Religious groups and political movements have historically turned to the media as a way to express their opinions. But the New York-based Epoch Times, with its vast distribution and access to the Chinese community, presents a unique and influential way to bring solidarity to an embattled religious group that aims to have its voice heard. Along the way, some critics have called the newspaper's credibility into question.
Falun Gong is a spiritual group that practices a form of qigong, breathing exercises that are associated with martial arts and meditation. After Falun Gong was outlawed in China in 1999 as an "evil cult," many practitioners were arrested and tortured. According to a 2004 Amnesty International report, "detained Falun Gong practitioners, including large numbers of women, were at risk of torture, including sexual abuse, particularly if they refused to renounce their beliefs." In 2001, Ian Johnson of the Wall Street Journal won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the torture and death of a Falun Gong practitioner in China.
Today, Falun Gong is one of the most vocal of China critics. The Chinese government estimates that there are 70 million practitioners of Falun Gong in China.
Soon after Falun Gong was banned, a group of overseas Chinese who were Falun Gong practitioners founded the Epoch Times in 2000 in Atlanta, with a mission to "uphold universal human values, rights, and freedoms," according to the newspaper's Web site.
The Epoch Times now distributes in over 30 countries worldwide, with a weekly circulation of 1.5 million. Its circulation, like many ethnic newspapers, is not audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. The newspaper's English edition launched in New York in 2004 and rapidly grew. In New York alone, the newspaper has a 150,000 weekly distribution, in addition to 40,000 home deliveries, according to the newspaper.
Chinese-language editions of the Epoch Times are scattered in Chinese restaurants, supermarkets, and Chinese bookstores in 500 American cities including Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Houston. Shiny newspaper boxes of its English edition rest on tree-lined suburban sidewalks and busy downtowns.
Some in the overseas Chinese community see the Epoch Times as one of the few newspapers not controlled by the Chinese government. But others see it primarily as a mouthpiece for Falun Gong.
The newspaper frequently runs editorials critical of China and is heavy on stories of human rights abuses, particularly against Falun Gong practitioners. Coverage often includes pictures of Falun Gong practitioners the paper describes as scarred by electrodes or bruized by severe beating.
Typically a 16-page broadsheet, the Epoch Times also runs mainstream newswire stories and can resemble a community newspaper, with reports of local school budget, recipe swaps and a community calendar of jazz concerts.
The newspaper denies any direct ties to Falun Gong.
"We are not funded by Falun Gong, we don't speak for Falun Gong, and we don't represent Falun Gong," said Epoch Times spokesperson Stephen Gregory.
The Epoch Times is hardly the only newspaper owned by a religious group in the United States. In fact, the Christian Science Monitor, founded by the Church of Christ, Scientist, and the Deseret Morning News, founded by the Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, and The Washington Times, owned by the Unification Church, are prominent examples of newspapers owned by religious groups.
Though some of these newspapers have been criticized for shying away from negative news about their parent organizations, many of them viewed as independent.
"The Christian Science Monitor is considered one of the most even-handed, sober, and unsensationalistic newspapers," said James Bettinger, a Communications professor at Stanford University and the director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships.
Though the Washington Times is perceived as conservative, Bettinger said, it does not proselyte church doctrine.
"The owners of the Washington Times have always guaranteed the newspaper's editorial independence, an independence which I have never known them to violate in my 19 years here," said Fran Coombs, managing editor of the Washington Times.
In contrast, many in the overseas Chinese community see the Epoch Times as a Falun Gong newspaper.
"Among the readers from mainland China, this is a kind of propaganda for Falun Gong group," said Liu Kang, the director of the Program in Chinese Media and Communication Studies at Duke University. "It is not viewed as an independent objective news media," he said.
"Even if the Epoch Times is not associated with Falun Gong, if they consistently write about Falun Gong in the same perspective, or if there are no articles examining Falun Gong, people would perceive it as being not credible," Bettinger said.
Many of the Epoch Times' critics, including Liu, say the paper does not adhere to basic journalistic standards of professionalism and objectivity.
In the newspaper's stories of human rights abuses, many sources are unnamed. For example, in the article that prompted Wang's outburst at the White House, transcripts of telephone conversations between unnamed sources in Chinese hospitals and an unnamed Falun Gong researcher were used to support allegations of organ harvesting.
Cindy Gu, communications director for the Epoch Times, said that the newspaper needed to protect the identity of their sources.
"We have the names of the hospital employees in the original recording of the conversation, but we had to omit them for their safety," Gu said.
Gregory characterizes the newspaper as a start-up business run by people who share the same passion to defend human rights. He says that many Epoch Times staff work part-time and that revenue comes from advertising.
Wang, Gregory says, worked closely with witnesses of organ harvesting and was "calling attention to the most important human rights abuse in China."
"She knew we are facing a crisis in China, where Falun Gong practitioners are being killed. She knew the story wasn't covered in China. She had no choice," he said.
Gregory said he was not concerned with any possible fallout from Wang's protest.
"If we lose press access in the White House, that's not the worst thing in the world," Gregory said. "It wouldn't damage our credibility as a newspaper -- our reporting stands for itself."
Duke University's Liu isn't so sure.
"The Epoch Times' credibility is damaged as media professionals," Liu said. "I think they have done a disservice to themselves."
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May 16, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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