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They Can’t Handle the Truth

Times Staff Writer

When Sir Elton John arrived here shortly before midnight in a bright blue track suit and dark glasses, he was greeted at the airport by local reporters who jostled him, slammed cameras in his face and barked questions.

The pop star tried to hide but was soon flushed out and started yelling obscenities.

Not known for taking an insult lying down, the Taiwanese journalists yelled back. Some suggested that he consider going elsewhere.

“We’d love to get out of Taiwan if it’s full of people like you. Pig! Pig!” the knighted entertainer screamed last fall.

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“The television and the photographers at the airport were the rudest I have ever met, and I’ve been to 60 countries,” John said at his piano bench at a concert a few hours later. “I’m sorry if I offended anyone in Taiwan, I didn’t mean to. But to those guys, I meant every word.”

Celebrity histrionics aside, Taiwan’s media have the reputation of being among the most aggressive in Asia. In a region where print and broadcast reporters are often de facto cheerleaders for governments and billionaires, Taiwan’s no-holds- barred journalism is alternately seen as a gutsy check on authority and the embodiment of chaos.

Concerned about the media’s excesses and ability to ruin reputations and lives, reformers in and outside the industry are trying to stem the sensationalism, partisanship and corruption that characterize the business. Some argue that the media are merely a reflection of Taiwanese society, which is one of the most freewheeling in Asia.

Foreign luminaries aren’t the only ones trying to hide from the island’s aspiring Woodwards and Bernsteins, who’ve been called man-eaters, bloodsuckers and worse. Several years ago, when Taiwan’s then-vice president and prime minister, Lien Chan, gave his traveling herd of reporters the slip on a trip to the Dominican Republic and secretly traveled to Ukraine, newspapers summoned all their troops to search for him.

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A few months later, then-Foreign Minister John Chang pulled a similar Houdini act during a visit to South Africa. Hounded by angry reporters when he returned to Taipei after a stealth visit to Belgium, Chang defended himself with what is now known here as the “rice cooker” theory of diplomacy. Making policy while one is barraged by reporters, he said, is like trying to boil rice with someone constantly lifting the lid.

Wary of angering those who buy ink by the barrel, however, he quickly apologized and begged the scribes’ forgiveness.

The media’s willfulness had a deadly outcome, or so some charged, when the daughter of television star Pai Ping-ping was kidnapped a few years ago. The singer criticized the media for following the family in cars, vans and helicopters, even hounding it during the ransom drop.

“Were you helping me or hurting me?” Pai asked at a news conference.

When her daughter was found dead, the accusations grew more pointed. “Reporters are guilty!” screamed placards hoisted by neighbors around Pai’s house.

Journalists showed little remorse, citing pressure from their editors.

“If you fail to get this story, jumping from the 14th floor is too good for you,” an editor at the United Daily News was quoted -- in a well-cited essay on media reform -- as saying during a meeting on the newspaper’s 14th floor. “You should climb up to at least the 20th floor and jump from there.”

In a market of 23 million people, Taiwan has six 24-hour television news channels, 4,185 magazines, 172 radio stations, 135 cable TV channels, 2,524 newspapers and 977 domestic news agencies, the government says. The desperate struggle for ratings results in stories on sex, murder, corruption and kidnappings and not much else, critics charge.

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Kuan Chung-hsiang, a journalism professor at Shih Hsin University in Taipei, recounted that one of his top students landed a job at a local TV station but quit a few months later. She’d been told to wear a short skirt and to walk over a hidden camera positioned in a drain for an “investigative” piece about how hidden cameras all over Taiwan were secretly recording lewd scenes. The station couldn’t find videos of lewd scenes, so it was staging one.

When the former student strongly objected, Kuan said, her boss asked her, “Do you want conscience or do you want ratings?”

Part of the Taiwanese media’s character reflects its evolution, what some refer to as the transition from lapdog to mad dog. Until 1988, major newspapers and TV stations served as government mouthpieces controlled by the ruling Nationalist Party, which had maintained an iron grip for decades.

Less government control has led to privatization, but several important stations are still owned by political parties. In a polarized society where politics is a blood sport -- fistfights in the legislature were not uncommon up until a few years ago -- media objectivity is spotty at best.

President Chen Shui-bian’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party has its own tools to manipulate the media, and, some say, the truth. “The Taiwan media is truly scandalous in its behavior,” said Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But the government often joins in. None of them have any scruples.”

Journalism watchdogs cite a $250-million budget for “persuading” stations to invite generals and other people the government wants on talk shows, to write dramatic scripts favorable to its policies and to otherwise promote its agenda.

“The Taiwanese government has been doing dollar diplomacy so long overseas, it thinks it’s natural to do it at home,” said Hu Yu-wei, a journalism professor at National Taiwan Normal University, referring to the government’s practice of paying other governments to give it diplomatic recognition.

Small payoffs to journalists for favorable treatment -- hardly unusual in many Asian cultures with strong gift-giving traditions -- remain a problem, although media experts say the practice is on the wane.

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When Lu Shih-hsiang, a professor and head of Taiwan’s Foundation for the Advancement of Media Excellence, offered a course on media ethics two years ago, none of his journalism students signed up. Asked why, several said they didn’t want to become “schizophrenic,” constrained by boring niceties that had no place in the real world.

Double-checking information is a rarity at many news organizations, as are corrections. Reporters acknowledge big rewards in gaining an edge over competitors and little cost for getting it wrong. There’s no tradition of libel suits.

“Many reporters don’t check their facts,” said Chen Chao-jen, a senior reporter with the TVBS network who recounted a story about a bombing in Taipei. Competitors ran a report on their 9 o’clock news saying authorities had arrested a suspect.

“I told my boss it was wrong, but he said write it anyway,” Chen said. “Then at 10 o’clock, everyone runs a story saying he’s not a suspect.”

During last year’s presidential election, stations raced to get the results first. Some reported that the Nationalists had garnered 8 million votes. After it was reported that only 6 million people had actually voted, the stations, embarrassed by their error, withheld results and announced that the data had simply stopped coming in.

In a part of the world where national politicians are rarely challenged, however, Taiwanese reporters are as confrontational toward their leaders as they are toward pop stars. Information flows freely, some of it true. Soon after taking office in 2002, Douglas Paal, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy, fretted about how quickly sensitive information leaked out.

Taiwanese media enjoy some of the world’s strongest press freedoms, according to 2004 surveys by watchdog groups Reporters Without Borders, the International Press Institute and Freedom House.

Some continue to hope, however, that the media will adopt meaningful changes.

“From political shows to news and entertainment, local television programming as a whole is terrible in the extreme, indeed,” Lin Chia-lung, an official in the government information office, wrote in an essay urging reform. “The restructuring of the media environment and institutions has become essential.”

Calls for change have been growing amid concern that partisanship and excessive commercialism are undermining the media’s ability to inform people. A new law requires all political parties to divest their media holdings by the end of this year. The media excellence foundation has encouraged citizens to boycott irresponsible outlets and start filing libel suits. People whose reputations have been besmirched are starting to win verdicts.

Other proposals to improve programming and accountability are also under discussion, including a public network modeled after Britain’s BBC or Japan’s NHK that would be funded by the government or subscriber fees.

In 2003, the government decided to scrap a program that rated Taiwan’s six largest Chinese-language newspapers for accuracy and objectivity after critics charged that it was pursuing its own agenda under the guise of neutrality. In response, policymakers called for better self-policing.

How quickly reforms take hold remains to be seen, but some observers believe that the media are a reflection of broader social forces.

“We have a poor democracy and a poor media,” said Chen Hao, senior vice president of CTI Television. “Taiwan is unstable and partisan, and we need to find a middle ground. There’s no easy solution.”

Until then, celebrities and politicians will have to contend with the media’s bulldog tactics. Said Chen, the television reporter: “We give them popularity. That’s the price they have to pay.”

Special correspondent Tsai Ting-I in Taipei contributed to this report.


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