Two Views on China, and what UGC has to do with it

Recently, I read two articles in which journalists travel to China. The first:

I Followed My Stolen iPhone Across The World, Became A Celebrity In China, And Found A Friend For Life

Matt Stopera’s epic BuzzFeed article is weird, wacky and fascinating. (As is the fact that when I click his name on BuzzFeed, I get directed to this list of articles. Judging by the fact that they are in multiple languages that Matt does not speak, I can only assume he is not the author of all of them. But it makes me wonder – how long has BuzzFeed been translating all their pieces? And who is doing the translating? And why did I not know about it?)

The second:

Rise of the Red Prince

Evan Osnos’s multi-layered, multi-sourced article is a masterpiece of deep and difficult reporting.

The point of contrasting these two articles isn’t just to provide two differing views on China: it’s to contrast two differing editorial views on what journalism means, and how it should be conducted. Osnos’ piece is traditional journalism: steeped in deep knowledge of Chinese history and politics. Osnos weaves a story around his inaccessible subject (Chinese President Xi Jinping) with the dexterity of a spider. Unfortunately, if you subscribe to the theory that traditional journalism is dead, then it’s with the dexterity of a spider about to be eaten by its mate, the Internet.

Meanwhile, Stopera’s piece seems ebullient in a uniquely BuzzFeed-y way, bursting at the seams with extreme self-exposure (“I accidentally endorsed this brand”) photos marked by his own MS Paint captions, no mention of China’s history or modern politics, and an editorial approach that seems, at best, rapaciously commercial. Reading it, I can’t help but feel that I’m buoyed along partly by Stopera’s enthusiasm and partly by the perspicacity of the BuzzFeed corporate brass, who have seized the bull of brief notoriety by the horns and are determined to ride it as long as possible. Partnership with Weibo? Why not! Reporters endorsing brands? Why not! It’s all in the service of 70 million (or is it 140 million?) Chinese eyeballs. Forget the American Internet, Weibo is where it’s at. Especially if a lot of people in China think a goofy-looking BuzzFeed writer is as big a deal as Kanye.

Both articles – deliberately or otherwise – offer an important glimpse into Chinese and American culture. Stopera doesn’t just join Weibo: he screenshots his Chinese users’ comments and presents them onscreen to his American readers. As the audience, we hear the Chinese readers’ real voices (albeit sometimes in translation). Regardless of the ethics of this kind of random journalistic sampling, there is an argument to be made that seeing these snapshots is more authentic than the quotes or write-arounds that traditional journalism is famous for.

Nothing is held back in this story – and yet, everything is put off. Stopera freely admits he’s a random candidate for fame – just a guy whose phone got stolen. There’s something profoundly and almost reassuringly millennial about Stopera’s story. It presents to us a glimpse into how technology, led by social media, can unite the world. It suggests that the things that ordinary citizens do on Twitter, and on WordPress, actually matter. There is no pause for critical contemplation, or for deeper and possibly uncomfortable questions about the nature of the Chinese-American relationship. Stopera’s article doesn’t encourage us to ask:

  • Are these in fact ordinary Chinese people whose Weibos and Tweets are being captioned and presented? What does Internet access in China really look like? Osnos’ article paints a far darker picture of the Chinese Internet, one where openness has declined over the past decade as a result of Xi’s policies.
  • How open is Stopera’s article, exactly? Its construction – down to its user-generated elements – seems designed (structurally) to suggest a radical democracy. Stopera is talking to real Chinese people, and they are talking back to him. But is this democratic journalism, or just the suggestion of it? Both BuzzFeed and Weibo are large corporations with agendas. What’s in this massive photo op for them?
  • In a country in the midst of a media crackdown, what is sayable online? What is not? How does Stopera’s visit fit into the larger context of China’s media environment? What factors might have combined to make Stopera such a hit? From his perspective, he’s a random guy. And that’s great, but shouldn’t news also make us consider alternative perspectives? He’s very clearly not just a random dude. He’s clearly been taken as a symbol for something, but Stopera doesn’t seem particularly interested in what that might be. He represents a troubling vision of Millennials’ global engagement: fascinated by the world’s so-called weirdness, defined by cycles of corporate consumption (the whole story rests upon a lost iPhone) and willing to take superficial Tweets at their word.
  • Who paid for his trip?? How the heck can BuzzFeed not disclose this information??

At the same time, Osnos’ magnum opus could benefit from some of Stopera’s enthusiasm. Osnos’ only foray into Stopera’s garrulity is the occasional use of the first person pronoun. If Stopera’s voice wears smiley-face T shirts and carries an iPhone, Osnos’ shows up in a suit with a briefcase and a legal document. Osnos certainly doesn’t resort to screen-shotting Tweets. His interviewees are presented in carefully pruned prose. Real names aren’t always available – at one point, Osnos refers to a source as “an editor” (although he doesn’t mention why the editor remains unnamed). At another point, Osnos and a source are followed by a government agent. This is a troubling enough development that Osnos comments on it, but in a remarkably dry and impartial way. If I were him, I’d be freaking out. If he were Matt Stopera, he’d be freaking out. But the greatest absence in Osnos’ story is that of the common citizen’s voice. At one point, desperate to figure out what the Chinese people really think of Xi, Osnos turns to the approximations offered by Hong Kong-based pollsters. Why not at least try logging onto Weibo?

The other thing Osnos doesn’t disclose is the nature of his relationships with his sources. Unlike Stopera, who tells us about every one of his hugs with “Brother Orange” (at one point, I began to feel like I was reading Stopera’s diary) in excruciating detail, Osnos doesn’t tell us much about how the heck he gets people like Joe Biden to talk to him for an offhand quote (??). Obviously, Biden is not a guy who picks up the phone for just anyone, but Osnos’ article requires that we suspend these kinds of questions. Nor does Osnos mention, in any explicit detail, who exactly funds him (another similarity with Stopera!)

The differences between these articles, stylistically, are so great that it might be easy to overlook the greatest difference of all. The way the BuzzFeed article is framed suggests that the piece has value precisely because it is a crazy story about an ordinary guy. This phone story, while insane, could have happened to anyone. It’s like chatting with your best friend about his crazy weekend, but magnified x10.

Meanwhile, the New Yorker piece has value (it is deemed publish-worthy by the editorial staff) precisely because it is a story that could happen to almost no one. It is an important story because it is written by an important person (he chats with Joe Biden!) who interviews other important people (editors, heads of think tanks) about an even more important person.

I leave aside questions of which article is better – that’s not the point. For me, reading these two articles side-by-side was an interesting glimpse into how two very different media organizations handle some of the essential questions facing journalism today. Taken together, they also present an interesting and nuanced view of China that might not come through in either piece alone.

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