AS BLOGS become big business, Internet giants have begun trying to profit from new forms of journalism, including war coverage. The results are not encouraging.
Yahoo's latest experiment reveals that it considers war news just another form of entertainment. This from an online giant that has already shown it is cavalier about press freedom and a friend of oppression.
Look back to 2004, when reporters at a Hunan province newspaper listened as their editorial director read a statement from the Communist Party's Propaganda Department about the upcoming 15-year commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It warned that dissidents may use the Internet to spread "damaging information."
One reporter used an anonymous Yahoo e-mail account to ask a colleague in New York to post a report about the statement on pro-democracy website Minzhu Tongxun (Democracy Newsletter).
But as the 37-year-old married reporter behind the numeric pseudonym "198964" learned, he shouldn't have assumed that Yahoo defends press freedom. When Chinese security agents asked executives at Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) to identify the man, they did so. Police grabbed him on a street, searched his house and seized his computer and other belongings, according to documents filed in his defense.
Mr. "198964," whose real name is Shi Tao, is serving a 10-year jail sentence for "divulging state secrets abroad." Bloggers, human rights groups and journalism organizations, including PEN and Reporters Without Borders, condemned the action.
Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang brushed off responsibility. At an Internet conference Sept. 10 in Hangzhou, China, Yang said Yahoo and other U.S.-based multinationals "have to comply with local law."
Or else what? They lose access, that's what, which means losing profits.
Shi Tao's attorney, Guo Guoting -- who was detained, placed under house arrest and shut out of his office before his client's trial -- argues that the company has a greater obligation to international law than to local law. "China is a signatory of the [U.N.] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights," Guo told the Hong Kong independent daily Epoch Times. "Shi Tao ... was legitimately practicing his profession, not committing a crime. The legal entity of Yahoo Holdings [Hong Kong] is not in China, so it is not obligated to operate within the laws of China or to cooperate with Chinese police."
As morally repugnant as Yahoo's actions may be, other tech vendors before it have acted similarly. "Many big companies, such as Microsoft and Nortel, in their quest to gain shares of the large Internet market in China, transform China into an information prison by collaborating with the Chinese regime on questions of censorship," Guo said. "They should not forget all moral principles under the temptation of financial gain."
Yahoo's hypocrisy is even more shameful because it is also in the news business. The company recently opened a news production division with promises of hard-hitting stories that U.S. mainstream media are afraid to report.
Yahoo launched "Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone," pledging to send the former television reporter to "every armed conflict in the world within one year" and dispatch blog-sized "bites" of war.
Several years ago, I introduced Sites to the world of blogs, collaborating with geek friends to launch kevinsites.net. I helped him publish his firsthand impressions of the Iraq war as a not-for-profit project. But as the war heated up, Sites' employer, CNN, forced him to shut down the blog. Sites later joined NBC and videotaped the shooting by a Marine of an unarmed Iraqi. As a way to explain why that piece of truth mattered, he reopened his blog. (Last November, these pages excerpted his explanation of the shooting.) Another "warblogger" is BBC news producer Stuart Hughes, who stepped on a landmine while covering the Iraq war. On his blog, he documented the amputation of his right leg and his recovery. Like me, he is troubled about "Hot Zone."
"It seems like the journalistic equivalent of a Simpson and Bruckheimer high-concept movie -- all concept and very little content," Hughes said from London. "I've lost too many friends in war zones -- and come too close myself -- to have any time for this 'stamp-collecting' approach to conflict. The presentation is distasteful -- war reporting comes with a strong public service agenda, and it's cheapened by this 'Geraldo Rivera' presentation. This goal of covering every armed conflict in the world -- so what? At what cost? It leaves a very nasty taste in my mouth."
The launch of Yahoo's corporate-powered warblog, and its promise of more newsertainment to follow, raises anew the question how to define journalism.
One obvious answer: Real journalists don't treat war as entertainment, and real news companies don't help imprison a man for reporting the truth -- even if that would ensure profits.