"Regardless of the motivations behind the increased use of embedded journalists, it is clear that, now more than ever, viewers must be aware that what is being reported on television, posted to the Internet and printed in periodicals is not purely objective fact."
Thus spake The Sun's 121st editorial board on April 3, 2003, shining its opinionated light upon the murky depths of a contentious debate: how should journalists cover the war in Iraq?
These days, embedding reporters in Baghdad is passe. Bloodshed and WMD's are out; Jon Stewart and government-prepared news "packages" are in. Still, I never thought I'd live to see the day when The Sun would embed its own reporter in the front lines of a very different kind of war.
This month, not only Rawlings went to China. Cornell's interim president didn't go it alone on his trip to seal the deal on years of negotiations with Peking and Tsinghua universities to create a new major and establish exchange programs. Indeed, he had a veritable entourage: Cornell professors, Chinese officials, the Cornell News Service, even George H. W. Bush. And, of course, The Sun's intrepid news reporter, Julie Geng.
As a result, we've been treated to daily updates on President Rawlings' handshakes, sleep schedule and Ping-Pong skills on what has to be the luckiest exchange program The Sun has ever signed onto. I fear, however, that this was more of a one-way exchange. Sure, The Sun has obtained major bragging rights. (Sending a reporter to infiltrate the Radcliffe dorms doesn't sound so ambitious now, does it, Harvard Crimson?) Now, when The Sun recruits new freshmen for its staff, they can brag that not only is former editor Kurt Vonnegut '44 an erotic poet and advocate for suicide terrorism, but we sent a reporter to China!
I can only imagine the incredible high the night editors must have felt while typing those sweet, sweet letters spelling "BEIJING" into the dateline all last week. I can also only imagine the excitement, as well as the crippling jetlag, experienced by a student journalist who was essentially asked if she wanted to skip classes for a week, write eye-opening clips, and get paid to travel to Asia in the long shadow of Hunter R. Rawlings III.
But, at the end of the day, when Uncle Ezra looks down approvingly upon the Hill, strokes his sandy beard, and produces his trusted Open Hearts Fairness Scale, the weights will be tipped decidedly against The Sun and its experiment in embedded reportage.
The University has netted significant dividends from its unique relationship with The Sun this past week. There was no need to wait for the next issue of the Cornell Chronicle to come out: Hunter Rawlings smiled from his lofty perch in Beijing, and the front page of The Sun, on a daily basis. So I think it's fair to say that The Sun should have asked for something in return for its generous service to the community, like, I don't know, the top student from Peking University. He could become The Sun's new copy boy, or, if he learned English, a proofreader. If a student for a student is too much to ask, the Chinese could at least offer up a baby panda or two.
The fairness issue isn't purely theoretical, of course. The Sun, being a college newspaper, ultimately has to face the bottom line. So you'd think that Cornell would at least offer to pay Geng's expenses, being that she's providing the University a formidable service.
Shockingly, they split the bill! Cornell paid for airfare, while hotels were left to The Sun.
A university that is currently raising $3 billion in a capital campaign didn't foot the entire bill for its own public relations campaign. That's like the Army letting a CNN reporter tag along in Mosul and, at dinnertime, asking him to pay for the meal.
Ideally, of course, Cornell would pay for none of the trip. A newspaper sharing costs with the subject of its coverage is an unusual arrangement, to say the least, and would never happen under normal circumstances. But that's the point: under normal circumstances, this trip would never have occurred. Under normal circumstances, newspapers spend money to report the news, not what officials tell them in University-sanctioned coverage.
Because the most important issue of all is the one fingered back in 2003 by The Sun's editorial board: objectivity. The Beijing coverage simply begs the question of what sort of access was being granted to Geng, and whether she was being influenced by her handlers from the Cornell administration.
I don't believe Geng would willingly bow to a friendly request to slant her coverage. But I do think that the nature of The Sun's financial arrangement with Cornell - despite being disclosed at the end of each news story - is itself problematic.
Why, for example, was the preposterous tale of Rawlings' table tennis match the cover story on Friday when, deep down, we learn that his delegation had already left to Shanghai? It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see the inner workings of Cornell's P.R. mavens setting up that delicious "Mission Accomplished" photo-op with the knowledge that it would be broadcast halfway across the world to Ithaca the next morning.
Where, indeed, is the analysis? And why has Rawlings taken up Jeffrey Lehman's favorite pastime of traveling to Asia and quoting Thomas Friedman?
While it's commendable that The Sun has taken the opportunity to send a reporter out to the new economic frontier, I wish it would dig deeper into the implications of not only its own practices, but those of our University in continuing to expand its international scope.
As it stands now, they've buried the lede in the bloody trenches of P.R. warfare. Free publicity has its costs.
It also has its perks. Next time you're on a trip abroad, sign me up, Mr. President.
Andy Guess is The Sun's former Editor in Chief. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Last Boy Scout appears alternate Mondays.
Archived article by Andy Guess