Navigating the Constraints on Reporting from China



‘‘I ask myself why I stay on here,’’ William L. Shirer wrote in Berlin on Sept. 20, 1940, as World War II deepened and Nazi censorship of his CBS radio broadcasts became intolerable.

The American journalist hoped his tone, pauses and use of Americanisms that the censors didn’t fully understand would indicate a truth, or an official lie. ‘‘But the Nazis are on to me,’’ he confided to his diary. ‘‘I haven’t the slightest interest in remaining here unless I can continue to give a fairly accurate report,’’ he wrote in an account later published as ‘‘Berlin Diary.’’ That December, Mr. Shirer left Germany.

Fast-forward 73 years and across the world to China, an authoritarian state that curbs speech domestically and can retaliate against foreign journalists who publish sensitive reports. Matthew Winkler, editor in chief of Bloomberg News, drew comparisons to reporting here with Nazi Germany in a recent telephone conversation with employees, according to those familiar with the call. Mr. Winkler is understood to be mulling a core question: How do journalists stay in this rising power, the world’s second-biggest economy, and report great stories without being kicked out?


The issue emerged last week after Bloomberg employees said editors had spiked a story on the hidden financial ties between one of China’s wealthiest men and the families of Chinese leaders. Bloomberg denies the story was spiked, saying it needed more reporting. The news agency angered the Chinese government last year after reporting on the wealth of relatives of President Xi Jinping. Its website was blocked in China, and its financial business reportedly suffered.

‘‘Matt Winkler believes Bloomberg’s reporting in any location should and must be definitive, detailed, transparent and accurate, and this story was not there yet,’’ said a spokesman, Ty Trippet.

Is it even fair to compare China to Nazi Germany?

China is not like Nazi Germany, said Andrew Nagorski, a former Newsweek journalist and the author of “Hitlerland.’’

‘‘In political terms, there’s no comparison between Nazi Germany and China today,’’ he wrote in an email. ‘‘Nazi Germany was a state based on harebrained racial theories, the cult of the leader and a commitment to a messianic vision of conquering” the world.

Yet the comparison still resonates, he said in a telephone interview. ‘‘There’s a certain dynamic to these situations of covering countries which are authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, no question,’’ he said.

Overseas journalists who probe too deeply or whose employers anger the state may be expelled or denied visas, as happened recently to Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera and Paul Mooney of Reuters.

In Nazi Germany, the temperament of the correspondent and attitude of his news agency were crucial, Mr. Nagorski said.

‘‘Who wanted to push the limit, who was instinctively cautious?’’ he said. ‘‘And their editors and publishers varied in their attitudes at times. They tended to be by nature a little more cautious, but the good publishers and editors backed up their correspondents.’’

Self-censorship, born of the desire to stay, was the greatest risk, he said.

He pointed to two reporters with differing approaches: Louis P. Lochner of The Associated Press and Edgar Mowrer of The Chicago Daily News, who more forthrightly rejected the pressures than Mr. Lochner did, Mr. Nagorski said.

‘‘I think Lochner was very conscientious, but he did take to heart the message of his bosses: ‘Tell the truth as much as you can, but don’t get yourself thrown out,’’’ he said.

‘‘If the message is really, ‘Your priority is not to offend,’ then you’ve got a problem. You’ve got a problem because then you’re engaged in the game of self-censorship,’’ which can be worse than overt censorship, said Mr. Nagorski, who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1982.

And self-censorship by journalists matters. Often in strictly controlling states, he said, “the government knows if they completely ignore certain stories the outside press will get it anyway and they will look foolish. But if the outside press is afraid to do that, then the equation changes.”