Thursday, April 19, 2007

Virginia Tech massacre, media misinformation and Chinese panic

Whatever happened to the Chinese national here on a student visa identified as the gunman at the Virginia Tech massacre by the Chicago Sun-Times? It turns out he never existed but the incorrect identification caused a panic among the Chinese elite on how to present the story to the Chinese public. The censorship machine kicked in for several hours until it was learned the gunman was really a Korean.

James Fallows, writing from China for the Atlantic magazine, has this interesting account:
It was Tuesday night China time when the authorities in Blacksburg, Virginia, identified the gunman as a young Korean. For the previous 12 hours, the worst traits in the Chinese media had been brought out by an even-worse lapse by part of the U.S. media. One — and as far as I can tell, only one — journalist in the U.S. identified the killer publicly and quickly as a student from China who had recently been given his visa in Shanghai. During the long night after the shooting U.S. time, which was daytime Tuesday in China, that report was picked up — surprise! — by Fox news and a few smaller U.S. outlets, and, via web news sites, it quickly made its way to China.

What the Chinese media did next was bad in a predictable way. Many web links to outside news of the shooting were blocked to limit subsequent details from reaching China. As reported in this blog from Beijing, parts of CCTV and the other official news outlets downplayed all announcements about the shooting until they could be sure what the “correct” Chinese angle would turn out to be. Meanwhile some other Chinese press web sites reported the news — and the suspicion, emanating from America, that the killer was Chinese. I have friends in the U.S. consulate here, and I could imagine them tearing through the visa records yesterday, trying to figure out who the student might possibly have been, and which consular officer had stamped Approved! on his papers.

Why all this flurry, over a suspect who proved to have nothing to do with the Shanghai consulate or China at all? As best I can tell, the alarm in the world’s most populous nation was caused by one person, the (female) columnist Michael Sneed of the Chicago Sun Times. The crucial story she apparently wrote soon after the shooting now seems to have been sand-blasted out of the Sun Times archives, with no notice that it was ever there. … But its existence and influence can be traced through fossil records like this one, from station WBBM in Chicago. Its story said:

Sneed: Shooter Was Chinese National On Student Visa

CHICAGO (WBBM) - Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reports the gunman was a 25-year-old Chinese national who came to the United States last year on a student visa.

Citing an unidentified source, investigators have not linked the man to any terror groups.

Sneed reports the man arrived in the U.S. in San Francisco on a visa issued in Shanghai.

Three bomb threats on the Virginia Tech campus last week may have been attempts by the gunman to test the campus security response, according to the Sneed report…
Another, from the NBC affiliatiate in Chicago, said:

CHICAGO — Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reported Monday that the Virginia Tech shooter is a 24-year-old man from China.

More than 30 people were killed Monday in the shooting rampage on Virginia Tech University’s campus. According to Sneed, the man came to the U.S. last year on a student visa issued in Shanghai.

Police believe the same man may be responsible for threats on campus last week, Sneed reported.
Meanwhile it was striking through the day that no “real” news source stepped up to confirm Sneed’s report. (The ones who passed it along were Drudge and Fox.) But eventually the Chinese started to assume that it must be true. Otherwise, how could an American journalist dare go public, fast and alone, with a detailed claim sure to cause international ripples?

How indeed? It turns out the “normal” media were right to wait; that every detail of Sneed’s story about the Chinese culprit was wrong; and that something went wrong in the basic journalistic process here.

Will Sneed spend much time apologizing? My guess is no. If you follow the links from the existing fossil stories back to the Sneed column with the original made-in-China claim, you’ll find that the claim is no longer there. The links themselves have been redirected, to lead to updated and sanitized stories … in which Sneed discusses only the eventual culprit, Cho. Neither has anything to say about the Chinese student and his previous role in the case, nor Sneed’s. …

1.3 billion Chinese people are grateful to you, Michael Sneed — grateful the alarm created singlehandedly by you proved false. They hold endless seminars on media ethics here, on the theory that this can help shape up a state-controlled press. Maybe you’d like to come speak? I guarantee you’d draw a crowd.
For the record, this is from the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s web site:
Some details emerging in national, international reports
Laura Bland

April 16, 2007 11:03 PM

The Chicago Sun-Times is saying in an exclusive report that authorities are investigating whether the man who shot and killed 33 people on the Virginia Tech campus Monday was a Chinese man traveling on a student visa.
Fallows has a follow-up to his original report here.

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