What the Western Media Gets Wrong About Taiwan

In September 2022, I was working as a fixer in Taipei for a U.S. news segment about cross-strait tensions, handling local logistics for a visiting producer and cameraman. Fixers are freelance staff whose role is somewhere between journalist and tour guide—they can end up doing everything from arranging interviews to translation to booking hotels. One night, we arrived at an amateur radio meetup in a park, ready to shoot, and found an eccentric crew of local radio fans. One man hunched over a tangled web of equipment at the back of his truck, tapping away in Morse code; another fidgeted with an antenna as he walked around, trying to get a signal. The producer told me that the group was learning how to operate radios in case of war with China.

“Why do you do this?” I asked one of the guys, expecting him to launch into a monologue about the importance of civil defense.

“Because with radio, we can communicate with anyone in the world,” he replied.

“What about communicating with people in China?”

“If they pick up, sure,” he shrugged.

I realized quickly that most of them weren’t there because of cross-strait tensions. Although a few were interested in civil defense, the regulars were just radio nerds who liked to hang out. We left the park disappointed, and only a couple frames from that night made it to the final video.

In recent years, as tensions between China and Taiwan have reached historic highs, foreign journalists have flocked to Taiwan to capture life inside a geopolitical flash point. In January, more than 200 journalists from 28 countries arrived to cover the 2024 presidential election. Yet many of these short-term, visiting journalists distort the reality on the ground. They depict the island as the centerpiece of a drama that they’ve already made up their minds about, often inflating tensions and asking leading questions for heightened effect. And the fixers are brought on as the stagehands, charged with providing the backdrop for pre-written narratives.

Because Taiwan is commonly framed as the flash point of potential world war, most television producers want access to a shooting range, a bomb shelter, or a military base. Many fly to the outlying islands of Kinmen or Matsu in hopes of hopping on a boat to catch a glimpse of the Chinese shore.

“It’s like ordering from a menu—they see something that someone has covered before and want the same thing,” said Jesse, a veteran Taiwanese fixer. (Jesse’s name has been changed due to his concerns about possible impacts on his professional relationships.)

“You watch the news and see footage of war planes, and it seems like it’s tense on the ground here in Taiwan,” said Tina Liu, a Taiwanese journalist who took on her first fixing gig with an Italian outlet this year. “But it really isn’t. And even though it isn’t, people are still pursing that tense atmosphere.”

I’ve worked as a fixer for outlets in the United States, Australia, and Europe, and many of my clients are surprised when they realize the settings are not as bombastic as they hoped: The guns are airsoft guns, air raid shelters are just parking lots, and the view of Chinese shore is almost always blurry. Also, the average Taiwanese voter does not think about China on a day-to-day basis, which makes for very lackluster vox pops. Although there is plenty of intergovernmental strife in the form occasional trade bans, airspace incursions, and disinformation campaigns, daily life in Taiwan is shockingly normal.

Yet normalcy just doesn’t make for good television. So I’ve been charged with conjuring up action-packed scenes for video, and I often have to push back. Eight other Taiwan-based fixers I spoke with also said they have, on occasion, been coerced to help produce scenes that were inappropriate, not reflective of the truth, or even flat-out sensationalist.

“I’ve encountered a lot of situations where people just don’t respect the fixer’s expertise,” said Adrien Simorre, a Taipei-based stringer.

Simorre was one of a dozen local fixers and stringers who released a statement about the toxic dynamics between fixers and visiting journalists after the election in January. They cited low pay, lack of credit, and general disrespect. The fixers’ grievances are not endemic to Taiwan, but the issue of parachute journalists “imposing their own perspective and preconceived narratives” is particularly pronounced on the island.

Fixers have told me stories about foreign producers swimming in the spike-infested waters of Kinmen, an outlying island near the Chinese shore, for dramatic effect; requests to film Chinese missile launches from Taiwan (which is logistically impossible); and clients being disappointed when man-on-the-street interviews don’t elicit strong reactions on China. (None of the fixers I talked to wanted their clients to be named due to the fear of losing out on work.)

“I’ve heard of journalists pushing interviewees to answer certain questions about China-Taiwan relations,” said Alicia Chen, a Taiwanese freelance journalist, who spoke out on X (formerly Twitter) about disrespect, lack of credit, and poor communication with a visiting correspondent in January. “And if the interviewee didn’t want to comment, they would keep repeating or rephrasing the question until the interviewee said the words they wanted to hear.”

Boan Wang, a documentary filmmaker, said that in the spring of 2023, a European client of his asked to take the ferry from Kinmen to the Chinese city of Xiamen. Wang told them tickets were only available for Taiwanese citizens and their Chinese spouses. “They asked if I could talk to a captain to let them on—basically asking me to smuggle them across international borders,” he said. “How is that appropriate? Would you do that in your own country?”

One of the most frequent requests I get is whether I can secure access to a gun range where civilians are learning how to shoot for self-defense. The problem is that gun enthusiasts are a small fringe group. Guns are illegal in Taiwan, so in the event of an actual war, the average Taiwanese person would not have access to one. The scenes that end up on television are either just airsoft hobby ranges or kids running around an abandoned building with BB guns.

The most popular civil defense programs on the island are instead based in the classroom, hosted by a nonprofit called Kuma Academy. These courses largely focus on identifying disinformation, learning first aid, and practicing evacuation drills—all practical ways for the average citizen to prepare for war. But footage from these lectures is often sidelined in favor of the guns.

The pursuit of a good sound bite often trumps a balanced story. Taipei-based stringer and photographer Annabelle Chih said that many visiting producers falsely assume that Taiwanese people are divided into two camps: pro-unification and pro-independence. Yet neither of the island’s two major political parties—the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT)—endorse a declaration of independence, nor are they advocates for unification. Even though the parties differ wildly in their views on China, they’re both strategically ambiguous. The DPP assumes that Taiwan is already independent; the KMT has a more conciliatory approach and insists on peaceful dialogue with the Chinese mainland.

“Producers will ask me if they can interview the White Wolf,” Chih said. The White Wolf, whose real name is Chang An-lo, is a convicted criminal and gang leader who is famously outspoken about his desire to unify Taiwan with China. Although he is a newsworthy figure, Chih said it is misleading to use him as a counterbalance to the DPP’s views. “I explained to them he’s not the right person to interview,” she said. “He’s the minority, and he’s quite controversial.”

Not all experiences with international media are negative. Many of my clients, for instance, have listened to my feedback and adjusted their angles accordingly. Chih said that one of her clients also eventually came around and killed the story about the White Wolf.

Still, the appetite for dramatic scenes out of Taiwan has increased as media outlets compete for the most attention-grabbing narratives. Jesse said that before then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s historic visit to Taiwan in August 2022, most of the journalists who hired him took a more nuanced approach to stories and would default to his expertise on the island. Then Pelosi’s visit created a media frenzy because of how much it irritated Beijing and sparked a growing interest in stories related to Taiwan—but only if they fit into the story of an angry Beijing and an island under threat.

This year, a lot of Jesse’s clients have been war correspondents—fresh out of Ukraine or Israel and looking for action. “Some were visibly disappointed when they realized life was normal,” he said.

By speaking up, the fixers hope for a more accurate and even-keeled portrayal of Taiwan.

“I know a lot of people come here because of our relationship with China,” Liu added. “Everyone says Taiwan is the next Hong Kong, or the next Ukraine. But our history is different from these places.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post Modi Offers India’s Farmers an Olive Branch
Next post Will Gaza Ever Have Elections Again?