Striking Reliability of the Press

 

A week ago I typed out the following editorial letter to send to some friends.  As an afterthought I also sent it to the Taipei Times.  I thought local readers might get a laugh from it.

 

DIE DEGENERATE ANOTHER DAY

 

Dear Editor:

 

I didn't see the new Bond movie Die Another Day, but now that I've read the review from the North Korean SCPRF press office I'm glad I didn't.  The SCPRF is the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.  But I suppose everybody already knows that.  Who doesn't read the SCPRF movie reviews in the DPRK press these days?

     The SCPRF thought the Bond movie wasn't too good outside of special effects.  In fact it was mostly nothing but a "dirty and cursed burlesque" and a "premeditated act of mocking".  (Movies would have to be premeditated acts of mocking, given that there's a long period of script approval and casting and directorial decisions.  There'd be little chance of quick, off-the-cuff mocking; slapstick, improv mocking; spontaneous unscripted mocking.  So the movie was premeditated.)

     The villain in the movie does not represent the true face of North Korea.  That the movie came from the American motion picture industry only proves one thing: the U.S. is "the headquarters that spreads abnormality, degeneration, violence and fin de siecle corrupt sex culture."

     So I'm glad I didn't see the movie.  Because here in Taiwan there's already more than enough fin de siecle corrupt sex culture. I don't need to spend my money on American movies with wimpy fourth-generation Bonds.  I've got all the abnormality and degeneration I need right in the Taipei pubs.

     Hats off to the reviewers at the SCPRF of the DPRK for pointing out to us the futility of catching this new Bond flick.

 

Eric Mader-Lin,

Taipei

 

Just today I noticed that the Taipei Times printed the letter.  As I read through it I remembered why it was that it had been so many years since I'd sent anything to newspapers.  Here's the text exactly as it appeared in the Taipei Times:

 

NORTH KOREAN MOVIE REVIEWS

 

Dear Editor:

 

I didn't see the new Bond movie Die Another Day, but now that I have read the review from the North Korean SCPRF press office, I'm glad I didn't.  The SCPRF is the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.  But I suppose everybody already knows that.  Who doesn't read the SCPRF movie reviews in the DPRK press these days?

     The SCPRF thought the Bond movie wasn't too good except for its special effects.  In fact it was mostly nothing but a "dirty and cursed burlesque" and a "premeditated act of mocking". 

     The villain in the movie does not represent the true face of North Korea.  That the movie came from the American motion picture industry only proves one thing: the U.S. is "the headquarters that spreads abnormality, degeneration, violence and fin de siecle, corrupt, sex culture."

 

Eric Mader-Lin,

Taipei

 

The letter I sent the Taipei Times is clearly facetious.  And the letter they published?  Probably most readers would see it as facetious, but whether this most is 80 percent or more like 60 percent I'm not sure.  For those readers who don't see the letter as facetious, Eric Mader-Lin comes off as a nutcase who thinks the North Korean Stalinist press offers viable critiques of Western pop culture.

     I'm not going to bother writing to the Taipei Times to complain about this.  Of course it doesn't matter much in any case.  But seeing this letter in the paper reminded me of something I'd forgotten: Every time in my life I've published a letter or editorial in a newspaper it has been edited to the point that its argument is obscured if not turned around.  Every single time. 

     This started with one of my university's student newspapers, where I occasionally published editorials on student politics.  I still remember the would-be journalist in charge of that rag.  He's stuck in my mind because of a discussion I had with him about his review of Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind.  His rather lengthy review trashed the book on various fronts.  I remember standing in the student union trying to talk over specifics with him, parts of the book I thought raised serious issues.  How should the Left consider these problems?  That was what concerned me at the time, for I considered myself a leftist.  Fifteen minutes into our talk it dawned on me that the reviewer and student editor I was talking with hadn't read Bloom's book.  He hadn't, in fact, read any of it.  He admitted as much.  "Why should I read such right wing stuff anyway?"  "Well," I said, "if you're going to review it, don't you think you should at least be responsible to the point of reading it?"  He shrugged at this.  I walked away. 

     The few editorials I published in that student paper had been edited by him or one of his cronies.  There were always various grammar or punctuation mistakes edited into what I'd sent them.  (The last comma added to my above-cited letter is reminiscent of this: "corrupt, sex culture."  For one thing, the comma is flatly incorrect; for another it wasn't in the text I quoted from.)  Sometimes it was a question of sloppiness, but often it was just that pure editorial desire to do the job.  Or in other words: "I'm an editor, therefore I must modify every single paragraph given me.  After all, I must be a better writer than the person who sent us this text, otherwise I wouldn't be an editor--right?"

     Of course letters and editorials must often be edited down for size: words and paragraphs must often be cut out.  But when the text is cut to the extent that the meaning is no longer clear, a line has been crossed toward irresponsibility.  Then an ironic or facetious text turns straightforward, a critique of a policy reads like a kudo, an argument is reduced to nonsense and thus becomes more reason to support the opposing argument.  This has happened in every single instance that I've published something in a newspaper.  Never once have I felt anything other than vaguely ashamed by what finally appeared in print.  But this isn't all.

     In 1987 I went to the then Soviet Union to take part in a citizens' diplomacy mission called the American-Soviet Peace Walk.  Upon returning to the States I was interviewed by half a dozen or so newspapers in Wisconsin about what I saw while in the Soviet Union and what the purpose of our mission was.  Only one or two of the articles that came out of those interviews represented the facts.  The others blatantly misquoted me.  In a few cases I think it was tendentious, but usually it was just shoddy reporting.  The worst of the lot was an article that appeared in the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.  Of a total of eight facts stated in the article, six were incorrect in the most knuckleheaded way.  If I had said July, the journalist said August.  If I had mentioned 450 people, the journalist wrote of 590.  If our plane took off from Moscow, the journalist had us leaving Leningrad two weeks earlier.  These are not the precise mistakes--I no longer have the article with me--but they are mistakes of the same glaringly stupid sort.

     While in the USSR I'd also been interviewed by the Soviet press.  I still have a copy of an article that appeared in one Leningrad paper.  The journalist who wrote that article quotes me saying things I didn't say--that is for certain.  I was placed more solidly in the service of Soviet thinking.  Words were put in my mouth.  But in fact the misrepresentation I got in the Soviet press was only slightly more grievous than that I got in my newspapers back home.  And that was what was really depressing. 

     It's been fifteen years since then, and I'm again on the other side of the planet.  But it seems that here in the East the press is still strikingly reliable in the same old ways.  No matter where I am or what I write I can always count on newspaper editors to doctor it up or doctor it down until I wish I'd never sent it to them.

 

Eric Mader-Lin,

2003

 

[Afterword: The Taipei Times has recently printing a lengthy letter of mine nearly word for word.  It's the first time such a thing has happened to me.  --E.M.-L., January, 2004] 

 

 

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