— In the fall of last year, when The Beijing News was taken over by the capital city’s propaganda department, readers and journalists feared the once hard-hitting publication would tone down its coverage and become just another mouthpiece for local Communist Party branch.

Those fears seemed warranted on Friday, when The Beijing News joined other Beijing-based newspapers in a coordinated and vicious assault on blind activist Chen Guangcheng, and on U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke for giving Chen sanctuary for six days at the American embassy compound in Beijing.

The News carried one of the more tame editorials. It said “American diplomats brought a Chinese citizen into U.S. Embassy in abnormal way,” essentially parroting an earlier attack line from China’s foreign ministry. The News’ editorial accused U.S. diplomats of “manipulations” that violated the laws of the host country and “hurt the long-term interests of China and the U.S.”

The Friday editorials in all the Beijing newspapers prompted a ferocious public backlash, with most of the online comments aimed at the Beijing Daily, which carried perhaps the most over-the-top editorial. The Beijing Daily blasted Locke repeatedly by name, even making fun of him for flying economy class and paying for his Starbucks coffee with a coupon. But the reaction was so fierce against the paper that “Beijing Daily” even became a banned search term.

On Saturday — in an unusual move — the Beijing News appeared to back off its own previous day’s editorial, trying to distance itself from the public furor, and perhaps restore a bit of its old reputation.

On its Sina Weibo microblogging account, the News offered what appeared to be an apology and a plea for forgiveness, along with a black-and-white photo of a sad-looking clown smoking a cigarette.

The paper wrote above the clown photo: “In the still of the deep night, removing that mask of insincerity, we say to our true selves, ‘I am sorry.’ Goodnight.”

The apology, if that’s what it was, immediately lit up the blogosphere. And questions abounded. What did the clown represent — the “face” of the paper’s new owner, perhaps?

“The editorials may have had the unintended effect of drawing more attention domestically to the Chen Guangcheng case than leaders wished,” wrote media analyst David Bandurski with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

“The move to arrest conversation of the Beijing editorials could point to what might be characterized as one of the most high-profile failures of Party propaganda we have on record,” Bandurski said.