The New York Times on China – Often Wrong, Seldom in Doubt


The impetus for writing the last blog post was reading this in a New York Times article on China:  “Most people in China can only dream of being able to afford an expensive phone. But millions of Chinese are developing a taste for luxury goods, and Apple products have joined Louis Vuitton bags as totems of wealth.”

The comment was vintage NYT reportage: managing to be both condescending and ill-informed. The reality is otherwise: personal wealth in China is widespread and growing quickly. While not yet at levels seen in Taiwan or Hong Kong, more people in China can afford “an expensive phone” than in the US. The New York Times, however, prefers more often to characterize China today much as it has for the last 30 years – as a largely poor country, with a few selfish and wealthy autocrats lording over a teeming mass of mistreated peasants subsisting on starvation wages.

Back when I was a reporter, I once heard someone describe another journalist as,  “Often wrong, but never in doubt”. The same, writ large, can be said of The New York Times Its primary activity is one of substantiation, not investigation. It seeks out, or partly imagines, stories that will support its rather simple, binary world view: Democrats good, conservatives bad; UN good, US military action bad; tolerance for its favored groups and causes, good; tolerance for the groups and causes it loathes, bad.

I don’t get my business news from The New York Times, a habit I first cultivated over 20 years ago when I went to work at Forbes. The times I do read business stories in the NYT they seem to be written by reporters with a disdain and distrust for business. I’ve met a few NYT business reporters over the years. If I had to sum up their basic belief system, it would be “property is theft”.

As far as China goes, the NYT’s reporting mainly has two dominant flavors: “we don’t like it”, or “we don’t understand it”. Human rights, pollution, Tibet and defective manufactured products figure prominently. China’s remarkable positive transformation, and the huge increases in personal, political and economic freedom, all get short shrift inside the pages of the NYT.

Of course, there are many and better sources of information about China. The Wall Street Journal, for example, is consistently good. The NYT’s circulation is shrinking year-by-year, as is its influence. But, for a certain group of Americans, particularly on the left and in the more elite precincts of academia and the media, the NYT remains the primary source of information about the world.  So, its reporting about China has outsized consequences,  helping to shape (or deform) elite opinion in the US.

It will come as news to many of the NYT’s readers that China is on the whole a stable and contented nation. This is, arguably, the most important story of my lifetime, China’s return, after at least a 500-yeaar hiatus, to a place of central importance in the world, as a confident and prosperous nation. The New York Times too often seems the last to know.