Taiwan’s news industry ought to seek a new role
Taiwan is one of the world’s nosiest democracies and has one of the most boisterous media scenes. Its voters have always shown a keenness for experiments. Its press and TV news programs are filled with reports and commentaries criticizing, ridiculing and (as some victims have described it) downright bullying those in power or running for it.
It is therefore sometimes easy to forget how recently Taiwan lifted itself out of authoritarian rule. It was only 28 years ago that the R.O.C. government lifted martial law (democraticization of the press took place a year after). While the nation — in the quintessentially Taiwanese way of quickly adapting to new trends — has gotten itself up to speed with its newly acquired democracy and press freedom, the blindingly rapid pace with which it pursues such ideals often comes at the expense of quality.
Many pundits have noticed the rootlessness of Taiwanese democracy and its inclination to manipulation. However, they often blame it wrongly on the general public by conjuring up an image of a mob blind to reason and sentimental to a fault.
Yet while there are strong populistic elements in Taiwanese society, these pundits often overlook the equally strong practical nature of the Taiwanese people. Populist radicals have gained much ground in democracies all over the world riding on a wave of pubic discontent in the wake of the Great Recession. The fact that prevalent public disappointment with the elite in Taiwan did not result in a significant rise of radical political ideologies attests to Taiwanese voters’ rationality.
In fact, it is more reasonable to argue that the elites are the ones to blame for Taiwan’s shortcomings in democratic and media quality. The elites, who are supposed to illuminate the ideas and inner-workings of democracy, are often the ones who get the basics wrong. A group of leaders from various fields, including senior politicians, business heavyweights and former senior government officials, recently signed up for a campaign promoting the so-called minus vote system. While the merits of such a system — in which one can vote to express dislike of a candidate through a disapproval vote — are a matter of debate, these “experts” are wrong in one of their main contentions — that minus votes are helpful because they let people vent their anger. Such a view betrays the proponents’ fundamental lack of understanding of democracy as a vehicle to generate a government that serves the will of the public under the rule of law. Emotional expression should never have been a consideration in a voting system.
The public probably needs no reminding of what is often called the “mess of the Taiwanese media.” The cable news outlets churn out what is rightly seen as hype-driven, populism-fueled and short-attention-span content that spills out under-researched, sensationalized infotainment. Again, the elites are to blame. There is no lack of responsible and aspiring journalists — given the long hours and low pay of many in the profession, aspiration has to be the reason for many to choose this career — yet the big bosses of the media emphasize cost reduction over quality, which deprives reporters of the support and independence they need to do good journalism.
The reasons behind the elites’ lack of quality go beyond greed. Not yet three-decades into democracy, Taiwan is mainly led by leaders who were raised in an authoritarian time. While that does not mean these leaders approve of authoritarianism — indeed personal experiences probably make them more aware of the harm of such a political system — it is not easy for these leaders to understand (much less adapt to) the sea-change they have experienced within their lifetimes. Seeing voting as a way to vent voters’ anger, for example, reveals the mindset of an authoritarian subject: anything goes as long as it pleases the “masters.” And if it distracts the “masters” so the subject can wield power, that’s even better.
The short history of Taiwan’s open media coincides with the rise of the 24-news cycle and entertainmentization of news. With no democratic roots, captains of Taiwan’s news media quickly led their newsrooms on to the same path as their political counterparts: whether that entertains their masters.
It is often said in Taiwan that democracy means “people are the masters” (refer to the translation of the word in Chinese, ). Political and media leaders of our time are doing their part to honor the idea, but they are only responding to the superficial meaning of democracy. In a true democracy, there shouldn’t be any masters. The best way to achieve that is not through pleasantries and entertainment, but through the construction of true principles such as respect for the rule of law over the rule of people. Taiwanese people are ready for such principles, but the elites have to be ready to advocate for them too.