Tai­wan’s news in­dus­try ought to seek a new role

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

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.

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