The scene, 11pm.
Today isn’t a good time for being overly cautious or downright coward as Shanghai’s media scene is known to be. When a major disaster, like today’s giant fire breakout in a residential highrise on Jiaozhou Road of Jing’an district occupied much of the city’s attention, the absence of live TV news coverage from Shanghai’s one and only TV group, the Shanghai Media Group was a telling tale. On Dragon TV’s 6pm Evening News, nearly four hours after the fire broke out, SMG’s coverage came after commercial break, following around seven rubbish stories like the city’s CCP chief Yu Zhengsheng visiting Xinjiang or the upcoming Expo Auction. Meanwhile, live pictures have been circulating around the Internet through every means possible, let alone the fact that you can smell the fire and see the smoke from every part of downtown Shanghai. Now a question to the city’s propaganda bureau, do you really think this is something you can play down?
But they managed. Yes they did. The city missed a perfect chance to show its people that unlike some other places in this country, Shanghai is capable of telling the truth in a difficult time. The fire might be an accident, a tragic one, but the following media blockage isn’t, albeit being equally tragic. The official press conference, scheduled around 6pm was canceled, and at 10pm, rumor started to circulate that Shanghai Propaganda Bureau sent out a memo to the city’s official media, telling them to “immediately stop live coverage, simplify the description, and ‘are allowed to’ play down the casualties and injuries.” In turn, when Xinhua announced at 10pm that 42 died in the fire, just anyone and their grandmothers have a hard time to believe the number is true. Truth is, at 11, we were on the scene, witnessing more dead bodies being lifted out to ambulances, which came in with sirens on, drove out with sirens off. But can we really anticipate the number rising? In fact, hours went by since Xinhua’s number jumped from 12 to 42. We wonder what took them so long.
Now almost 10 hours after the fire broke out, we don’t have an official list of victims. We don’t have an official number of how many were injured. The only names we know who lived in the building came from personal accounts on Microblog and elsewhere. A 70-year-old woman with a mentally disabled brother are still missing. A Shanghainese historian lost his lifelong collection of archives in his home. We don’t have an official statement, not a quote from anyone involved. Not a single news outlet is doing comprehensive analysis of the aftermath of the fire, such as how to deal with the losses, both in property and human lives. As far as we can tell, insurance claims and settlement disputes can be massive. But today, all we get to know is that former vice mayor of Shanghai Meng Jianzhu, now the head of Chinese police department chief is coming down to Shanghai from Beijing, claiming credits, we can only assume.
We are not even going to join many to blame the city for the tragic accident today. The scaffold covering the exterior of the building, which caught fire and led to the inferno was there to install an “eco-friendly” energy-preserving coat for the building. Some say the material itself is very easy to catch fire, and it’s unclear who thought up the idea of coating the building at the first place. The city’s fire safety is miserable, a fact we just don’t think about any other day in our lives. But these issues, we have tomorrow to argue. There is likely not an easy scapegoat. What we can’t wait is to know the truth when it happens, which the city’s mainstream media absolutely failed to deliver today.
Granted, it’s also true that this city’s residents have long given up hope in the city’s mainstream media. People’s trust issue with the government and its throats have become so clear today, that people resorted to each other, not the news media for news. We are here to say this, a major shake-up is inevitable. How our Shanghainese media run things have to be changed. We roughly remember the days Shanghai TV and Oriental TV were still competing, before they were made into one and the same thing. And the city’s daily newspapers used to be more daring than now, not that they were ever all that. There is a lesson to be learned today, that when the government has asses to be covered, the media don’t, and they ought to stand up against pressure and show some professionalism, before no one trusts anything the media do anymore, and the result of that can’t be good for your government bosses either. Let them know that.
Need we say, Shanghai is cynicism capital of possibly the world. People can laugh things off but can’t be fooled. Forget your entire plan of blindfolding the middle-aged middle class. They are even tougher cookies than us, when time comes.