The moment Mayor Ed Lee entered this year’s San Francisco mayoral race, he didn’t just become the front-runner — he also stacked the field with an unprecedented fourth major Chinese-American candidate.
For charts detailing information about Chinese-language newspapers in San Francisco, click on the photo to the right.
Pundits have since zoomed in on an obvious truth: San Francisco’s sizable Chinese population should play a bigger role in this election than ever before. By the same token, coverage of the race by Chinese-language newspapers — largely unknown to English-language readers — could be a game changer.
For reporters covering local politics, the existence of a vibrant Chinese-language press should be no mystery, said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee and a political science instructor at San Francisco State University. Chinese reporters attend every news conference, often in far greater numbers than the English-language press.
“The Chronicle and The Examiner have a fraction of the staff that the Chinese news media has to cover the same story,” David Lee said. “As a result, the Chinese media is able to cover it from many more different vantage points, and to cover it at a neighborhood level — at a micro level — in a way that the mainstream media is simply not able to because it’s not economically feasible.”
At a time when shrinkage of newspaper staffs is a foregone conclusion, Chinese-language papers are thriving. At least four such dailies have local bureaus: Sing Tao Daily, the World Journal, the China Press and the Epoch Times. Each one’s local circulation numbers are in the tens of thousands. That’s no surprise given that almost 145,000 San Franciscans over the age of 4 speak mostly Chinese at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Since voters of Asian descent have shown a tendency to vote for fellow Asian-Americans, it’s natural to wonder if these papers are giving Ed Lee and his Asian peers an added advantage, whether through favorable coverage or just sheer exposure.
Observers could recall a news conference held in Chinatown last month — largely for the benefit of the Chinese-language media, it seemed — in anticipation of City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s expected opposition to the Central Subway project. Various Chinatown leaders accused Herrera of being a racist and a “political rat,” and declared his mayoral candidacy doomed. The snipes were widely reported in English- and Chinese-language papers — possibly bolstering Ed Lee’s standing in Chinatown, where support for the proposed subway line is strong.
But San Francisco State’s David Lee said it’s only natural that ethnic papers would focus on their communities’ perspectives.
“Your view of the Central Subway may be very different if you live in Chinatown than, say, if you live in the suburbs or if you live in Pacific Heights,” he said.
For his part, Kai-ping Liu, city editor of the World Journal’s San Francisco bureau, said his paper tries to cover all the candidates. With respect to the Central Subway, he said the Journal strove for balance, also covering Herrera’s news release and state Sen. Leland Yee’s call for Ed Lee to release documents related to the project.
And when Ed Lee first announced his candidacy, breaking his promise not to run, Liu said the mayor faced tough questions at a meeting of the World Journal’s editorial board.
“We asked why he changed his mind,” Liu said. “We asked him, ‘If you lose the race and can’t get your old job back as city administrator, what’s your backup plan?’ We asked all those questions.”
Representatives for the China Press, Epoch Times and World Journal all said their publications won’t endorse any candidate. Sing Tao Daily has made local endorsements in the past, but hadn’t done so as of press time.
In any case, these papers are far from monolithic. After all, there’s the Epoch Times, with its ties to the Falun Gong religious movement, which puts out a Chinese-language paper five days a week and which, according to David Lee, has been at least as critical of the mayor as, say, the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
Alex Ma, an editor at the local bureau of the Epoch Times, said he thinks the major difference between his paper and the others is that the Epoch Times can “speak straight” about the People’s Republic of China. This is relevant given his paper’s long history of reportage about Chinatown power broker and Ed Lee backer Rose Pak’s alleged ties to the communist Chinese government.
And its English and Chinese editions have both taken swipes at Sing Tao Daily, which is arguably the most influential of these papers. For instance, an Aug. 26 story in the English edition said the Sing Tao Daily editor’s wife is Ed Lee’s “confidential secretary” — which the paper alleges was orchestrated by Pak.
The editors at Sing Tao Daily did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment.
A 2001 report by the Jamestown Foundation echoes Ma’s assertions, positing that most U.S. Chinese newspapers are “either directly or indirectly controlled by the government of mainland China.” Though it offered little concrete evidence, the report described a landscape in which “half-truths and even gross misinformation” are passed off as news. But a 2003 study by San Francisco State’s Public Research Institute drew much more favorable conclusions, citing the importance of the different perspectives they add.
But the primary role these papers will play in this mayoral race may be more basic: simply getting out the Chinese-American vote.
“This is really the first mayor’s race that Chinese-newspaper readers feel they’re part of, in a way that I’ve never seen before — because of the extent of coverage and the fact that you have so many Chinese-American candidates running,” David Lee said, citing the community’s excitement this year. “So I think that is the role the Chinese media is playing, and that’s a critical role: to help the community feel part of this election.”
A truly comprehensive look at Chinese-language newspaper coverage of this year’s San Francisco mayoral race alone could fill a book — to say nothing of issues as loaded as Taiwanese independence or China’s human-rights record or politico Rose Pak’s master plan.
And the four major Chinese-language dailies are far from a monolithic entity. In some ways, Sing Tao Daily, the World Journal, the China Press and the Epoch Times are as polarized and hypercompetitive as the most disparate of mainstream English-language newspapers.
Still, it’s instructive to look at a sampling of stories on a few of the race’s hot-button issues to date. When Mayor Ed Lee announced on Aug. 8 that he was entering the mayoral race, breaking the public promise he had made, editorials in the English-language papers accused the interim mayor of hypocrisy if not outright dishonesty.
In its Aug. 9 edition, Sing Tao Daily, one of the Chinese-language papers that has been most supportive of the mayor, dutifully reported — without comment — City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s questioning of whether Lee is his own man.
But the same issue of the paper included a much longer story detailing the Chinese community’s response to Lee’s decision, which mostly consisted of glowing praise: Rose Pak saying Lee is “fair and talented” and chalking up his change of heart to the will of the voters, several other Chinatown leaders expressing their confidence in the interim mayor, and even fellow candidate Wilma Pang saying that a Lee victory would prove he could become mayor on his own merits and not just by inheriting the office through the “back door.”
With respect to the Central Subway controversy, English-language accounts of the Sept. 6 news conference held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association tended to focus on the hostility that various Chinatown leaders directed toward Herrera for withdrawing his support for the subway expansion.
Meanwhile, a Sept. 7 World Journal article on that same news conference framed the event as a demonstration of unity within the Chinatown community around the subway issue. Several Chinatown leaders were quoted explaining why they believe the Central Subway will be beneficial to the community. But although there was an element of race-baiting to the news conference, that angle was not played up by the paper — although the term “political rats” was highlighted.
The racial angle was more prominent in the coverage of Sing Tao Daily. Its Sept. 7 story not only repeated the description of Herrera and former Supervisor Aaron Peskin as “political rats,” but allowed Pak to frame the men’s criticism of the subway project in stark, racial terms.
“Usually they’re careful to say what the Chinese would like to hear, because there are so many,” the paper quoted Pak as saying. “But now that there’s a chance for a Chinese person to become mayor, some people don’t want to see that happen, so they don’t hesitate to attack the Chinese community. This is simply racism.”
On the other hand, on Sept. 14, the China Press ran a story in support of the subway expansion that appeared to be a translation of large chunks of an editorial that San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association Central Subway Task Force Chairman Stephen Taber penned for the San Francisco Chronicle. Like Taber, the China Press reporter used the words “short-sighted” and “irrational” to describe the project’s opponents. There was no mention of the previous month’s highly critical civil grand jury report.