The New York Times, the great Gray Lady of journalism, is getting called out over an apparently imaginary event in a recent story on Chinese censorship.
The story kicks off with an anecdote about a Chinese entrepreneur who quoted Shakespeare in a cell-phone call: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." According to the story, the second time the caller said the word "protest," he was abruptly disconnected.[jump]
Not convinced this random anecdote speaks to a larger pattern? There's more: "Another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence."
Now, two incidents don't usually a trend-story make, but as a colorful lead-in to a larger story about electronic censorship in China, the anecdotes serve well.
Or they would, if they were reliable and well-reported.
But as Adam Minter, an American writer in Shanghai, points out, there's good reason to doubt that.
Minter conducted his own test to see if he could replicate the incidents of cell-phone disconnections. He called five Shanghai residents, and repeated the Shakespeare quote, as well as the phrases "I like Bob Dylan's protest songs the most" and "Protest protest protest." He never got disconnected.
Kenneth Tan at Shanghaist couldn't get it to work either.
"Based upon what I know now, the annecote was not manufactured, but rather was sourced in an incredibly sloppy, haphazard manner, and was subjected to an embarrassingly thin level of verification," Minter told City Pages today.
Now Jonathan Ansfield, a contributing writer on the New York Times story, is retweeting complaints about the veracity of the story, and has commented on Minter's post to say "for the record, the contributing reporter's own tests comport with yours. regrettably his input on the story made little difference."
No one disputes the rigorous state censorship of communication in China, but you'd like to think that the New York Times wouldn't use dubiously verified accounts to introduce a story on the subject, no matter how attention-grabbing they might be.
As Shakespeare's Gertrude says, "More matter, less art."