October 23, 2020

LIM | The Student Assembly Should Fund Access to Non-American News Agencies

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There is no such thing as an infallible press. This is an easy conclusion to reach growing up in Singapore, where conversations with peers sometimes dovetail to analyzing and overanalyzing the designations and layout in our state-influenced primary newspaper, The Straits Times. Frustrating as some implementations of my country’s recent “fake news” bill can feel, the influence of corporate and partisan pressures on reporting bias are no less significant, despite the focus that western-based press freedom indices place on government intervention.

Friends who grew up in the North East have been just as ready to criticize the center-left papers they grew up with. Indeed, the proven profitability of gratifyingly harsh criticisms of Trump is striking, considering the industry-wide plummet in advertising revenue and how doing so could potentially pander to public opinion. While public opinion can be a helpful vanguard, centrist journalists like Bari Weiss noted, in her resignation letter from The New York Times, the danger of social regulation which turns truth from a “collective discovery” to “an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.” Many of the ideas society celebrates today, we deemed dangerous yesterday — from the anti-puritan sexuality of Henry Miller to Malcolm X’s fierce justice, which the controversial Barney Rosset fought against convention to publish. Absent retrospect or other external mechanisms for self-reflection, an editor’s well-intended moral decisions — like that to underemphasize reporting the Holocaust to curtail domestic anti-Semitism — could end up regrettable. The same applies to unconscious bias: will the American press come to think of today’s reporting on China the way it came to think of yesterday’s reporting on Russia?

Growing up with suspiciously apolitical language in Singapore’s newspapers also made the transition to reading the language in papers here as “startling” and “jarring” as these instructively expressive adjectives used to describe reports on Trump’s medical condition. There are ways in which this zeitgeist calls for it —‚ how else can truth compete in an online space saturated with partisan clickbait? If objectivity is but a white male perspective, what language should the alternative, moral clarity, take? Genuine efforts have been made to redress the subsequent proliferating confusion between fact and opinion. Yet it’s difficult to be confident that the extent of a writer’s participation in an article can be highlighted to the reader with consistent success. This is concerning where this trend might come to touch issues more consequential than White House medical reports. It could then be on us readers to supplement our reading with papers operating under still existent, but importantly different pressures from those currently faced by the American press.

At Cornell, students already have access to non-American newspapers via the Cornell Library’s subscription to Library PressDisplay, which provides online access for the last 90 days of over 6,000 newspapers from more than 100 countries. Yet the issue might not be access, but streamlining. With such an immense glut of information accessible online today, studies note that 51% of college students have trouble independently determining which news stories to prioritize.

An online subscription to a non-American paper — potentially funded by the Student Assembly’s Collegiate Readership Program — would do more than streamline the process through the selected paper’s in-built app services and preference settings. Firstly, it would signal that non-American perspectives matter, a position that feels increasingly undermined by the Trump administration’s determination to exclude international students. This symbolic signal could be extra encouraging considering the stresses that distance learning has brought unto our international student community.

Secondly, it would signal that non-American perspectives matter within the S.A.’s legislative processes. I’m personally under-qualified to comment on the extent to which this is lacking at-present, but can relay the following two anecdotes: International Students Liaison-At-Large Youhan Yuan ’21 informed me that in a resolution to reconsider ACT and SAT scores for the incoming class, his suggestion that this include the flexibility to include other, less classist English tests alongside TOEFL, was sidelined. The International Student Union had also declined to endorse any of the three S.A. presidential candidates when approached to.

University access to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, historically driven by a previous relationship with a USA Today program and the desire to support business school students respectively, leaves us subscriptions to both a conservative and liberal paper. Yuan agreed that adding a third, non-American paper would raise interest in a student governing organization that would then appear to not merely be “stereotypically American.” This sounds helpful considering that “cultural differences” were noted as a barrier to international student engagement by S.A. Vice President of External Affairs Savanna Lim ’21, who is also a fellow Singaporean.

With all this in mind, what might the funding of a new paper look like? If it were to be funded the same way as our existing subscriptions, it would be universally paid for by all students via the Student Activities Fee. The proportion taken by newspaper access is already at a low of $1.50 for two subscriptions typically costing $2.31 per semester. Former Vice President of Finance Moriah Adeghe ’21 notes this to be a result of the program’s surpluses from years when Cornellians used to pay $5, which our subscription to The Wall Street Journal in 2017 tapped on but still has not fully spent.

Being universally funded means that the selected paper would ideally be as uncontroversial as possible and achieve as much as possible at the smallest additional cost.

The former consideration places geopolitical factors at the highest importance, and makes a selection from the Middle East feel counterintuitive. Otherwise, papers like Al-Jazeera would have felt like a strong candidate. Yet one of the demands of the boycott against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt was the closing of the network, which highlights its controversiality even within the region. Its stance on issues close to the hearts of Cornellians — prominently, Israel and Palestine — seems to at least call for, but hence additionally cost, subscription to a counter-perspective, which would also be difficult to agree on. Haaretz, an Israeli paper whose reporting generally (not universally) has felt fairly critical and of good technical quality, has been argued by some to be too left-wing on the issue.

The latter consideration makes a selection from Europe feel relatively unproductive, considering how closely allied the region tends to be with American foreign policy.

Admittedly, coming from Singapore automatically biases me toward recommending and justifying a paper from the region. I could argue that Asia’s economic rise has courted harsh policy from the US and increasingly skewed media coverage that a paper from within could balance out — but versions of this argument also apply to other regions. Yet if there was one Asian paper worth prioritizing on a list of potential candidates, it might be the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

Despite its independence relative to other papers in the region, it does not operate sans political pressures. At present it is funded by Alibaba Group, a Chinese business that, reliant on Beijing, has already reflected its need to please in the paper’s output.

Yet I don’t expect The South China Morning Post — or any other non-American paper, for that matter — to replace The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal as a staple paper for most Cornellians. As a supplement, though, this could complement American coverage of China while still remaining fairly critical. And (Greater) China aside, the paper is generally of a high quality — Prof. Thomas Pepinsky, comparative politics, corroborates.


Kristi Lim is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]What the Hell is Water runs every other Thursday this semester.