A wealth of TV pundits: Press freedom or media disorder?

The Apple Daily reported recently that a Taiwanese teenager was arrested for sending a threatening letter to a person criticized by a TV pundit after watching a political talk show. This called into scrutiny the lack of responsibility of pundits on these shows.

One such TV pundit, Chen Li-hong, said that the young man may have already been angered by the social situation, and the TV show should not be held responsible for the man’s actions. Though, he added, “We have strong political confrontation between the Pan Blue (pro Kuomintang) camp and the Pan Green (pro Democratic Progressive Party) camp against each other. If political talk shows are plain and straightforward, the audience is small, resulting in extremely low TV ratings. So pundits are sometimes too excited and emotional, and cannot control themselves. Maybe more pause and forethought is needed.” Pundit Huang Jing-ping pointed out that it is not good for a pundit to fuel the flames on a talk show, to incite the audience emotionally, and shout at callers, all could be considered poor behavior, according to the paper.

Even visitors to Taiwan have noticed the excessive influence that pundits in Taiwan have. “As a new democracy, Taiwan is catching up fast, allowing full-throated political debate on TV that would make Fox News appear to be a paragon of fairness. Visiting mainlanders are said to spend hours in their hotel rooms marveling at free speech running amok instead of going sightseeing,” writes Lincoln Millstein, the senior vice president of Hearst Newspapers, in an October article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In Taiwan, there are nine national satellite TV news channels, versus six in the US and four in the UK. The island has 87 satellite news gathering (SNG) vehicles, the highest density in the world taking into account Taiwan’s 23 million people. The island’s internet usage is also similar to that of the US. Taiwanese people are well-informed and highly educated.

Pundits originated from “whistleblowers”

Until 1987, Taiwan was under martial law. Those secretive days when a blacklist was kept, and opinions censored, are over. Today, Taiwan is one of those rare countries that has transitioned into a fully-fledged democracy by bloodless means. Public opinion leaders, including activists and political commentators, enjoy freedom of expression without fearing that their comments will be censored.

During 2005 and 2008, TV pundits acted as “whistleblowers” in the campaign against former President Chen Shui-bian’s corruption, resulting in Chen serving time behind bars. Thus these pundits became famous and influential, and the media followed the tips given by pundits during political talk shows to dig for more scandals and to carry more in-depth coverage. Faced with this type of attack, Taiwan’s political figures often become mired in a whirlwind of clarification and rebuttals.

As the political talk shows gradually change from being neutral to being more biased, with agendas that favor the Pan Blue or the Pan Green camps, the pundits cook the facts, offering opinions without checking the facts. All this has created a lot of unnecessary social troubles, giving rise to a negative connotation associated with the term “pundit” and also bringing the added concern that Taiwan is “ruled by pundits.”

Regulations to control the power of pundits has been greeted by controversy. In 2008, Soochow University in Taipei proposed that any professor who appeared on a TV talk show more than four times a month must get prior permission from the school. In 2009, the National Communications Commission (NCC), an independent agency similar to the FCC in the United States, tried to regulate political punditry by mandating that the shows “be consistent in fact checking and be of fair principle.” Any violator is liable to a fine, or for more serious violations, a show might be taken off the air. These two proposals were criticized and dropped because they violated freedom of speech and of the press.

With Taiwan’s presidential election approaching, James Soong, chairman of the People First Party (PFP), a smaller party in the Pan Blue camp, decided to run. It was a given that Soong’s participation would take votes away from the Pan Blue camp and have certain negative impact on the prospects of incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou. It was widely reported in early November that Hualien County magistrate Fu Kun-qi, an independent but with a pro PFP stance, passed the message through two pundits to high-level KMT officials that the KMT would release 11 legislator seats to the PFP in exchange for Soong’s withdrawal from the race. Both these elections are scheduled for January 14, 2012. Although the secret exchange did not take place due to its exposure, it did highlight the influence that pundits wield in the island’s politics.

Pundits belong to those least trusted

Over the last ten years, political talk shows have become one of the important elements of Taiwan’s news channels. Due to their low production costs, TV news channels have allocated more time to political talk shows, which are a money making bonanza for TV stations. The same pundits comment on different topics on different talk shows every day. The quality of talk shows has thus declined and has become a battleground, which leaves a negative feeling in general.

In discussing the pundit phenomenon, the Journalist weekly said “the special ecology of Taiwan’s television creates the TV talk shows. On the surface, they talk about national policy, commenting on current affairs, and sometimes tipping the news leads. Under the table, many of them hold their own political affiliations and support their bosses. They love to make friends with politicians, or to be hired as political aides to offer consultation and strategy, or even to spread the word and be involved in political fights.”

The Taipei-based China Times reported that because of low production costs and controversial topics, TV political talk shows easily take prime-time, attracting larger audiences and bringing the pundits more fame. They comment on current politics, analyze social problems, offer tidbits of a celebrity’s private life, and the developing special characters of Taiwan’s society. A majority of pundits are former reporters, with many of them sharing a common goal of doing their homework so they are well prepared. Despite this, they are not jacks of all trades, sometimes quoting incorrect data or statistics, and in the process undermining their creditability.

According to the survey conducted by the Global Views monthly’s polling center in June, the most trustworthy roles in Taiwan society are medical doctors and policemen, in that order. Those least trusted are pundits and councilmen. A year ago, the Chinese edition of Reader’s Digest revealed the credit reports of different Taiwanese professions, and the lowest credit rating was for fortune tellers, councilmen and pundits.

More in-dept understanding of the issue?

There are commentaries as long as there are news programs and there must be people who make them. It is necessary for pundits to make such commentaries, no matter if they are media people or professors. But by talking on shows every day, pundits are treating commentaries as a commodity for sale, not only for the sublime goal of freedom of speech. Furthermore, it has become commonplace in recent years for pundits to act as spokespersons for certain specific political forces. It is these pundits who are responsible for pushing such a deep divide between the Pan Blue and Pan Green coalitions.

Lo Wen-hui, Taiwan-born professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong, once told the Commonwealth magazine “No matter in newspapers or television news, it stays only for a short period of time… while watching political talk shows, you have a more in-depth understanding of the current issues.” They help viewers figure out which side they will take in a conflict.

Appearing at different political talk shows, pundits are highly paid, but also endowed with invisible “power”, especially in politics. “Taiwan Media Watch Foundation” chairman Kuang Chung-shiang questioned, “the same group of people repeatedly appear at different political talk shows, even systematically, with few changes, much less new faces. It is a monopoly and narrowing of speech.”

Although the role of the pundits in society is questioned in Taiwan, mainland Chinese viewers continue to have a growing appetite for Taiwan’s political talk shows. The China Times reported that Chinese tourists love to watch the political talk shows when they visit Taiwan. Some groups ask the travel agency to help arrange a meeting with Taiwanese pundits, or even request visits to television stations to participate in a live talk show.

Among all the Asian countries, Taiwan’s form of democracy continues to be a great source of pride, and the pundits on these political talk shows are one of the most successful “showcases” of Taiwan’s democracy. However, what direction will Taiwan’s media be brought to by these professionals, who more and more are a polarizing force in their field, Commonwealth commented.

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