|Philip Bennett, Managing Editor of Washington Post|
-- An Exclusive Interview with the Washington Post Managing Editor Philip Bennett
Washington Post is one of the most important newspapers in the United States and even in the world. The news stories published on the Post appear on Chinese newspapers frequently. How does the newspaper view the image and role of America in the world? How does it perceive China as Chinese people march forcefully toward a market economy? How does the newspaper struggle to maintain the glory of Watergate amid strong resentment from the Bush administration? With these questions in mind, our People's Daily Washington-based correspondent Yong Tang recently conducted an exclusive interview with the newspaper's Managing Editor Philip Bennett.
American Government Image Is Falling down While the Cultural Image still up
Yong Tang: According to the opinion polls, the image of America has been becoming less and less popular in the world today since after the Iraq war. As a top leader of a major American newspaper, how do you think of this growing anti-American sentiment?
Bennett: The world image of US is so clearly linked to its foreign policy and particularly its policy toward Iraq and Middle East, say its support of Israel and its occupation of Iraq.
I was in China once shortly after the missile hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and of course there were demonstrations in Beijing before the US embassy and elsewhere. So I think it is easy to understand in many ways why the US image has decreased.
Another source of the resentment is the perception that Bush administration wants to act unilaterally in the world, outside of alliance that traditionally governed the ways Bush made foreign policy decisions. In some ways the core of perception problems is centered on 911 terrorist attacks in 2001 in which the US government and Bush administration reacted by deciding that the country would make decisions in foreign affairs that respond only to US interests. They were not going to consult very widely, and not to compromise in making those decisions. That caused rift even among the US allies. So it is natural to see that the image of America is the lowest in public opinion.
But it is important for Chinese to understand that the image of America is many things, not just the image of the government. American culture, as expressed in Movies and music etc, is still quite popular in the world today. American movies are remarkably popular all over the world to the extent that you can buy them on the streets of all major Chinese cities. People don't t stop seeing US movies or buying US music just because they are unhappy with the Bush administration. And the Internet is a US -centric device that has made English much more influential in the world. So I think there is a complicated set of forces working there. To see just in black and white way misses some of that broader picture.
I don't Think US should be the Leader of the World
Yong Tang: The Bush administration always claims that it is spreading freedom and democracy to all over the world. But there is widespread suspicion over the motives of What the Bush administration is doing. Some experts say democracy is just a beautiful pretext for America to seek its own interests. So personally I think there is a kind of hypocrisy here.
Bennett: The Bush administration believes that there isn't a contradiction between defending its self-interest and promoting friendly and democratic regimes. Because they believe that promoting those kinds of governments would make the world more friendly to the US and therefore it is in the interest of America to do that.
But if you look at the different parts of the world, it would be very difficult for the Bush administration to argue that they do not apply same standards to different parts of the world. Clearly US is a great ally of Pakistan and Saudi Arbia, which are not democracies. US has a very complex relations with China, which is not a democracy either by American standard. The issues that were once on the top of that relationship, like human rights, were no longer on the top any more. If you still remember last time when US President talked about human rights in China as a major issue between the two countries, that has been a long time ago. So I think it is true there are different standards applied to different places. In that case You could call that hypocrisy or whatever labels you thought fit most appropriately. But it is clear that the US government's ideas of political development around the world is not applied equally in all places. I am just observing that as I look out how political development in different countries operates around the world.
Yong Tang: Since the standard is not applied equally in the world, it is damaging Bush's effort to promote the so -called democracy, isn't it?
Bennett: It depends upon what you are trying to achieve. I guess the question I would ask is: if you look around the world in strategically important places, is the US actively engaged there promoting democracy or not? I don't think there is much evidence that promoting democracy is what the US is doing. It is what it says it is doing.
You were here in Washington DC During the Bush's inaugural ceremony this year. During the speech Bush said quite forcefully that spreading freedom is the No. One issue for his second term. Then a day after that he backed off from that statement. He said that spreading freedom is just a long term goal, not an immediate goal of policy. So I think there is still realism that is applied to different relations.
The ideologues in the Bush administration are very influential in decisions made toward Iraq and other provocative moves by the administration. But still there is a level of pragmatism that plays a role in the Bush administration's decisions. For example, The US relations with China today is on a very pragmatic footing right now.
Yong Tang: In such sense, do you think America should be the leader of the world?
Bennett: No, I don't think US should be the leader of the world. My job is helping my readers trying to understand what is happening now. What is happening now is very difficult to understand. The world is very complex. There are various complex forces occurring in it. I don't think you can imagine a world where one country or one group of people could lead everybody else. I can't imagine that could happen. I also think it is unhealthy to have one country as the leader of the world. People in other countries don't want to be led by foreign countries. They may want to have good relations with it or they may want to share with what is good in that country.
That is also a sort of colonial question. The world has gone through colonialism and imperialism. We have seen the danger and shortcomings of those systems. If we are heading into another period of imperialism where the US thinks itself as the leader of the area and its interest should prevail over all other interests of its neighbors and others, then I think the world will be in an unhappy period.
Yong Tang: So the world order should be democratic?
Bennett: Democracy means many things. How do you define democracy? As a Chinese journalist, you may have your own definition of democracy which corresponds to your history and your way of seeing the world. I may have another definition. Someone else may have their own definitions. Democracy means a lot of different things.
Let me give an example. Democracy in one sense means the majority decides, but it also means the rights of the minority are protected. As UK late Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, democracy is the least bad system that we have ever thught of. So democracy is never perfect. It always has problems. Our democracy here in the US has many contradictions, problems and challenges. So democracy is not a cure that could turn everything bad into good. It has its own advantages and its disadvantages.
We are not as aggressive as we should be
Yong Tang: How do you think of the roles American mainstream media play in American foreign policy?
Bennett: We have a little bit different roles in newspapers compared with our counterparts in Europe and other countries. We don't have any political point of view that we are trying to advance. We don't represent any political parties. We are not tied to any political movement. On the news side of the paper we try not to give opinions. So I think the role the Washington Post should play is to hold the government accountable for decisions made by it.
This goes to foreign policy as well. For example, the Washington Post has a correspondent bureau in Baghdad. One of the jobs of our correspondents in Baghdad is to tell our readers what the Bush administration is trying to hide. Bush says democracy is advancing in Iraq, but our correspondents say the situation there is much more complex than that. Our job is to put that in the public domain and challenge the government and hold them accountable. We do that by having independent reporting about events, by telling our readers what the actual situation is, with as much independence, fairness and accuracy as we can.
Often that is in conflict with the government. That is why we are having a lot of pressure from the government, though not in the materials ways. We receive a lot of criticism from the government for presenting views of events which are in odds with what they are trying to present. This is very important in our system and it is one of the fundemental roles of the press.
We have seen that similar roles of the press are developing in China as media expose corruption. In any system corrupt officials are trying to cover bad things up. We may look at the press coverage of issues like SARS epidemic. At the very beginning there were efforts to cover things up. But then the news came out everywhere through the press and even the textmessaging. Then the government was forced to admit what happened. This role is quite similar with the role we are trying to play here in the United States.
Of course, we have a lot of limitations on our ability to do that. The government of the US is becoming much more secretive, much more hostile to the press in terms of giving us access to the information. So a lot of what we do here is to fight for access to the information that we think the public should have. That takes a lot of our energy and resources.
Yong Tang: Is that partly because of 9.11?
Bennett: It is true that in the areas of national security many more things are becoming secrets since after 911. So it is a big thing for the Washington Post to be the first major newspaper in America to publish the pictures about the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prisoners abuse scandal. To get those pictures is extremely difficult. The government was very angry with us for publishing that story and making that story a big deal. So our reporters are trained, encouraged and supported in going out and finding things that the government is trying to hide from the public. That is a lot of what we do.
Yong Tang: But my sense is that the Washington Post is not as aggressive as it was. One example is also about the coverage of the Iraq war. Before the war started, the Post published a lot of stories saying that Iraq has Weapons of Mass Destructions(WMD). Of course this claim was found to be wrong. Late last year Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. even apologized that the Post should have published more stories from the opposite side.
Bennett: Again I think it is very important to go back to the division between the editorial side and news side of our newspaper. Our editorial page expressed opinions in favor of the war in Iraq. That has no influence on the news gathering part of the newspaper.
Where the news gathering part of the Post failed was to be sufficiently skeptical about the administration's claims that there are weapons of mass destructions in Iraq. We never reported that there were weapons of mass destructions in Iraq. We just repeated what the government said and we did not dig hard enough to challenge those statements. That was what Downie apologized for.
As you said, we are not aggressive enough in challenging and testing the statements the government is making. For me, this episode is a good example of how difficult it is to independently verify the government's claims when the government is lying to you. The newspaper is incapable of going to Iraq and find out for itself whether it has WMD or not. The closest that we may come is to report very closely on the UN's effort to determine if the regime has WMD in Iraq. But in the run-up to the war in Iraq, the UN is very close to US administration's view that there was a high probability that Iraq has WMD. We have reported that too.
This is an example of how difficult it is to get the truth on these types of subjects. If George W Bush came out tomorrow and say Iran has nuclear weapons, we would have to report that too. We have no independent means to verify the accuracy of the statement TODAY. As the time goes on, we are able to do some reporting to show how accurate that statement is. In gengeral we are in a difficult period to report on national security issues.
In other ways the Post is still very aggressive. You may read about a story of the insurgents in Iraq last week. It is very prominently placed on our newspaper and we did it very aggressively, trying to tell the inside of Iraq as much as we can. In some areas we have done better and in some other areas we have not done as well as we could. Everyone learns some lessons from the prewar coverage of Iraq. We learned that we are not as aggressive as we should be.
Yong Tang: Having learnt some lessons in Iraq, the Washington Post would not repeat the same mistakes in Iran, wouldn't it?
Bennett: Because the news stories come out everyday we always make mistakes. But we are more mindful now and more aware of where we didn't do as well as we should have. One of the biggest mistakes a journalist could make is to think he knows what is going to happen. We could also make mistakes by driving direct analogy between Iran and Iraq and to say what is going to happen in Iran is the same thing in Iraq. Iran is not Iraq.
American mainstream media is out of touch with their mainstream readers in some areas
Yong Tang: It seems that the influence of mainstream media in America is on the decline. One example is about the general elections last year. The Washington Post and almost all the other major newspapers in the country firmly sided with Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry but finally Bush still won the reelection by a wide margin.
Bennett: Yes, the influence of the mainstream media is on the decline, but I don't think it is because of the reasons you said. Again it goes back to what an editorial policy of a newspaper is. Major American newspapers endorse Democratic candidates every time. I think that endorsement means nothing. I don't think people will vote according to that endorsement. It is just an old tradition which really doesn't have lot of meaning any more today.
Yong Tang: Why are most American major newspapers in favor of Democratic?
Bennett: Most big, metropolitan and urban newspapers were built in a strong Democratic tradition because they came from urban environment and traditionally voted for Democratic. So they tend to, on the editorial side, support Democratic views.
Why is the influence of the mainstream media waning? It is because there are so many sources of different news and information today. The Internet has made it possible for people to get news from online. Newspapers like the Washington Post have no longer monopoly on news and information. Even our readers spend a lot of time reading Internet, reaching different sites and comparing different news. That has made the influence of newspapers go down.
Yong Tang: Does it mean that American mainstream media no longer represent mainstream views?
Bennett: I think there will be some people on the right and conservatives who say that. In their eyes the mainstream media is too liberal while the whole country tends to be more and more conservative. Today American people are more conservative, nationalistic and religious and more closed off to foreign influence than the media. By and large, American mainstream media has been slow to appreciate how important the religion is in America. We don't cover it very deeply and extensively. So I think there are areas we are out of touch.
Furthermore, there is a mood of great suspicion about the media. Every time when we publish a story about Iraq that suggests the war is not going well for America, I get lots of messages from people saying that we the Post are not patriotic and we are reporting negatively on the war only because of our political bias against the Bush administration. I think there is a perception among some of our readers that we are hostile to the Bush administration or representing our own political point of view in our news coverage. I think it is impossible to make that perception go away. Over the time it could damage the reputation of a newspaper.
Despite that disenchantment from the readers, even if the newspaper may fall out of favor with many readers because of the decisions we make, it doesn't change the way we do journalism. We certainly will not suppress the negative news about the government even if people will feel more negative about us. We believe that doing what we should do is journalism. Of course, there is a risk a newspaper should take in doing this way.
We face a greater challeng because of the changing nature of the American society
Yong Tang: But basically the newspaper is a business. In order to survive as a business, you should cater to the mainstream views. How can you keep out of touch with your mainstream readers?
Bennett: I don't think we are out of touch with our mainstream readers. If we were out of touch with our mainstream readers, they would not read our newspaper. But they continue to read our newspaper and find value on it.
I think there are areas in which the mainstream media has ignored or not been as touch with the development of the society as we could have been. It is not so much about expressing the mainstream views. I think the primary job of the Post is to provide people with information, not views. The primary job of a newspaper is to inform people of what is going on in our community and the world in an impartial and fair way. If you do it successfully, it does cut across political or other divisions in the society.
We face a greater challenge just because of the changing nature of the American society. Today American people have much less time for reading newspapers. They drive for long distances and they spend more time in cars. They leave their houses earlier in the morning. The core of our business is to deliver our newspapers to our readers' houses every day. In general in American culture today if a newspaper is not read before the readers come into the office in the morning, the paper is too late. So reading newspapers turn out to a morning activity. It is also more difficult for people to sit down with a newspaper. So we should adapt to that changing lifestyle.
Yong Tang: It is a big challenge!
Bennett: It is!
Yong Tang: Is the circulation of your newspaper falling down?
Bennett: It is not falling by big number. But after many many years of growing, it is going down in a gradual way. It is alarming. We are trying to figure out ways to keep that from continuing.
Yong Tang: Do other major newspapers face the same challenge?
Bennett: All of them do.
Yong Tang: It is not a good age for American newspapers today, isn't it?
Bennett: I disagree with that. Yes, Our circulation is going down by several thousands of people every year, but we still have a high circulation given the size of the city and the area we serve. We sell over one million newspapers on Sunday. We are seeing a decline only in paid subscriptions. In the same time we have launched our websites that brought our newspaper content online. There are millions of people who read it. I am sure that there are much more readers today than ever in the history of the paper. Someone reads it online for free while someone else pays to read it. It is a business challenge. But The value of news and information that great newspapers are supplying is greater than ever. You can't feel like an informed person without getting access to some newspapers like the Post. You read it online or may get it in some other forms.
Yong Tang: The most glorious period for The Washington Post was during the Watergate days. When could the Washington Post regain that glory?
Bennett: We like that glory. Reporters should try to reach for something important. The chance to change the history is a huge burden for you if you don't have the courage to take it. That episode is extremely important for the Post and even the whole country. Investigative reporting is still a big part of what this newspaper does.
I think the Watergate is important to us and it is a present to us. Because that was also a very difficult period for the newspaper. The newspaper was under great pressure to conform, to drop the investigations and to give up. The Post showed that courageous ownership, courageous editors and courageous reporters could prevail. That is a value hopefully we have not lost. Bob Woodward, one of the Watergate reporters in our newspaper, is still here working on investigative reporting.
But glory is not the primary directive of journalism. We try to inform our readers the best we can every day about what's going on in their community, in the country and in the world. We try to do that well. We feel we could make contributions to democracy and the country. And that is just as great in many ways as the contributions we made to the Watergate reporting.
Even before readers being our God, credibility is our God
Yong Tang: Today the tabloid journalism is becoming more and more popular in America and even globally. Tabloid media are trying every possible means to cater to the vulgar taste of our audience. They often make up stories and their storeis are full of sex and violence. How does the Washington Post do to maintain its high taste?
Bennett: What you said is dramatically evident in American TV news. TV news today in America has been dominated by crime and sensationalism. On TV I often hear some words which we will never publish because we consider those words too vulgar.
It is true that sensational tabloids still have their markets in most cities. We are trying to push it back, but that tabloid value has affected most of us. We publish much more about celebrities today than we have ever done. For example, movie stars just like Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson is a case which has no relevance with the country at all. But his stories appear frequently on the front page of the Post only because he is a celebrity involved in a sex scandal.
Yong Tang: What is the biggest difference between today's tabloid journalism and Yellow Journalism during the late 1800s?
Bennett: According to The Yellow Journalism, they write things that are not true. Part of the origin of Yellow Journalism is inventing things and making them up in order to capture people's imagination. Today even the tabloids hold a standard of accuracy higher than that standard then.
Our newspaper used to be so serious all the time. Today we do publish serious things but we are not as serious as before. That is the influence of tabloid journalism on mainstream journalism.
It also reflects the changing culture of the country. Newspaper is a commodity sold on the market, no one is required to read it. If a newspaper loses money it will go out of business. So it has to remain relevant with the culture. Unfortunately American culture is becoming more and more vulgar and cheap today.
We are not practicing yellow journalism. We are not pandering to the lowest taste of our readers. But we are trying to reflect the broader interest of our readers. We have to recognize that in addition to the news, our readers still have interest in celebrities, fashions, food, home-furnishing and health, a variety of things big newspapers never paid attention to before.
Yong Tang: Does the Washington Post have installed any mechanism to guarantee that there are no make up stories published? What lessons you have learnt from the New York Times and the USA Today scandal?
Bennett: We have a system of peer review and oversight from our editors. We have editors who read everything. If things don't look right to us or we have suspicions over that story or they don't seem to be supported by the evidence, we will raise questions about it. We also hire people who are very experienced reporters.
But it is very very hard to guard against that. We publish many many stories every day. we have 850 editors and reporters. We have a lot of people. It is impossible to have a system against anyone who want to make things up at any time. Thankfully we the Post have not let that similar scandal happen for many years, so I think this system works pretty well. But we are still highly aware of that. We are very very vigilant about that because credibility of a newspaper is everything. Even before readers being our God, credibility is our God. If we don't have credibility, we won't have any readers.
Yong Tang: What have you done to strengthen that kind of consciousness?
Bennett: We have implemented many news procedures because of the New York Times scandal. We are trying to have as much transparency and communication as possible. That is one of the reasons why we have such a big newsroom, why my door is always open. If questions come out, we are able to talk about them immediately. To have free discussion is also very important to make sure that the newspaper remains credible.
The coverage of China for the Post and other big newspapers has become much more complex
Yong Tang: The Washington Post often describes China as a dictator communist regime without democracy and freedom. Why is the newspaper so fond of playing with such negative words?
Bennett: I disagree with that. First of all, Neither The Washington Post, nor the New York Times, nor any other big newspapers, refer to China today as a dictatorship regime. We don't use these words on the paper any more. Now we say China is a communist country only because it is a fact. China is ruled by the Communist party.
On the contrary, we are trying to understand the complexity of China. We stayed last year in China writing many long stories about the civil society in China, about Internet, about workers, about disputes between the state and individuals over certain things. Those stories showed how complex China is.
There are many things happening now in China. Sometimes it is extraordinarily contradictory because it is a big country and it is a country which includes many many things happening at the same time. You have economic development which has put more people out of poverty over a short period of time than any other country in the world in human history. At the same time you have a single party state which dominates almost most aspects of civil society. I was in China last year to interview Primer Wen Jiabao and other Chinese officials. The top leaders of your country have spoken very often about these contradictions. How Chinese leaders will resolve them is something the whole world is waiting to see.
Yong Tang: Do you have any good suggestions for that?
Bennett: I think all of us should become students of China. China's role on our future will get bigger and bigger. In the last 50 years what happened in America has influenced many other parts of the world. China is similar in that regard. China is an emerging economic power, which has an enormous impact, economically mostly on many parts of the world including the US. Chinese people will soon get accustomed to the fact that what happened in China will have big impact in the world.
Yong Tang: So the Post should be more responsible in covering China?
Bennett: We are doing our best. The coverage of China for the Post and other big newspapers has become much more complex. We used to write only about Chinese government, but the government in many ways is the least interesting thing in China right now. The role of the government in the society is becoming less and less. There are many things happening at the communal level, at the village level, in commerce, in innovation of technology. They are much more interesting.
Yong Tang: But it seems to me that the Washington Post stories about China are still focused on such things like political dissidents?
Bennett: No, it is not true. If You look at all the stories published on the major newspapers about China last year, you would find the widest variety of stories of any time since US journalists were allowed back in China. We used never to have correspondents in China who can speak Mandarin very well. Now every major correspondent in China speak Mandarin. Our correspondents used to be in Beijing all the time. But now they travel much more. In the past the party congress is the center of journalism, but today it is no longer the center for our reporters. We are more interested in the environment, the students, the business, the corruption and all sorts of different issues. The coverage of China is becoming more and more complex.
When I became the Assistant Managing Editor for foreign news, which was the job I had before, the Post has one correspondent in China while we have three in Russia. Today we have one correspondent in Russia while we have three in China. So the importance of China is very much present. I think it is even more present to American media than to the American government, which is so dominated by Iraq and terrorism.
After all, the presence of Washington Post in China is still small. We have only three correspondents in China, a country with a population of 1.3 billion. We are trying to do our best.
Yong Tang: So you think the Post's coverage of China is objective and balanced?
Bennett: In general, yes. Does the coverage see everything from the perspective of Chinese government? No. I think there are periods in which US government or political figures go through the moments of China bashing or very negative talking about China. But the media is more balanced than that. I don't think we are running after those negative issues. We are trying to see the big picture, not the little points of disputes.
If I were a young journalist today, figuring out where I should go to make my career, I would go to China
Yong Tang: Do your correspondents in China have difficulties in getting the access to the information?
Bennett: Yes, but we have difficult in the access to the information here in Washington DC too. I don't expect Chinese government to become completely open just because American journalists want them to become more open.
It is very important for us to be able to reflect the views of China on major issues. To reflect the views accurately requires us to have access to the people who have those views. So being able to speak to the officials is very important for the accuracy and balance of our coverage. But I feel we do pretty well on that.
For a time when it was difficult for us to get visas, to travel in China, those things have improved dramatically. I don't know why but I would surmise one of the reasons is that Chinese government has recognized the value of having foreign journalists have access to China and write about something good or bad and get as much freedom as the law provides to write stories without fearing retaliation or punishment.. If I were a young journalist today, figuring out where I should go to make my career, I would go to China.
Yong Tang: Really?
Bennett: Absolutely! I think China is the best place in the world to be an American journalist right now.
Yong Tang: How many times have you been to China?
Bennett: Three times. First time is 1999. Second time is March 2001 when I interviewed with Chinese President Jiang Zeminin. Last time is November 2003 when I interviewed with Chinese Primer Wen Jiabao.
Yong Tang: What is your personal impression on China and Chinese people?
Bennett: China is incredibly dynamic and culturally rich.When I went to China, I felt I was seeing into the future. I think it is a deeply fascinating country. Every time when I go there, I see and learn things that I never expect to see and learn. It is a country with such beauty and potential. I also think how China resolve the challenges it face today will be a major force to decide the future of the planet.
Yong Tang: What is your personal impression on Chinese leaders?
Bennett: I don't feel qualified to comment them. I was very impressed by the degree of preparation, engagement, knowledge and vision that they have of China and China's role in the world. There is no more complex job in the world in trying to run and administer a country so big with so many different issues, with people living in good wealth and poverty as well. The job is much more difficult than being an American President though they are different jobs in some ways.
We Recognize the History of People's Daily as an Important Newspaper in China that has Played an Important Role in China's Transformation
Yong Tang: What you want to say most to People's Daily readers?
Bennett: we recognize the history of People's Daily as an important newspaper in China that has played an important role in China's transformation. I feel the Washington Post has good relations with People's Daily when we came to China. People's Daily leaders have been kind enough to invite us to China. I have been to People's Daily offices in Beijing. We read People's Daily when we were in Beijing. I think this a mutually benefically relationship.
I hope the next time when I come to China, I would be able to meet with people from People's Daily.
Yong Tang: Do you have any plans to invite our People's Daily leaders to visit your newspaper?
Bennett: We have had your editor-in-chief here. We even had a dinner together. That was two or three years ago. Of course we would be happy to see anybody here who has interest in coming to our newsroom.
By Yong Tang, People's Daily Washington-based correspondent