An edit too far

Arbitrator orders reinstatement of RFA reporter whose edited story caused a diplomatic flap

By Andy Zipser, Editor

Source: The Guild Reporter

In a case underscoring the dangers of social media reporting — especially when complicated by foreign-language translation –  a Guild-represented reporter for Radio Free Asia has won an arbitration that rescinds his termination and orders full reinstatement with back pay, seniority and benefits. 

A highly regarded 10-year veteran who had racked up several awards for his reporting, King Man Ho nevertheless was fired last February after video-recording, tweeting and writing about an event at which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton briefly interacted with two Chinese bloggers. Although Ho’s story correctly quoted one of the bloggers, subsequent editing made the blogger sound overly enthusiastic about Clinton and implied “too intimate a connection with the U.S. State Department.”

Moreover, an RFA headline referred to the bloggers as “Chinese Web dissidents,” a characterization which the bloggers vigorously disputed. “The Son of Free Asia reporter has a bit professional ethic; he hocus pocus my work, make me outrageous,” one tweeted in angry response.

In the wake of the ensuing diplomatic flap, and amid concerns that the reports would endanger the bloggers upon their return to China, the RFA coerced Ho into tweeting an apology. Written by Ho’s manager, Shiny Li, the statement said he had misquoted the blogger and had mischaracterized the meeting with Clinton — which, ironically, followed a speech she gave at the Newseum about internet freedom.  But despite assenting to the forced apology, Ho was warned that an RFA investigation into the incident would continue.

Later that month, following a meeting with management at which Ho was faulted for showing insufficient remorse, the reporter was fired for “insubordination and violation of the Code of Journalistic Ethics and RFA’s Conflict of Interest policy.”  The Guild promptly responded with a grievance, charging RFA with making Ho “the public scapegoat for a legitimate news story” and forcing him to publicly apologize “for a story that was wholly accurate.”

After three days of hearings in July and August, arbitrator Herbert Fishgold agreed. Not only had the RFA failed to make its case for insubordination and ethics violations, he wrote, but it had “contributed [to] and exacerbated” a diplomatically sensitive situation. “As noted,” he wrote, the two bloggers “took specific issue with the use of ‘warm push’ and ‘Dissidents,’ and the inference that they ‘met’ with Secretary Clinton. All of these concerns are attributable to Li’s editing and the headline, not to Ho’s actual wording. . . . Li’s editing allowed an impolitic suggestion that these ‘independent’ bloggers were cozy with the Secretary.”

Although Fishgold rebuked Ho for some of his tweets, which had become increasingly intemperate as he responded to the blogger’s accusations of unprofessional conduct, he noted Ho’s “otherwise unblemished record during the past ten years.” Accordingly, he wrote Nov. 9, Ho should receive a written warning “that he should not engage in a public ‘debate’ with news sources” but otherwise should be reinstated with back pay — an amount the Washington-Baltimore Guild estimates at approximately $50,000.

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