NYT Acknowledges Mistake With Shakespeare “Protest” Anecdote

New York Times building.

Two days ago, I waded into the rip-roaring controversy over the New York Times publishing an article ostensibly reporting that quoting Shakespeare during a conversation on your cell phone could get your call disconnected. I came in disagreeing with ChinaGeek’s Charles Custer’s defense of the NYT.

Kenneth Tan at Shanghaiist just posted an update that the New York Times has “appended” an Editor’s Note, the entirety of which reads:

An article on Tuesday about Chinese censorship of digital communications began with a description of two interrupted cellphone calls, which were cited as possible examples of “a host of evidence over the past several weeks” that the authorities were increasing their efforts out of concern that antigovernment sentiment might spread from Arab countries. In one call, a Beijing entrepreneur lost his cellphone connection after he used the English word “protest” twice. In the second, a call was lost after the speaker twice used the Chinese term for protest.

The article did not point out that in both cases, the recipients of the calls were in the Beijing bureau of The New York Times. Because scrutiny of press communications could easily be higher than for those of the public at large, the calls could not be assumed to represent a broader trend; therefore, those examples should not have been given such prominence in the article.

Kenneth wants a correction but I’ll take this as an acceptable clarification. Of course, you’ll still have a lot of people who read the initial story and will never know about this addendum, but this is definitely better than no note or acknowledgement at all.

So it seems the reason these two incidents were assumed to be “possible examples of ‘a host of evidence over the past several weeks’” (lots of outs in that one) is because the fiancée of the Beijing entrepreneur works for or was at least physically in the Beijing Bureau of the NYT, and so was the recipient of the caller who said the same Shakespearean line but in Chinese later. The suggestion here then is that the press are being bugged or tapped or otherwise monitored. Is it an automated system that interrupts calls when it recognizes certain spoken words? Or is there a human intelligence/censorship operative with some earphones in a rape van out on the street?

In the interest of entertaining what is plausible, I lean towards agreeing with Custer that the government would have to be using pretty incredible speech-recognition software to catch the word “protest” in English and Chinese. I’m still wondering what Chinese translation of the “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” the caller in the second instance used. The problem is, if it were a human monitoring the calls, you’d think they’d assign someone with enough English and Chinese fluency to recognize when a call is actually (even coded) communications propagating “protests” in China, rather than a banal discussion of what to eat for dinner. Unfortunately, we have no context for the second instance so we can’t judge that one.

I’m just saying, what could have been the motivation for a human eavesdropper to hit the disconnect button when he heard that conversation? “妈了个比,你他妈的敢再说一遍!哥不玩这套!给他切了!” Oh wait, this is in Beijing, right? Maybe have to add a few 儿s in there, unless these government operatives aren’t locals. I know labor is cheap in China but does the government really just employ monkeys trained to listen only for specific words regardless of context with their semi-opposable thumb on a “disconnect the call” button?

Now, I’m of the persuasion that believes governments can definitely tap, bug, monitor, and eavesdrop the electronic communications of journalists if they want to, and I’m pretty good at offering a smorgasbord of plausible explanations for a government to do exactly what these anecdotes may be suggesting. But, it isn’t my job to explain how these anecdotes are “possible examples of ‘a host of evidence over the past several weeks’ that the authorities were increasing their efforts out of concern that antigovernment sentiment might spread from Arab countries.”. It’s the NYT’s job, to their readers, in the pursuit of being reporters who responsibly inform the public.

I get it, it isn’t uncalled for that the NYT Beijing Bureau would have a persecution complex in China (that’s a freebie), that they suspect they’re being scrutinized by the Chinese government for their potential reporting of things they know are sensitive to that government. I get that “paranoia”. I get the context of this being around the joke that was the Jasmine Revolution.

What I don’t get is the certainty that these two instances are connected to what the NYT says they are connected to: increased efforts to tighten the grip on electronic communications. Let’s put aside the misleading vividness problem of the NYT publishing such anecdotes in such an article: Is there enough information to suspect that these calls were being monitored, that “protest” in either English or Chinese is a word that will trigger a disconnect, and that this is all in relation to controlling antigovernment sentiments from spreading (amongst NYT reporters) to China from the Arab world?

Let’s go back to this:

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.

First, I want to say that I don’t really think the government is “more determined than ever” to “smother any hint of antigovernment sentiment.” That’s a grossly exaggerated statement given how much antigovernment sentiment is not only accessible but pervasive on the Chinese internet. Yes, the authorities police electronic communications to control threats, but they’re not red-eyed fanatics out to silence all dissent. That sort of generalization just isn’t very useful.

Second, and more importantly, note that while the rest of the NYT article rehashes a lot of stuff about email monitoring and internet blocking, the only “evidence” presented about Chinese authorities policing cellphone calls is the lead anecdote that the NYT editor now acknowledges as not representing a broader trend and “should not have been given such prominence in the article.”

So the anecdote that two calls involving people physically at the NYT Beijing Bureau were dropped after one person said “protest” in English a second time and another person said “protest” in Chinese just once was the only evidence these journalists saw fit to substantiate their claim that the Chinese authorities are policing cell phone calls. Again, I know the Chinese government (amongst other governments) is capable of and has policed all these forms of communications before. I don’t doubt that. But I do think the inclusion and presentation of the anecdote in this article was inappropriate and irresponsible to NYT readers because there just isn’t enough information to warrant the conclusion. There’s more suspicion than there is information, and the moment you veer into presenting suspicion as fact (“shows”), you become liable to accusations of insufficient “fact-checking” and questioning of your “credibility”.

UPDATE: Adam Minter of Shanghai Scrap brings up a couple more points, including questioning if the inclusion of the entire anecdote may have something to do with the author, Sharon LaFraniere, being the wife of the NYT Beijing Bureau Chief Michael Wines.


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  1. “What could have been the motivation for a human eavesdropper to hit the disconnect button when he heard that conversation?”

    Of course, I can’t be sure, but my guess is whatever poor sap they have watching the phones of the New York Times 24-7 probably doesn’t speak great English. He’s got a list of “sensitive” words to listen for, and when he hears one, he gives the recording of that conversation to someone competent in English to analyze. Maybe he disconnects conversations that sound especially sensitive during sensitive periods like the “jasmine/两会” period. Just a guess, of course, but being able to understand a phone conversation in English is not easy, and I doubt the PSB would want to waste their most talented speakers on that kind of mundane drudgery.

    • Right, like I said, I too can offer possible explanations. I just think the NYT should’ve shown more consideration of evidence to arrive at the conclusion they did, especially when that conclusion becomes a premise for a larger article on the tightening of electronic communications and information monitoring/censorship in China.

  2. Ted

    Their call was disconnected for no good reason. I had that happen on a msn chat one time when I was talking about Pol Pot (I was planning a trip to Cambodia at the time). I wasn’t cut off, but the Chinese person I was chatting with had their connection reset and then they asked to change the subject. It’s just creepy. The frustrating thing is that you really have no idea why it happened… or if it happened. Hey, maybe it was just a problem with the internet.

    There has been ‘a host of evidence over the past several weeks’ and months for that matter pointing to increased censorship. Websites that I could access sans VPN now require a VPN. Actually nearly my entire blogroll these days requires a VPN, when I first set up the links I could get to about 70% without any problem. Now, almost everything but the NYTimes and WaPo require a VPN.

    And then there has been the gmail garbage. Nobody is denying that there is govt. interference there… except the govt. Please.

    I don’t blame someone from the Times for putting the ‘protest’ anecdote in the story, at the very least it informs people that depending on your job, you may or may not have increased restrictions on what you can freely discuss in China. It also gives outsiders an idea of just how ridiculous some of the restrictions can be and the frustration of not really knowing if something is taboo.

    My company runs from google apps so yes… my back is up on this one ;)

  3. S.K. Cheung

    Hi KP,

    are you still blogging? Abrams and Custer have their own blogs; are you going to start one up as well? I’ve always respected your methodical and logical writing style, and was reminded of it when someone showed me your recent comments on HH.

    • Hey SKC, no, not really blogging or commenting much these days but as you can see, I’ve just thrown up a long post that started off as a rare comment. Yeah, I’ve made a few comments recently at HH when I’ve seen an interesting post. LoL, I’m also quite surprised by all the animosity that has built up around Custer too. Since when did he start commenting so much there and since when did HH become so hostile? Anyway, rock on.

Continuing the Discussion