Firestorm started by Vietnamese newspaper shows both owners and demonstrators in need of free speech remedial training

By Peter Scheer

All newspapers from time to time should publish articles that give offense to a sizable segment of their readers. Such provocations–challenging readers to think differently about an issue–are part of the editorial independence that is the right and obligation of all credible news organizations.

Subscriber response may range, depending on the gravity of the offense, from a flurry of angry letters-to-the-editor, to a the offending article

blizzard of emails and faxes, demands for retraction, and calls for readers to cancel their subscriptions. Normalcy usually returns after a few days, at most a week or two–often with readership at a higher level than before the provocation.

But when Nguoi Viet Daily, the biggest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the country, gave offense to its readers in an obscure but controversial article about a work of art, it triggered an explosion of protests among readers, and a panicked response by the paper’s owners, that were out of all proportion to the circumstances–and have left both camps deeply compromised in their claims to be exercising rights of free speech.

The article, on page 194(!) of the newspaper’s Lunar New Year special issue published in January, was a translation into Vietnamese of a UC Berkeley student’s statement about her art: an image of a nail salon-style footbath painted in the yellow and red stripes of the South Vietnamese flag. Although her statement emphasized the artist’s wish to honor self-sacrificing Vietnamese parents who toil long hours in nail salons to send their children, like the artist herself, to a prestigious university, the image was seen as a desecration of the home-country’s flag and denunciation of the Vietnamese diaspora community. (The picture can be viewed here.)

The newspaper’s readers didn’t just send irate letters; they took to the streets: Hundreds of raucous, occasionally violent, protesters picketing daily outside the newspaper’s “Little Saigon” offices in Orange County, harassing newspaper employees, advertisers and anyone else attempting to do business with Nguoi Viet Daily. And the protests continue after more than four months.

The newspaper’s response? Instead of standing up to the censorious mob of disaffected readers, it apologized for the offending article, recalled the entire Lunar New Year edition of the paper, and even fired its two top editors, Hao-Nhien Vu (managing editor), who selected the article for publication, and his boss, Anh Vu (editor-in-chief). Not surprisingly, the paper’s capitulation to the protesters, far from ending the confrontation, only ratified their belief that they had the power, and the right, to dictate the paper’s editorial policies.

Memo to Nguoi Viet Daily’s board of directors: Never surrender your editorial independence to your readers. It is not a news organization’s mission to please its readers and publish only what they want to read. It is a news organization’s mission to give its readers, not only the information that they want, but also the information that they didn’t know they need, and even information that readers don’t want and that makes them uncomfortable–because it forces them to question their beliefs and biases.

Even when protesting subscribers are right, and the news organization is wrong, the news organization should never cave to protesters’ demands for the editors’ heads. By surrendering to these demands, a newspaper surrenders its claim to editorial independence. It ceases to be an independent editorial voice and becomes, instead, a community PR mouthpiece. That may work as a business plan, but not an editorial plan.

Memo to protesters: It is one thing to flex your muscles and register your disagreement with, and disapproval of, news coverage that you find offensive. It is quite another thing to use your leverage to try to compel changes in a news organization’s editorial policy and personnel. The latter is just as offensive as a prohibition against peaceful protesting. You have every right to cancel your subscriptions, and in that way disassociate yourself from Nguoi Viet. But your free speech rights end at the newspaper’s front door. Break down that door (either literally or metaphorically) and you are infringing the free speech rights of others.

What is it about Nguoi Viet and its readership of mostly first-generation Vietnamese immigrants that makes publication of an offensive news article so convulsive an event compared to, say, a controversial article appearing in the New York Times or USA Today? The experience of the Vietnamese immigrant community is certainly one explanation. A recent history of torture and persecution by Vietnamese Communists has a way of diminishing one’s patience with views that one believes, however erroneously, are meant to advance a Communist agenda.

A more important explanation, I think, has to do with the relationship between ethnic news organizations and their audiences. Readers of many ethnic newspapers have a proprietary interest in those papers (which is to the papers’ credit). To a far greater degree than readers of mainstream newspapers, readers of ethnic media see themselves as owners more than consumers. Their local ethnic newspaper or radio station is not just about them, but an extension of them.

A similar phenomenon can be seen on the internet at websites that appeal to a general audience but rely heavily on that audience to create the site’s content. Facebook, the quintessential web 2.0 enterprise, stumbled into this minefield when it tried to stuff third-parties’ cookies in its users’ browsers to track and disclose their purchases. When Facebook users found out, they went ballistic. They didn’t just complain, but threatened to decamp to rival sites if the cookies weren’t turned off immediately–and they were.

The Facebook user community views Facebook in the same proprietary way that ethnic communities see their foreign language newspapers. Having created the content on Facebook, they see themselves as owners more than users. There is a lesson here for Internet-based news organizations, from websites of major newspapers to the HuffingtonPost: editorial independence is not a given in this medium. News organizations must be prepared to assert their editorial independence, and defend it, even at the cost of alienating a segment of their customers.

Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. This Commentary has also been published on the HuffingtonPost.