Now that's how to print an apology

Last week, the China Writers' Association lashed out at the West China City Daily for reporting that its members had stayed in the presidential suite of a five star hotel during a conference in Chongqing and had feasted at a cost of 2,000 RMB per table. The WCCD apologized for not thoroughly fact-checking its report, which it had obtained from the Chongqing Times.

On Sunday, the Chongqing Times printed a front-page, above-the-fold letter of apology addressed to the Chinese Writers' Association (translated below):

Chongqing Times, April 11, 2010

The CT's apology goes even further than the WCCD's in emphasizing that the role of the media is to serve the interests of the establishment. According to its statement, the error the paper committed was not limited to factual inaccuracies, but stemmed from an entertainment-oriented approach to journalism that neglected to pay the CWA the attention it deserved. Furthermore, it promised to work hard in the future to carry out its duty to publicize the great accomplishments the CWA and its authors have made in telling stories about the masses.

The reporter who wrote the story was fired. The editor who let it through was demoted. The deputy editor on duty was disciplined. And today's paper reports that the agency leadership convened a meeting last night to discuss ways in which the spectre of fake news can be eradicated.

The response online among writers and journalists has been largely cynical — as a government-affiliated organization, the Chinese Writers' Association is assumed to have pulled strings with the propaganda departments to force the newspapers involved to apologize.

On April 6, one Chongqing Times reporter responded to the WCCD's apology:

I really can't figure out what the West China City Daily is thinking! After they republished one of our entertainment stories, "CWA stays in the presidential suite," the CWA came after them, and without any verification or "resistance," they issued a statement, "apologizing for republishing the inaccurate Chongqing Times report." Let's not talk about the WCCD's fire-fighting mentality for the moment. How can they simply decide for us that our report was inaccurate?

And yesterday, Li Hongwen of Shenzhen's Daily Sunshine wrote:

The hearts of the people know what is just. Being forced to apologize is a glory for the Chongging Times, not a shame. No matter how boastful a paper may be, if it has never in its history been forced to run a front-page apology, it is too timid. Today, I salute the Chongqing Times.

Oddly, the original Chongqing Times article, which claimed that the CWA's ritzy lodgings had forced Taiwan pop star Jeff Zhang to stay in an ordinary suite, can be found nowhere online. Yet Google's cache of the paper's electronic edition, as it appeared at 6:21 on the morning of March 30, does not show page 28, which contained the offending report, so it appears to have never been online in the first place. Practically all of the ensuing controversy can be traced to the WCCD's 180-character excerpt of that article.

Here's a translation of the apology that ran in the Chongqing Times:

A Letter of Apology to the Chinese Writers' Association

To the Chinese Writers' Association:

On page 28 of the March 30 edition of this newspaper, the article "CWA Delegation Books the Presidential Suite; Jeff Zhang Xinzhe Settles for Standard Suite" contained serious factual errors and brought groundless criticism onto the Chinese Writers' Association and the authors attending the conference, caused grievous harm to the Chinese Writers' Association, and seriously affected the reputation of the city of Chongqing and its media. Therefore, we offer our sincere apologies to the Chinese Writers' Association and the authors in attendance.

For the Ninth Presidium Meeting and Fifth Plenary Session of the Seventh Congress of the Chinese Writers' Association, many top-rank authors congregated in Chongqing, a grand occasion that showed the Chinese Writers' Association's concern and favor for Chongqing and its support for Chongqing literature. As a member of the Chongqing media, this newspaper ought to have been a responsible host, reporting fully on the grand spectacle of this conference, publicizing its fruitful accomplishments, showing off the work of the many writers, and expressing the friendship and enthusiasm of the people of Chongqing. The Municipal Committee Publicity Department also issued clear instructions for the overall publicity plan for this conference; however, those instructions did not receive sufficient attention from us. The editorial board's inadequate work in regard to overall scheduling, planning, organization, and assignments led to serious inaccuracies that deviated totally from the theme of the conference. Relying on hearsay in the course of newsgathering, a reporter did not seek to further understand or verify the situation, leading to serious errors of basic facts. The editor on duty not only failed to exercise strict review of the subject matter and content of the manuscript, but went on to package it in an entertainment-style contrast, a mistaken orientation for the page. The deputy editor on duty, who had a weak political sensitivity and lacked a sense of political responsibility, failed to exercise proper gate-keeping and let the inaccurate report go to press. Moreover, the report was magnified through republication in other media outlets and on the Internet, causing irreparable harm to the Chinese Writers' Association and the writers attending the conference. This lesson has been profound, and we express our deep sorrow and remorse. Once the article appeared in the paper, we attached a high degree of importance to the situation, and after deep reflection and careful investigation of the facts, dealt severely with the persons responsible: the reporter chiefly responsible for the article was dismissed, a second reporter whose name appeared in the byline was given a strict warning and demerits, the editor of the entertainment desk was relieved of duty, the deputy editor in charge was suspended for investigation, and the editor-in-chief performed a penetrating self-inspection.

The serious lessons we have learned after this mistake will apply toward other situations; upholding the principle of "politicians running the newspapers" we will hold tightly to the correct guidance of public opinion, strengthen political consciousness, responsibility, and awareness of the overall situation, resolutely fight against the trend toward news as entertainment, and put the correct mentality for running and editing a newspaper into every aspect of news gathering. We will make every effort toward building the leadership and the news team, deepening the "three activities for study and education" - the theoretical system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the Marxist concept of journalism, and professionalism and professional ethics - to build a well-behaved, disciplined, professional, and politically strong news team. We will concentrate on building up internal management and organization, upgrading our goals in line with a transitioning media and implementing them at all levels so that everyone assumes responsibility. In future publicity work, we will conscientiously fulfill the sacred duty of the news media, recognizing telltale signs and taking preventive measures to stop similar incidents from occurring.

This serious mistake in reporting has taught us an important lesson. From now on, we will vigorously promote the great efforts of the Chinese Writers' Association and its authors, whose excellent work reflects society, eulogizes our era, enriches the cultural life of the masses. We will vigorously promote writers who delve deeply into real life, into the grass-roots, into the masses, to create moving stories that boldly assuming responsibility toward the humanities and society. We will vigorously publicize the active contributions the Chinese Writers' Association makes in championing outstanding ethnic culture, exhibiting the style of contemporary China, and promoting the prosperous development of the nation's literature, and we will take practical steps to applaud and encourage the hard work of the Chinese Writers' Association and its authors.

Once again, we offer our sincere apologies to the Chinese Writers' Association and the writers in attendance at the conference!

Chongqing Times

This is not the first apology the Chongqing Times has made on the subject. In the April 7 issue, it printed a short paragraph at the end of an article largely made up of other reports on the CWA's denials:

Related information was reported by this newspaper on March 30. It was sensationalized by certain persons on the Internet and caused grievous harm to the reputation of the Chinese Writers' Association, something we had never expected. We therefore offer our sincere apologies to the CWA.

So what about Jeff Zhang's accommodations? According to the March 30 edition of the Chongqing Evening News:

...In private, Jeff is a pretty unassuming individual. He's thrifty and casual in his own life, and on this trip to Chongqing he made no special demands for food and lodging. His only request was for the promoter to be economical. "We had wanted to put him in the presidential suite, but Jeff said he'd be fine with staying in an ordinary suite to save money. Jeff is said to really enjoy Chongqing's spicy food, so we arranged for him to dine on local Chongqing cuisine. But Jeff Zhang does avoid one thing: he refuses to eat seafood."

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