In her New York Times column today, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan takes on The Thorny Challenge of Covering China.
Thorny in two ways for the Times: First because the Chinese government is aggressively responding to news organizations that produce coverage critical of the government or high-ranking officials by blocking their websites or denying residency-visa renewals for their journalists.
And second, because the biggest China story lately was one that didn’t run:
On Nov. 9, The Times published an article on its front page about one of its chief business-news competitors, Bloomberg News, describing how the organization had decided against the planned publication of an article for fear of reprisal by the Chinese government. The Times story, which came from unidentified Bloomberg employees, included denials by Bloomberg news executives, including the editor in chief, Matthew Winkler, that the story was killed.
Sullivan says Bloomberg made a formal complaint to her, criticizing the Times for “‘sabotaging a competitor’ by describing the news in the unpublished article.” Sullivan came to the conclusion that “the initial initial Times article was essentially solid — and certainly eye-opening. Still, one can reasonably question whether it was sound judgment to put an article focused on a competitor’s news decision at the top of The Times’s front page.”
Fallout from the Times piece included Bloomberg having its offices in Shanghai and Beijing tossed by Chinese authorities, and this:
Publicly, Bloomberg has continued to say that its article was held back for more reporting, not permanently killed. One of the reporters of that article, Michael Forsythe, was suspended from Bloomberg; he later left the company. It would not be surprising if Mr. Forsythe soon joined the reporting staff of The Times.
Wait a second . . . that’s it? No followup from Sullivan? Because to the gimlet eye that could look an awful lot like a quid pro quo, couldn’t it? You give us a scoop, we give you a job.
Maybe that’s the case or maybe it isn’t, but it sure feels like Sullivan should have addressed it. The hardworking staff thinks Sullivan has done a pretty good job as Public Editor, but we also think she let this one slip by her.
P.S. We just checked the comments submitted by readers and the only one addressing this topic was complimentary:
Another sentence, about the now-jobless reporter who worked on that competitor’s as-yet-unpublished article, was also quite deft: “It would not be surprising if Mr. Forsythe soon joined the reporting staff of The Times.”
Deft? More like tone-deaf to us.