Chen Guangbiao isn’t going to buy the New York Times. It doesn’t matter how many “please, please take-me-seriously” editorials he writes for the Global Times, or how many millions of dollars he attempts to throw at publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who has unequivocally said that the paper is “not for sale.” The Times simply isn’t on the market, and wouldn’t be in Chen’s price/influence range even if it was. But other papers are, and that makes Mr. Chen a dangerous man.
It’s hard to tell how seriously one should take Chen Guangbiao. From one angle, Chen is eccentric and publicity-hungry; he likes to get run-over by cars “for the environment” and sell canned-air for the same quasi-reason. From another angle, he is kind-hearted and philanthropic, giving massive “rogue” charity donations to those in need, both domestic and abroad. From a third side, he is vehemently nationalistic and uses his millions to promote CCP pet-causes like the Diaoyu Islands issue.
It is a combination of each angle—the love of the spotlight, the ability to give himself a “greater good” halo on demand, and the deep-seated distaste for anything that rubs against the grain of Chinese nationalism—that have propelled Chen into his doomed New York Times deal. It has certainly attracted all of the attention that Chen could have hoped for, and it has given him a platform to voice his current discontents with the paper. In a Global Times editorial hysterically titled “I intend to buy The New York Times, please don’t take it as a joke,” Chen has outlined his masterplan. The abridged version goes something like this:
I find Americans know little about a civilized and open China that has been enjoying unprecedented development. The tradition and style of The New York Times make it very difficult to have objective coverage of China. If we could purchase it, its tone might turn around. […]
I may succeed or fail in this acquisition, which actually needs candid communication and arduous negotiation. I have said as long as the price is reasonable, there is nothing that cannot be bought. The words specifically refer to this acquisition. The paper has been suffering from declining advertising revenue and mired in a developmental and credit crisis many times in recent years, so acquiring it will perhaps help it develop for the better, and I have full confidence about this purchase.
If the deal fails, I will try to buy another influential media, eventually achieving my objective of acquisition. [My emphasis]
Purchasing a newspaper with the explicit purpose of manipulating its content is, to put it delicately, a bit of a dick move. Fortunately, Chen Guangbiao is not going to be able to buy the New York Times. He will, however, be able to buy something. Assuming that this is a bit more than publicity fluff, and that Chen is actually interested in purchasing a serious American news outlet, he can likely end up with one eventually, and that is a goddamn shame.
If Chen simply wants Chinese nationalism to have a presence in American media, he can go for it. There are already plenty of “overseas Chinese” news sources based in the United States—not naming any names, but many have a similar refrain about organ harvesting and certain religious groups—all of which are treated with the amount of respectability that they deserve. Many of these sources are emphatically anti-China, and if Chen wants to start a piddling American dangbao, that’s his right.
The problem isn’t that Chen wants to bring Chinese nationalism to the United States, it’s that he wants to go window-shopping in the country’s oldest and most respected news organizations, pick one he likes, and then fundamentally change the way that it handles its coverage of the world’s second largest economy. Chen can’t buy the New York Times, but maybe he can throw down some cash for the LA Times? Perhaps USA Today? The Boston Globe? I’m willing to go pretty far down the list here. New York Daily News? The Miami Herald? Christian Science Monitor? Perhaps he’ll switch from papers to magazines, or to TV news.
Assuming he does decide on a target and make his purchase, the source will be that much worse for it. Chen’s influence would immediately throw any paper’s China coverage into serious doubt (imagine the Bloomberg censorship scandal multiplied by a few hundred) but also the paper’s coverage of any East-Asian news. Certainly the paper’s coverage of industrialization in Africa (to the extent that any American news sources pay much attention to the continent). Perhaps coverage of topics like unrest in the Middle East, where American and Chinese interests differ markedly. Undeniably in issues of international finance. China is a freaking important place; manipulating a news source to better align with the Party line means changing much more than a few columns on the Foreign Affairs pages.
I’m trusting the New York Times enough to turn down Chen’s offer, no matter how large. Many smaller papers, with dwindling ad sales and declining readerships, may find it harder to resist. This author hopes Chen sticks to what he knows best (publicity stunts, making money) and stays the hell away from American news.
[Image via Global Times, of course]