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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

They Can't Handle the Truth

Taiwan's media go all out for a story, even if the facts aren't there. Reformers don't have much clout in a culture that's so freewheeling.

February 28, 2005|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TAIPEI, Taiwan — When Sir Elton John arrived here shortly before midnight in a bright blue track suit and dark glasses, he was greeted at the airport by local reporters who jostled him, slammed cameras in his face and barked questions.

The pop star tried to hide but was soon flushed out and started yelling obscenities.

Not known for taking an insult lying down, the Taiwanese journalists yelled back. Some suggested that he consider going elsewhere.

"We'd love to get out of Taiwan if it's full of people like you. Pig! Pig!" the knighted entertainer screamed last fall.

"The television and the photographers at the airport were the rudest I have ever met, and I've been to 60 countries," John said at his piano bench at a concert a few hours later. "I'm sorry if I offended anyone in Taiwan, I didn't mean to. But to those guys, I meant every word."

Celebrity histrionics aside, Taiwan's media have the reputation of being among the most aggressive in Asia. In a region where print and broadcast reporters are often de facto cheerleaders for governments and billionaires, Taiwan's no-holds- barred journalism is alternately seen as a gutsy check on authority and the embodiment of chaos.

Concerned about the media's excesses and ability to ruin reputations and lives, reformers in and outside the industry are trying to stem the sensationalism, partisanship and corruption that characterize the business. Some argue that the media are merely a reflection of Taiwanese society, which is one of the most freewheeling in Asia.

Foreign luminaries aren't the only ones trying to hide from the island's aspiring Woodwards and Bernsteins, who've been called man-eaters, bloodsuckers and worse. Several years ago, when Taiwan's then-vice president and prime minister, Lien Chan, gave his traveling herd of reporters the slip on a trip to the Dominican Republic and secretly traveled to Ukraine, newspapers summoned all their troops to search for him.

A few months later, then-Foreign Minister John Chang pulled a similar Houdini act during a visit to South Africa. Hounded by angry reporters when he returned to Taipei after a stealth visit to Belgium, Chang defended himself with what is now known here as the "rice cooker" theory of diplomacy. Making policy while one is barraged by reporters, he said, is like trying to boil rice with someone constantly lifting the lid.

Wary of angering those who buy ink by the barrel, however, he quickly apologized and begged the scribes' forgiveness.

The media's willfulness had a deadly outcome, or so some charged, when the daughter of television star Pai Ping-ping was kidnapped a few years ago. The singer criticized the media for following the family in cars, vans and helicopters, even hounding it during the ransom drop.

"Were you helping me or hurting me?" Pai asked at a news conference.

When her daughter was found dead, the accusations grew more pointed. "Reporters are guilty!" screamed placards hoisted by neighbors around Pai's house.

Journalists showed little remorse, citing pressure from their editors.

"If you fail to get this story, jumping from the 14th floor is too good for you," an editor at the United Daily News was quoted -- in a well-cited essay on media reform -- as saying during a meeting on the newspaper's 14th floor. "You should climb up to at least the 20th floor and jump from there."

In a market of 23 million people, Taiwan has six 24-hour television news channels, 4,185 magazines, 172 radio stations, 135 cable TV channels, 2,524 newspapers and 977 domestic news agencies, the government says. The desperate struggle for ratings results in stories on sex, murder, corruption and kidnappings and not much else, critics charge.

Kuan Chung-hsiang, a journalism professor at Shih Hsin University in Taipei, recounted that one of his top students landed a job at a local TV station but quit a few months later. She'd been told to wear a short skirt and to walk over a hidden camera positioned in a drain for an "investigative" piece about how hidden cameras all over Taiwan were secretly recording lewd scenes. The station couldn't find videos of lewd scenes, so it was staging one.

When the former student strongly objected, Kuan said, her boss asked her, "Do you want conscience or do you want ratings?"

Part of the Taiwanese media's character reflects its evolution, what some refer to as the transition from lapdog to mad dog. Until 1988, major newspapers and TV stations served as government mouthpieces controlled by the ruling Nationalist Party, which had maintained an iron grip for decades.

Less government control has led to privatization, but several important stations are still owned by political parties. In a polarized society where politics is a blood sport -- fistfights in the legislature were not uncommon up until a few years ago -- media objectivity is spotty at best.

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