Key exchange

An unusual delegation of editors gathered around the SN&R conference table last Monday morning. Twelve members of the All China Journalists Association were touring America to learn about its major news media. For reasons none of us quite understood, the delegation had ventured to Sacramento specifically to learn what they could about the News & Review.

Formalities were observed. Questions were asked. Translations were provided. The group’s focus was on the economic model of SN&R and other free alternative weeklies. Why doesn’t the paper have subscribers? What percentage of the revenue goes to printing and staff costs?

On the editorial side, the questions had to do with distinguishing between the roles of the mainstream and alternative press. One editor brought up Superman. Was the death of Christopher Reeve going to get as much play in our paper, he wanted to know, as it had all over China?

The meeting was mixed parts edifying and odd. Toward the end of the session, the tables were turned when, ever so politely, the “are you free to print what you want to?” question came up. Several Chinese editors shook their heads when asked. One said plainly, “No.” Indeed, government officials in China are known to have censored stories about subjects like AIDS and the SARS virus, and editors in China were not allowed to report the 9/11 attacks in America until they’d received government sanction.

But the official in charge of the group took the question as his own and proceeded on a long explanation about media-reform efforts in China. He said editors are basically free to make their own choices. Those seated around the table made no comment, having been effectively shut down by the official.

When the meeting ended, SN&R went back to the business of putting out the week’s newspaper—this one featuring a penetrating cover story by reporter Gary Webb on America’s Army, a little-known Pentagon-sponsored computer war game. (See “The killing game”.) One wonders if the day will come when a government watchdog story like this one will freely get its due share of ink in China.