Criticizing the NY Times’ Shakespeare “Protest” Article

Antennagate "Not unique to iPhone 4" with Steve Jobs.

A news organization like the New York Times is going to have its hits and misses. It’s inevitable. There are different people with different talents, different expertise, and different competencies on different days. There’s been a lot of good reporting and writing that has come from the NYT, as well as a lot of bad.

Recently, Sharon LaFraniere and David Barboza wrote in the NYT an article titled “China Tightens Censorship of Electronic Communications” that leads off with the following:

BEIJING — If anyone wonders whether the Chinese government has tightened its grip on electronic communications since protests began engulfing the Arab world, Shakespeare may prove instructive.

A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancée over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.

He spoke English, but another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence.

A host of evidence over the past several weeks shows that Chinese authorities are more determined than ever to police cellphone calls, electronic messages, e-mail and access to the Internet in order to smother any hint of antigovernment sentiment. In the cat-and-mouse game that characterizes electronic communications here, analysts suggest that the cat is getting bigger, especially since revolts began to ricochet through the Middle East and North Africa, and homegrown efforts to organize protests in China began to circulate on the Internet about a month ago.

“The hard-liners have won the field, and now we are seeing exactly how they want to run the place,” said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing analyst of China’s leadership. “I think the gloves are coming off.”

Quite a few of us here in China picked up on the story and were immediately skeptical. I first saw Adam Minter lay into the story at “Shanghai Scrap, and then Kenneth Tan over on Shanghaiist. I thought their combination of snark and pseudo-scientifically rigorous experiments had adequately shamed the NYT article for whatever egregious assumptions it may have been guilty of in cobbling together its latest “China has ridiculous censorship, yo” piece for American consumers.

That was until I saw former china/divide partner-in-crime Charles Custer’s blog post “In Defense of the NY Times and Paranoia” over on his equally blocked China blog ChinaGeeks. Now, I love Custer, and not only because his last name is Custer, but I had to agree with Julen Madariaga of Chinayouren fame who responded in the comments that Custer was “defending the indefensible”.

There are two things Custer is arguing in defense of the NYT:

  1. Criticisms of the anecdote as false is due to critics’ mistaken assumption that the NYT suggested the calls were cut off by “automated censorship”.
  2. Some critics are being overzealous in attacking the credibility of the article or authors.

First, I agree with Custer that, technically, “more determined than ever to police” does not necessarily mean automated censorship and that’s why the tests Adam and Kenneth ran don’t necessarily “confirm” or “disprove” the anecdote in the NYT article. I would agree that “automated censorship” is something many of us assumed given the subject of the article, and that this could be a fatal assumption on our part. However, I also think this assumption can be at least partially explained by the NYT article not specifying if it was automated censorship or not, and that the article also discusses automated censorship.

For example:

Beyond these problems, anecdotal evidence suggests that the government’s computers, which intercept incoming data and compare it with an ever-changing list of banned keywords or Web sites, are shutting out more information. The motive is often obvious: For six months or more, the censors have prevented Google searches of the English word “freedom.”

Of course, if I was playing defense, I’d be the first to say it leads off with “Beyond these problems”. But I do believe this could contribute to the assumption that the anecdote at the top of the NYT article was suggesting automated censorship.

Here’s another:

Hu Yong, a media professor at Peking University, said government censors were constantly spotting and reacting to new perceived threats. “The technology is improving and the range of sensitive terms is expanding because the depth and breadth of things they must manage just keeps on growing,” Mr. Hu said.

China’s censorship machine has been operating ever more efficiently since mid-2008…

Again, it can certainly be argued that these statements weren’t meant to and shouldn’t be convoluted with the initial anecdote.

However, I feel Custer made an equally fatal assumption in his defense:

The anecdote isn’t meant to be evidence of voice-recognizing censorship software, it’s evidence of increased police surveillance of the phone calls of anyone they consider suspicious.

I don’t see how that is supported by the NYT article. The NYT article doesn’t say the individual (“Beijing entrepreneur” and “another caller”) mentioned in the anecdotes were considered suspicious by the government or that the NYT believes they were considered suspicious by the government. So we can’t assume that they are or were just as we shouldn’t have assumed the anecdote was referring to automated censorship.

Just as many like Adam and Kenneth assumed the anecdote was about automated censorship in action, I think Custer mistakenly assumed the individuals involved had to have been considered suspicious by authorities.

Ultimately, I think we can apply Occam’s Razor here: The calls could’ve been cut off simply because someone lost reception, Antennagate, or someone’s fat cheek accidentally pressed the “end call” button. In fact, just as Custer argues that it would be extremely improbable that China’s government has computer systems capable of recognizing the same sensitive words spoken amongst the “diversity of accents and dialects throughout China”, I would say it is extremely probable that with so many cell phone calls and conversations going on every day in China, there’s bound to be at least two instances of a call being dropped after the same word (but one in English and another in Chinese) was uttered.

An extra detail:

A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancée over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.

So he said “protest” and her phone cut off?

What about the other guy who was also cut off “in midsentence” when he said the same line from Shakespeare but in Chinese?

Second, are people being overzealous in attacking the credibility of the article’s authors? I don’t know, as I haven’t seen the extent of the criticisms that Custer may have. However, I can explain why I think their inclusion and presentation of this anecdote is questionable and will affect the “credibility” I could extend to them, especially with regards to what they’ll sling to get a reader interested in their piece.

Ultimately, the authors of the article failed to provide enough information or evidence to actually justify the anecdote as being relevant to what Custer says is “the point they were trying to make in the article”, which is that “Shakespeare may prove instructive” to for anyone who “wonders whether the Chinese government has tightened its grip on electronic communications since protests began engulfing the Arab world.”

Semantically, they qualified with a “may” in there.

However, this is on the level of saying:

“If anyone wonders whether God is determined to punish the Japanese for their continued whaling and dolphin hunts, the recent Sendai earthquake and tsunami may prove instructive.”

Hey, I said “may”, right?

Now, Custer acknowledges that it wasn’t a great anecdote but he does argue in defense of the authors’ decision to use such an anecdote:

I think it’s actually fair to include the story in the piece — it’s interesting, telling, and connects what’s happening in China to something American readers (kinda) know. Or rather, it would have been a good addition to the piece if it had been framed differently. Unfortunately, the way it was written (or, very possibly, edited) makes it sound like they’re suggesting this happens all the time, and the end result is misleading depending on how you read it.

I disagree. I don’t think it is fair unless we judge “fair” by “whatever will get people interested in reading my article”. It’s less “telling” than it is specious. “Interesting”, maybe, but a lot of things can be interesting without being appropriate especially when you’re dealing with value-laden issues such as censorship. That the use of such an anecdote “connects what’s happening in China to something American readers know” is more an indictment of American journalists and media catering to what American readers “know” rather than actually, I dunno, informing them.

That the anecdote may mislead readers into thinking such a thing happens all the time is unfortunate, yes, but what is more unfortunate is that the anecdote and all of its suggestions become accepted as fact by many simply because it was published in the New York Times. We have zero information from the journalists that the word “protest” in English or Chinese was actually a trigger for an automated system or a human eavesdropper in the government tapping into phone calls to cut the phone connection. All we can tell is that they’ve made that conclusion and now they’re passing it onto their readers as “instructive” of the tightening of electronic censorship in China, with all the authority they carry.

…is it fair to call the article “false” or accuse them of poor fact checking because yelling “PROTEST!” into your phone didn’t get you disconnected? No. We’ve all had fun playing with our phones. But let’s call off the witch hunt until we have some actual evidence that they’re making things up.

Yes, it’s a mistake to judge the anecdote “false” or accuse the NYT authors of poor “fact-checking” if we’re mistakenly assuming that they were saying it was an example of “automated censorship”. Even if the authors really thought it was “automated censorship”, they fortunately didn’t actually write it, so they have an “out” there.

But here’s the thing, it isn’t us who need actual evidence that they are making things up, it is them who should have initially presented (and still ought to provide) some actual evidence that their anecdote is relevant much less “instructive” to the messages of their article. What affects the credibility of Sharon LaFraniere and David Barboza is their ability to respect the authority they carry to rationally and accurately connect an anecdote with a broader phenomenon. That’s something good reporters and journalists do for a reputable news organization.

UPDATE: The New York Times has “appended” an “Editor’s Note” acknowledging that “the calls could not be assumed to represent a broader trend; therefore, those examples should not have been given such prominence in the article.


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  1. King Tubby

    “Just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in” or something like that.

    Far out!!!!!.

  2. Hey, you’re alive? How goes? Glad to see I could drag you out of your cave for a takedown ;)

    Anyway, I think where we differ is here:

    We have zero information from the journalists that the word “protest” in English or Chinese was actually a trigger for an automated system or a human eavesdropper in the government tapping into phone calls to cut the phone connection. All we can tell is that they’ve made that conclusion and now they’re passing it onto their readers as “instructive” of the tightening of electronic censorship in China, with all the authority they carry.

    Isn’t that part of a reporter’s job, though? It’s a newspaper, not an encyclopedia; they tell stories based on the information they have available. Yes, the stories should be true, but we don’t have any evidence this isn’t, and we’re only demanding that evidence now because the anecdote was poorly written and some people were confused by it.

    Generally, it’s unreasonable to expect journalists to provide documentation that would allow the public to verify every single anecdote they include in a story. And in a case such as this, where the sources are anonymous, it would be impossible for them to do that.

    Why did I assume the sources were the sort of people who might have their phones tapped? Precisely because they’re anonymous. As I understand it, in the newsroom, editors generally prefer named sources, and if the source is anonymous, the reporter better have a good reason for it (and the quote better play an important role in the article). Yes, it’s an assumption; that may not be what happened in the NYTimes offices. My points are that:

    (1) We don’t know, and until we do, it seems unfair to condemn anyone of anything more than writing a poorly-composed lede.

    (2) Journalists are not obligated to provide information in their stories that allows every reader to verify anecdotes or information in the article. When they can and do, that’s great, but sometimes they can’t, and in my opinion (which I know is not shared by all) part of what a good reporter does is analyze information and present conclusions to the reader, rather than just presenting a list of facts.

    In short: The fact that the anecdote seems either misleading or irrelevant is a problem with their writing, not with a journalistic failure to include publicly verifiable data.

    (Let me know if this makes any sense, I am fairly hungover and not at all convinced I’m expressing myself well).


      It’s part of a reporter’s job to report, no doubt. It’s part of their own ideals and ethics to jump through their own hoops to arrive at valid conclusions to present to their readers. I’m not convinced they did that in this case.

      We both agree that what they said happened could’ve happened and could’ve happened for the reasons they presented. But that’s just not enough. Two instances isn’t enough. As Adam argued, couldn’t and shouldn’t they have tried a few more times? Especially if now they’re saying it probably had something to do with the calls having been with the NYT Beijing Bureau specifically?

      They presented the anecdote as the only evidence in the entire article of their statement that Chinese authorities are policing cell phone calls. It’s just not enough.

      In response to your defense, my point is that I think it is fair and warranted to question the authors and reporters of the NYT piece given the strength of the conclusions they are presenting and the weakness of the evidence they’ve provided. I think it is fair and warranted to question their credibility if they thought such a combo of evidence and conclusion was strong enough to meet the expectations of the NYT as a reputable news organization. These are definitely subjective expectations and judgments. I don’t deny that. I have higher standards for the reporting coming out of the NYT because they really want me to. Why else do they think I should pay to read their news versus other online sources?

      Next, I’m not arguing that journalists are obligated to provide information in their stories to allow them to verify anecdotes or information. I’m arguing that its understandable and valid to question suspect anecdotes and information that journalists provide.

      Finally, stop wasting our Kickstarter money getting drunk and hungover instead of filming, you bastard! ;)

    • Actually, I just realized there’s something you said that I want to address. You said that journalists are not obligated to provide information that allows readers to verify anecdotes or information. I understand but I’m also thinking you must be responding to someone else because that’s not something I’m advocating. What I want to add is that I didn’t get the impression that people were demanding that the journalists of the NYT article provide information for verification of the people involved in the anecdotes. Rather, the NYT journalists presented an anecdote without enough information so that many people who were skeptical of what they were reading naturally tried to verify by replicating it.

      Now that the NYT has added to say that they suspect the examples had something to do with the calls being connected with someone in the NYT Beijing Bureau, it’s obviously much harder for anyone to try verifying. Now its squarely a “it happened to me/us” thing. But initially, all they gave us was that quoting a specific line of Shakespeare in China whether in English or Chinese, on one phone or another, under the context of choosing a restaurant or not, would get you disconnected.

      Given that, I’m not surprised that Kenneth and Adam felt they could try confirming with tests containing the same parameters the NYT provided. The NYT writers and editors made it seem to be a broad enough trend to test. That’s their mistake, one they’ve acknowledged.

      So I don’t think its fair to come down on those who tried testing it. I think of this:

      “Hey, X happened under conditions Y and Z”
      “Are you sure? I tested it with conditions Y and Z but X didn’t happen.”
      “Well, I’m not obligated to tell you all the information you need to verify my anecdote.”

      You see how that sounds? Not saying that’s your intent, but I’m agreeing with you that the anecdote was poorly presented and I think the NYT is responsible for the questioning, skepticism, and criticisms that come their way as a result of it. I personally think it is more than just poor presentation and that they jumped too quickly to certain conclusions, but I agree with you that we don’t know for certain. All I will say is that it’s not generally a good idea to present suspicions lacking sufficient evidence as facts if you want to avoid having your credibility dragged into question.

  3. to be or not to be……

    Oh My!

    it has been awhile, glad your back 同志 Kaipan!

    divide and conquer baby

    a long time cometh!

    song of the article,

    All along the watch tower
    -Bob Dylan

    why, I got tickets! 你呢?

    4月6日 Beijing Workers Gym

    see you there!?


  4. dfresh

    I kind of wonder if in the first example, the guy’s wife was just upset with him and hung up.

  5. xian

    Holy crap it’s alive!

    Or is it?

    “..china/divide stopped publishing new posts and quietly retired.”


    • Meh, mostly retired. I saw Custer’s defense of the NYT article and started writing a comment in response. Then it got so long and detailed I felt it made more sense to just make a blog post out of it. That way, it wouldn’t be this mega-long comment and Custer plus a few other guys get an extra link to their blogs. These days, I don’t really bother with writing long, in-depth reactions to stuff, preferring to just write a pithy comment or two on Google Reader. However, I like Custer and wanted to respond at length on why I disagree with him.

      Peace, brother man.

Continuing the Discussion