Modern-day muckraker David Barboza proves that effective journalism is the key to holding institutions responsible for their corruption. Barboza, a correspondent with the New York Times in China, spoke at Claremont Mckenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on Sept. 21 about his experience covering and investigating Chinese businesses.
Though originally an economics reporter on China, he became curious about the powerful individuals profiting in Chinese businesses. His interest stemmed from covering countless factories and entrepreneurs.
Barboza explained that his “favorite thing to do is putting the puzzle together.” Proving the corruption of China’s government elite under former Premier Wen Jiabo and the billions they accumulated was one such puzzle.
His multi-year investigation, eventually titled “Princelings in China Use Family Ties to Gain Riches,” won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for investigative journalism.
Barboza discovered that the Premier was connected to majority shareholders of huge multi-billion-dollar companies through various relatives and close associates. Barboza ultimately used public records and documents to confirm his suspicions. When the Chinese government grew suspicious, he had no choice but to leave and finish the article in Japan.
However, just before the article was released, against the wishes of his relatives, Barboza returned to China to confront the government officials. A journalist, he explains, always “put[s] ethics at the top,” and he added that journalists must always give people the benefit of the doubt and a chance to respond.
Barboza’s speech compelled many audience members. Emily Wang CM '19 asked Barboza, “What makes people trust you?” He responded that making people feel comfortable and developing a relationship is of utmost importance, disbanding the 'cold-hearted journalist' archetype. Wang said that she enjoyed the speech and that Barboza gave a very “human” account of his experience.
Investigative jouralism plays a significant role in convering the truth and shaping our worldview.
“There are things out there that we have the right to know about,” said Marichristine Garcia CM '19.
Students were amazed at what Barboza discovered in public documents that usually go unnoticed. Garcia was particularly fascinated by his “[ability] to use public documents to discover things.”
Conversely, some students were less receptive to the speech, skeptical of Barboza's motivations.
“He’s the typical type of Western journalist who tries to discover something of value to the American audience,” Walton Zhang PO '16 said. “Less to do with trying to understand the way the Chinese would think. He has more to do with capturing a spectacle and presenting it as an article.”
Zhang believes that Western journalists are often using this narrative without fundamentally changing the way people think about China. He said that corruption has become a familiar cliché, and these kinds of articles do not actually impact the democratic movement in China.
“The same story repeats and repeats and nothing in society changes,” Zhang concluded. “Maybe there is something wrong with the story itself. Change is possible, but not in this way.”