Powerful pundits hold sway

During the recent trial of Taiwan’s former president, Chen Shui-bian, and his wife Wu Shu-chen, political commentators were able to predict the course of action that persecutors would take, creating the impression that it was the pundits who controlled the investigation, rather then the courts. Every country has its Bill O’Reillys and Jon Stewarts, but in Taiwan, the pundits are especially powerful.

With the growth of the cable networks, there is definitely no shortage of pundits. In a recent The Journalist weekly report, television pundits in Taiwan were the focus. When Taiwan opened the government-controlled wireless television stations to private business in the 1990s, political commentary programs quickly became a forum for the audience to get involved in public affairs.

During Lee Teng-hui’s presidency and his chairmanship of the ruling Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) members often criticized Lee’s policies on television commentaries, with the more eloquent of these personalities emerging as news stars. The KMT also mobilized some members to defend its policies, with some of them becoming TV pundits and criticizing government policies after the DPP took power in 2000.

With daily programs, the popularity of TV pundits has surged, along with their paychecks. By commenting on news, using knowledge from scholars and politicians, any commentary can sound credible. Thus has emerged a group of professional TV pundits who wield substantial power. When President Chen was still in office and accused of embezzling funds, TV pundits revealed confidential documents about Chen’s financial dealings. Rumors quickly spread, especially when President Chen stepped down and was accused of embezzlement. Suddenly, journalists who had no prior experience of covering the justice department emerged to comment on the legal and persecution process.

Since taking office, President Ma Ying-jeou has been careful to keep his distance from pundits. The public affairs department of the Office of the President avoids direct contacts with pundits to remove the risk of second-hand communications.

The Journalist report concluded, Taiwan’s media has enjoyed sufficient freedom, but the TV pundits have to make political commentary in a very responsible way. In Commonwealth monthly, sources for stories are often bought. Referring to the well-known case of one KMT legislator and also a TV pundit, who spent US$3000 to buy a photo of a ranking DPP government official gambling in South Korea. The revelation caused a scandal involving the Kaohsiung Mass Transit System. The lawmaker also made great efforts to collect information showing former President Chen’s overseas bank accounts.

Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng told the Taipei-based China Times that she supports appropriate regulation of TV pundits. According to a senior television producer, TV pundits rush from program to program, without really taking the time to study the topics in depth. They address the same topic in a continuous loop in their pursuit of airtime. However, Liu Yi-hon, a veteran reporter, strongly opposes any regulation, which he said would impede freedom of speech.

In an article on the occasion of Walter Cronkite’s death, columnist Nan Fang-shou wrote, Walter Cronkite was known as “the most trusted man in America.” Cronkite saw the media as the fourth branch of government, believing in the news media’s responsibility to inform the populace as an essential element of a healthy functioning democracy. In earlier days, Taiwan’s TV pundits were able to expose the dark sides of the government, serving to “check and balance” Taiwan’s young democracy. As the pundits themselves gained celebrity status, siding with particular politicians, they have abused their influences by swaying popular sentiments with biased views. In this media culture, Nan thinks it is almost impossible to have a Walter Cronkite.

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