Journalists who report on the most opaque institutions — large corporations, the Fed, Emily Dickinson — are used to limits on access. Either the CEO is off limits or the an interview cannot possibly be arranged or sorry, no comment.
Then there’s the strangeness into which Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi recently bumped. In a feature for yesterday’s Style section, Farhi took a deep look at the Washington studio for China’s state-operated international broadcasting arm, China Central Television (CCTV). The new entity, according to the piece, will beam English-language “broadcasts produced by a staff of more than 60 journalists hired in recent weeks from NBC, Bloomberg TV, Fox News and other Western news organizations.”
It all sounded routine enough, till this paragraph:
CCTV wouldn’t permit any of its officials or journalists to speak on the record for this article. Instead, the network offered a series of responses to e-mailed questions. It said its replies should be attributed to “a representative of CCTV News’ Broadcast Center” in Washington, with no names or titles attached.
That comes off as black boxy. So did Farhi even know who was answering his questions? He says:
I’m pretty sure I know who answered those questions, but I’m not really certain. I also think I know where/how they were answered, but again, it’s not entirely clear.
I had a number of preliminary (off the record conversations) with people there. It was clear that they weren’t going to speak for the record unless I submitted my questions to them. Once I sent them, I got a reply pretty quickly--within 24 hours, I think.
And, yeah, this was really a first for me. I don’t know how most reporters feel, but I don’t like to interview anyone this way. There are several problems with it: 1) You don’t really know who is answering; 2) When you submit questions in advance, it robs the interview of spontaneity or follow-up questions, both of which are important and revealing.
But as I said, in this case, there wasn’t much choice. They weren’t going to comment on the record any other way. And by disclosing the terms of the interview in the story, the reader could draw their own conclusions.
I’m working on getting some comment from CCTV on how they handle comments for stories and will update with any feedback I get, which I expect to be minimal to none. After all, CCTV authorities aren’t even letting their top stateside exec open his trap:
CCTV’s top adviser for its American news operation is Jim Laurie, a former NBC and ABC reporter who has been a consultant to several international broadcasters in Asia. Laurie referred questions to CCTV’s management.
And to wrangle information that any other broadcast outlet would release fully on the record under the name of its news boss, Farhi had to deploy investigative techniques:
As described by several of its Washington hires, CCTV’s new Washington operation will produce original news reports and locally produced talk shows. It intends to broadcast an hour of programming a day from Washington starting next month, increasing to four hours this summer.
What sort of programming will air on those shows is anyone’s guess. But we do know the sort of stuff that won’t air on those shows.