February 24, 2012

On Feb. 13, The Post published the transcript of an interview with China’s vice president, Xi Jinping. It took up more than half of an inside page on the day the future leader of the People’s Republic arrived in Washington for an official visit.

The next day, The Post ran an unusual explanatory correction about the interview, which, it turns out, wasn’t much of an interview at all.

In publishing the transcript, which was more press release or propaganda than news, The Post set a bad precedent with the authoritarian government in Beijing.

This all started conventionally enough. The Post frequently requests interviews with foreign heads of state, or future premiers, especially before visits to Washington. They’re quite a coup to get.

A year ago, The Post and the Wall Street Journal, for example, asked for interviews with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the eve of his state visit here. In response, the Chinese allowed the two publications to submit written questions, and Hu and his staff provided written responses. Both papers published them.

This year the same request was made of Xi, and again The Post submitted written questions. But the reply was different.

As The Post’s correction stated (this was from early editions — it was shortened in later editions): “Instead, the Chinese government modified, deleted, and added questions to those The Post submitted. As a result, The Post did not publish the questions and instead published only the responses. The comments were not direct answers to the original questions submitted by The Post.”

So, The Post submits written questions — already a far cry from a live face-to-face unscripted interview with journalists — and the Chinese say, thanks, but we don’t like your questions, so we’ll provide our own questions and answers. Take it or leave it.

The Post took it. I think it should have left it.

Sure, The Post was the only U.S. newspaper to get even that much out of Xi. The transcript amounts to his only public statement during his trip. But his words were boilerplate, and they were studded with diplomatese that the U.S.-China relationship is built on mutual benefit, mutual respect, mutual understanding. Yawn.

By printing Xi’s answers, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli told me, “Our goal was to give some insight into a figure who is relatively unknown or understood and who will be very important to the U.S. in years to come.”

The next day, when he was looking at the printed page, Brauchli felt the transcript could have misled readers into thinking it was a real interview. So he initiated the correction, which was the right thing to do.

Now, from my ombudsman’s perch I can be an armchair critic. In Brauchli’s chair, other considerations weigh in.

One of The Post’s two China correspondents, Pulitzer Prize winner Andrew Higgins, has not been given a permanent visa to report from inside China since he was hired in 2009. I assume that’s because Higgins was fearless in his description of the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 when he worked in Beijing for other publications. The Chinese do not forget.

“Every foreign news organization has to work through the Chinese government to get credentialed to report there,” noted Brauchli. Beijing “makes decisions about when it issues visas, and for what length of time. That means we are . . .in a perpetual process of applying for visas.”

So the Chinese have The Post over a barrel in withholding visas. Still, Brauchli, said, “We do not in any way tailor our coverage or allow that dependence [on visas] to influence our coverage. Our independence in how we cover China is sacrosanct.”

True enough, during Xi’s visit here, The Post published a front-page story on the Chinese denying a visa to the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, who was planning a trip to China. It was a tough story, embarrassing to the Chinese and the White House.

It is also good to remember that The Post is tied to China through advertising revenue. Once a month The Post prints “China Watch,” an advertising supplement in English that consists of stories aimed at a U.S. audience but written by China Daily, the house organ of the Chinese government. And The Post’s Web site hosts a regularly updated version of China Watch.

That’s the thing about China, whether you are The Washington Post, the U.S. government or Apple computers. There is interdependence in the relationship, and constant negotiation and compromise. The Chinese know it, and they take advantage of it.

The Post’s job is to point that out, be transparent about it and report the truth regardless.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.