I heard this several times in Taiwan, each time from a very different person.
One was a government official. Another was a nonprofit executive. Also — gasp! — a newspaper editor.
“The press is too free,” they agreed — in rooms full of journalists.
SPJ recently sent 10 of its members to Taiwan to learn more about the country. We met with high-level government officials, charity leaders and foreign journalists.
I can’t remember one among them who unequivocally disagreed with the statement. And the more we asked them why, the more it became clear to me that the problem with Taiwan’s journalists isn’t too much freedom — it’s too little ethics.
They aren’t responsible, said one. They’re too sensational, said another. There’s a difference between a public and a private person, and so on.
Sound familiar? These are many of the same criticisms levied against journalists in the United States.
We journalists are trained to distrust, to uncover wrongdoing and unsparingly hold authorities to account. We’re not trained to make everyone happy.
But hearing so much discontent with the press reminded me of the importance of our Code of Ethics, which I offered to send at least one of the people who spoke this way.
We should make it very difficult for people to call us unfair and sensational. We should make every effort to explain why we went after that politician, and why we reported on her or his sex life. We should adopt ethical guidelines and post them in places where readers can access them and hold us to our own standards.
We should not make it easy for people to think we are “too free.”
I can’t read Mandarin Chinese, so I’m not sure what about their press offends the Taiwanese people. Some are reading — and buying — these “too-free” publications, so not all of them concur.
Still, people high in Taiwanese government, with considerable influence over policy, say with little reservation that “the press is too free.”
Our president, who has been accused of leading the most secretive administration in U.S. history, would be humiliated for saying that publicly. Remember the media fallout from his joke that “a dictatorship would be easier?” Imagine him saying something like that seriously!
(I recognize some of you think he has.)
It’s scary enough when people call for limits on press freedom in the world’s strongest democracy. But what is said of Taiwanese journalists, earnestly and by their own people, is more fearsome when dictatorship knocks so loudly across the strait.
It was difficult for me to glean exactly what the Taiwanese government proposes to do with journalists who are “too free.” To his credit, the editor we spoke with emphasized that the press itself, rather than government, needs to impose limits on how it reports the news.
But regardless of the general mood in Taiwan, which gave several indications of being a healthy democracy — a raucous political march on a main thoroughfare, no one looking around before talking about the government, limited and cordial police presence — the fact that some people at the top even utter the words “the press is too free” is a reminder of our own freedoms and responsibilities.
Let’s make our own rules, friends, and stick with them.