piece.

The opening paragraph sets the frame (all bolded parts are mine):

No matter who wins Taiwan’s fiercely contested presidential election on March 22, the fervent independence movement that has so agitated relations with mainland China in recent years seems destined to suffer a significant setback.

Check out that loaded language. That independence movement is fervent. No wholly positive adjective can be used to describe the independence movement. Why not deeply-rooted? Long-standing? Democracy-oriented? How about, given Beijing’s authoritarianism, totally rational? After all, millions of Chinese declare independence from Beijing by emigrating every year, and no one considers them fervent. It is only when a whole nation attempts to get out from under Beijing’s desire to annex it that newspaper writers start hinting that there is something shallow, maybe even irrational about them…..

It’s not China but mainland China — China, as my pal Danny Bloom once put it, is nobody’s mainland — to use the term is to take a political position that became obsolete two decades ago. In fairness, the term remains current in everyday use here.

Observe finally that in this construction relations with China would be fine had not that silly fervent independence movement caused all the trouble. Fortunately we have the stabilizing influence of Chinese missiles. Because when you threaten to murder people for having referendums, you’re not being fervent at all. It goes without saying that none of China’s bellicosity appears in this text.

Two paragraphs down, it is so bad that alas, I have to take it sentence by sentence:

Both candidates, Ma Ying-jeou and Frank Hsieh, want closer ties with Beijing, differing only in how quickly and to what degree they would strengthen relations.

The last piece Wong wrote on Taiwan was 36 hours in Taipei, and it shows. Ma and Hsieh differ ONLY…..gone is Hsieh’s decades-long commitment to Taiwan independence (wait til the next sentence. You’ll laugh yourself silly). Gone are the tight links between Ma’s party, the KMT, and Bejing. Gone is Ma’s scheme for a Cross-Strait Common Market, rejected by Hsieh. Gone is Ma’s long record of opposition to democratic reform. Gone is … well, you get the idea. There’s no hint here that Ma may well sacrifice the island’s sovereignty… or that in fact, the “One China Market” is now a club for Hsieh to beat Ma with, dramatically illustrating their differences on cross strait economic policy.

Another Beijing-centricity, inevitable given the constraints on the international media, is that there is no discussion of their vastly differing domestic policies….

Next up:

By calling for closer economic cooperation with China and rejecting any notions of separatism, they are repudiating the tough nationalist policies of the departing president, Chen Shui-bian, whose confrontational stance has angered officials in Beijing and Washington and has stirred anxiety among many Taiwanese.

Yes, folks, you read it in the NY Times: Frank Hsieh rejects any notions of separatism. Reality: there are no serious differences between Hsieh and Chen on “separatism” — people seem to have forgotten that direct links were desired by Chen as well. He just didn’t want to sell Taiwan to get them. Chen angers officials in Beijing and Washington. Reality, as I have pointed out countless times, is more complex — Washington and Taipei are each responsible for the decline in relations.

Loaded language: “separatism.” Only in a context where people think Taiwan is part of China can you talk about separatism. Hsieh advocates independence not separatism. To speak of separatism is to speak the language of Beijing.

Zombie-like, the Harvard-educated lawyer rises from the grave to vex the international press:

Mr. Ma, a Harvard-educated lawyer, is favored in polls and by political commentators to beat Mr. Hsieh, who is from the Democratic Progressive Party, or D.P.P., of Mr. Chen and is campaigning in his shadow.

Man, I had thought that Harvard-educated lawyer thing dead and gone, killed by those of us who had sent letters to the media on the topic. Haven’t seen it in ages. But here it is, the Claim That Will Not Die. Ma never passed the bar and has never practiced law. End of discussion.

Onward and upward! More fun in the next paragraph:

Mr. Ma’s party, the Kuomintang, governed Taiwan for 51 years, often with an iron grip, before Mr. Chen was elected in 2000. The Kuomintang’s revival this year is rooted in widespread disenchantment with Mr. Chen, whose party took power on a wave of optimism.

Often with an iron grip. Man, that’s classic. Can you imagine the discussions in KMT policy circles circa 1965?

Chiang Kai-shek: So, guys, I don’t feel like ruling with an iron grip today. What should we rule with instead?
Advisor 1: A plastic grip?
Advisor 2: How about silk?
Advisor 3: Nylon? Teflon? Cellulose?
Advisor 4: What? Let up on the iron grip? What will history say?
Chiang: That I ruled with an iron grip only often. Not all the time. I mean, look what the NY Times is saying about Stalin this morning: “Stalin, who ruled with an iron grip once in a while….”

But turn more serious for a moment, note that Wong says that the KMT was revived this year. Yes, that’s right. The party that has headed the alliance that has run the legislature for the last eight years, whose Blue camp has outpolled the DPP in every election except the Presidential election of 2004, and whose rank and file dominate the media, judiciary, the police, the military, the bureaucracy, and the universities, has been lying dormant. In case you didn’t notice, they’ve been near death and need to be revived.

Historical error: Wong says that the KMT governed Taiwan for 51 years. And between 1945 and 1949, who governed Taiwan? Drum roll please….the KMT! That’s 55 years of KMT rule…

Also due for a mention about now is Ma’s own involvement in and defense of the 50 years of political killings, suppression of human rights, and opposition to democracy. To date just a single piece in the international media has mention his rise out of the old authoritarian regime. Readers could be forgiven if they came to believe that Ma had sprung into existence, autochthonically, sometime around 1990, instead of emerging fully-formed from the brow of the KMT party-state, as was actually the case.

By the same token, does Hsieh’s start as a human rights lawyer ever rate a mention in the international media? Why, after three years of running this blog, am I still asking questions like that?

In the next paragraph things almost become normal as Wong attempts to grapple with the fact that the majority of people here don’t consider themselves to be citizens of the state of China, whatever their cultural affinities.

Mr. Chen initially tapped a vein of support among many Taiwanese for steps to promote Taiwan’s separate identity. Those feelings ran especially deep among people whose families had lived in Taiwan for generations and did not have close political ties to mainland China. Many Taiwanese also hoped that Mr. Chen would end the corruption and authoritarianism associated with the Kuomintang.

How is one to regard that sentence I’ve highlighted? Is it Wong’s intention to imply that Chen did not in fact end authoritarianism and is in fact, authoritarian? And what are we to make of the Lee Teng-hui presidency and authoritarianism? I’m frankly boggled by that sentence, on so many levels….

Next comes the inevitable Beijing-centric view of independence:

Instead, Mr. Chen has been mired in corruption scandals involving close relatives. Also, his tireless efforts to promote independence created constant tension with the mainland and led to disagreements with the United States, which has helped guarantee Taiwan’s security but has discouraged unilateral steps by either side to change the island’s political status.

First the nod to the corruption scandals — Ma’s involvement in similar goes unmentioned, of course. Then Chen creates tension with Beijing — observe again how in these constructions Beijing merely becomes the passive recipient of the actions of the dastardly Chen Shui-bian. Poor Beijing! Once again: China claims “tensions” to paint independence supporters as radicals and to get foreign governments and the media to adopt its view. “Tension” is a policy stance for China, not a visceral reaction.

To continue:

In the end, Mr. Chen alienated people in the broad center of the electorate who say they support the status quo and who depend on strengthening economic ties across the Taiwan Strait. As he finishes his second term, his popularity ratings are in the 20s.

It is easy to see how the pro-Blue papers shape the international media opinion with commentary like those two sentences above. Nowhere does Wong mention that such polls appear in the papers that support Ma. Pro forma: note the obsessive focus on Chen Shui-bian. What’s that a signal of?

Wong claims that Chen has alienated the status quo types. No data is submitted for this claim.

I’m skipping the paragraph on referendum. Two paragraphs on Ma follow, and here Wong does show a good sense of journalistic balance, with quotes from both Ma and Hsieh (in subsequent paragraphs). Then comes this doozy in the third Ma paragraph:

Mr. Ma said he would ensure that the defense budget was equal to at least 3 percent of Taiwan’s gross domestic product. The military needs “to be strong enough to deter an initial attack from the mainland,” he said.

No mention that Ma’s party blocked the weapons purchase from the US over 60 times in committee. No mention that this screwed up relations with the US (only Chen Shui-bian’s dastardly independence agitation does that). No mention, most crucially, that the DPP already committed to the 3% level three years ago.

I’m skipping the paragraphs on Hsieh, mostly because this piece is getting too long, and move to the last paragraph. The first half is a quote from Shelly Rigger, often quoted in the international media:

“The U.S. is very eager for the new administration to take office because there’s considerable concern in Washington that Chen Shui-bian could still destabilize matters even before inauguration,” she added. In Mr. Chen’s tenure the government carried out domestic policies centered on Taiwanese nationalism, such as promoting a Taiwanese dialect.

Two nicely packaged slams! First, we see the media spectre of Mad ChenTM, rattling his Taiwan independence chains in the night — He could do anything! Anytime! – and then, of course, we have a reference to the Taiwanese dialect. Nope, when you get the back of the international media’s hand, you get it hard. You don’t even get to have a language of your own.

Stuff like this is unconscionable because there are good international media reporters here and around Asia who can produce top-notch stuff. There’s a whole legion of bloggers — Feiren, myself, The Foreigner, J Michael Cole — to name only a few — who could produce meaningful stuff that would put the issues in perspective. Both Feiren and J Michael have journalism experience. Many of the local reporters who write for the Taipei Times could do better, and in Washington there’s Charles Snyder, who always does yeoman work. But what do we get? The back of the media’s hand. And what about the skilled reporters at the NY Times like Keith Bradsher?

Two other things deserve mention. First, the DPP’s failure to engage with the international media means that said media is almost completely dominated by KMT perspectives. Not all the bad stuff one sees out there is entirely the fault of reporters failing to do their jobs or being suckered by the pro-KMT conventional wisdom that dominates Taipei circles. The DPP puts little effort into influencing the international media. You reap what you sow, guys.

Second, kudos to Wong for pointing out that Philip Yang, who is often cited in the foreign media, is pro-KMT. Many reporters have cited him without mentioning Yang’s political slant.

One final comment: the title. Look at the Zogby poll I discussed in the post below, and look at the title of the piece. One comments on the other, most eloquently.

The first page of the LA Times piece is just awful, but the second shows some nuance. Emile Sheng, whom many local international media reps no longer solicit quotes from because he’s pro-KMT, is cited, without any mention that he has served as an official in the administration of Taipei Mayor Hau. You’ll die laughing when you read that “Although the opposition Nationalists share blame, Taiwan dragged its heels for years, ultimately rejecting most of the U.S. package.” Wouldn’t it be better to just report the facts, that the KMT blocked it over 60 times in the legislature? Chen of course receives the blame for “ratcheting up” tension. Naturally, there is no mention that China refused to negotiate with Chen — in fact, they even claim he could have forged a breakthrough! Also delightful is the reference to the Academia Sinica as a “think tank.” Sadly, this piece is probably the worst that the usually reliable Tsai has been associated with. One strong observation by Bonnie Glaser is lost is the shuffle:

Taiwan’s ties with China have not necessarily worsened over the last eight years. In fact, China was very suspicious of Chen from the beginning, said Bonnie Glaser, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Relations with China sucked from the beginning, from the moment China — apparently on the advice of the KMT, as CSIS wrote in 2000 — refused to deal with Chen. That central fact of Taiwan-China relations is almost always downplayed or absent in international media presentations.

I’ll be glad when the election is over.

UPDATE: A-gu rips it on his blog, with stuff I didn’t even want to get into. This article is definitely one for the Hall of Fame.

UPDATE: I’d like to apologize to Edward Wong for my assumption that he was a newbie here. I recently found out that he has actually been in Taiwan for a year or so.