Remember we told you about how Xinhua had mistakenly illustrated a story on the causes of the debilitating disease multiple sclerosis with an X-ray photo of Homer Simpson’s brain? We would have LOVED for it to stay on, but alas, the offending picture has now been taken off, thanks or no thanks to Chris O’Brien of Beijing Newspeak, who works for Xinhua’s Dui Wai Bu (Home News for Overseas Service Department), a completely separate department from Xinhua’s English website department, which apparently does not have a single foreign polisher. One afternoon Chris decided to call up his colleagues in the English website department to find out how Homer Simpson had made his way into the story on the groundbreaking research on multiple sclerosis, and it went something like this:
Chris O’Brien: Hello, I work as a foreign polisher in Dui Wai Bu. I wanted to ask about a story on your website that has caused a lot of controversy on the Internet.
Female voice: Umm, what is it?
Chris: Type in Multiple Sclerosis in the website’s search function
Female voice: Can you spell that?
Female voice: It’s not working. S-G..?
Female voice: Ah yes, ok … is it … Two genes …
Chris: Yep, that’s the one. Can you see the story?
Female voice: Yes. So what’s the problem?
Chris: The picture.
Female voice: Oh I see … what about it?
Chris: Do you know what it is?
Female voice: Yes … er … what is it?
Chris: It’s an X-ray of Homer Simpson’s brain.
Female voice: Ah yes.
Chris: Do you know who Homer Simpson is?
Female voice: Er …
Chris: He is a yellow American cartoon character.
Female voice: Ah.
Chris: And he looks odd next to an article about a scientific breakthrough in the research of a serious disease.
Female voice. Ummm … ha ha ha ha … it looks like a pe …(inaudible)
Chris: Looks like a what?
Female voice: Nothing, just joking.
Chris: (Frustrated silence – would have loved to have heard what she said)
Female voice: Ha ha ha ha, it’s quite funny isn’t it.
Chris: Ha ha ha ha. I suppose it is, yes.
Female voice: I think we should probably change it.
Chris: (thinking, well you could just leave it ..) I suppose so
Female voice: Ok, thanks.
Chris: No problem, bye.
Female voice: Bye
Computerworld has since picked up the story and said this episode has exposed “Chinese state-run media’s penchant for using images without permission”. It informs us:
This isn’t the first time Chinese media has fallen prey to satire presented to an English-language audience. In 2002, the Beijing Evening News (Beijing Wan Bao) picked up an article from humor site The Onion, stating that the U.S. Congress had threatened to move out of the Capitol building in Washington unless the building were upgraded to include a retractable dome. The newspaper also ran a drawing The Onion had published of the fictional new roof design.
It also includes a quote from Jeremy Goldkorn of Danwei:
Despite the foreign-language polishers, the writers and editors who produce English and other foreign-language content for Xinhua and other state-owned media organizations do not have the cultural awareness necessary to avoid errors like the misuse of the Homer Simpson illustration.
Ian Lamont of Harvard Extended who also works for Computerworld tells us:
Now, you may chuckle at what appears to be a one-off mistake, but it reflects major editorial problems at China’s official news agency. This is not just a harmless error (or prank) by a single employee — it’s very likely that at least two other people were involved, and the editorial processes that are supposed to catch such mistakes either failed to work or are not even in place at Xinhua.
He goes on to discuss Xinhua’s credibility issues:
But even before the World Wide Web appeared, the English-language service had a credibility problem. While viewed as an authoritative source of information about Chinese policies (which is one of the reasons I used it as the basis for my thesis research), Western audiences did not trust its news output, partially owing to its stated propaganda mission, and partially because of quality issues, ranging from poorly written articles to long delays in printing coverage of important events. Since the 1980s, Xinhua/NCNA has invested a great deal of money and effort into making itself a “world news agency”. But as long as the propaganda mission persists, and editorial quality is neglected, there is little chance the English-language service will achieve widespread international respectability.
We are sure the makers of the Simpsons Movie are loving this free publicity. But while we wait for Xinhua’s next major gaffe, we are going to hop over to create our own Simpsons character at Simpsonizeme.com, which aims to “turn the world yellow one Simpson at a time”.
Shanghaiist: China Daily’s new spin on the glories of being a soldier (PLUS brolly-toting Premier Wen and X-ray of Homer Simpson’s brain!)
China Daily: Two new genes found for multiple sclerosis
Computer World: D’oh! Homer ‘photo’ exposes Chinese media piracy
Harvard Extended: Homer Simpson’s brain, or why Xinhua continues to have a credibility problem [Proxy needed]
Beijing Newspeak: Why Homer could have mocked Xinhua for life
Screenshot from Danwei.