Chen’s New York Times fantasy results in mixed reaction to US media

By Liu Yun Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-7 23:38:01

Chinese entrepreneur and philanthropist Chen Guangbiao flew to New York Friday for his new target: to acquire The New York Times (NYT). The idea is said to have been on his mind for a while, but he broke it openly at a New Year event.

Chen is known for his publicity stunts, from handing out charity money in the street to sell the canned air to raise people's environment awareness, and recently auctioning off four decades-old locomotives he collects to fund home-coming trip of the needy people during the Spring Festival holidays.

Chen has no experience in media business. This adds to doubts over his bidding intentions. His only interaction with the NYT is probably the full page advertisement he placed last year claiming that China holds sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands.

However maverick his sudden interest may be, the idea is not completely ignored, as the news has been covered widely by the US mainstream media, though it could be because it's the post-Xmas "silly season."  

But on the other hand, print media in the US is on a downhill path where owners of a lot of the flagship newspapers have had to sell the assets to business tycoons. The Sulzberger family, which owns 88 percent of full shares in the NYT, has declared they have no intention of selling, rendering Chen's plans impossible to realize. But it might not be too much a surprise if one day some or all of the controlling stakes are put up for sale.

Chinese businesspeople have gone on a shopping spree of overseas acquisition over the years, from real estate to famous brands, and they often offer a premium in their bidding. Chen said, referring his potential bid for the NYT, if the price is appropriate, there is nothing that cannot be bought. It sounds abrasive, but it is true in theory.

Cross-border acquisition of high-profile media organizations understandably generates more buzz. In 2007, when Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch launched his acquisition of Dow Jones, parent company of The Wall Street Journal, there was strong opposition and resistance from professional circles until capital triumphed over principle.

This is not the first time Chinese have showed interest in a leading US media outlet. A few years ago, bidding for Newsweek by the Guangzhou-based Southern Newspaper Media Group was snubbed. The group is considered to be one of the most liberal media outlets in China. But given the symbolic status of the NYT and Chen's mixture of nutty stunts and publicly pronounced patriotism, his plan has produced more of a sensation. 

Purchasing a newspaper at this time takes more than business calculation. Chen told the media that his plan to acquire the NYT is to help the newspaper to provide "objective coverage" of China, "rebuild" its image and credibility, and thus boost its business. If the deal doesn't go through, he will seek to buy another influential US media outlet.

There is both support and derision toward Chen's ambition among Chinese public. Analysts have listed all the challenges of seeing this deal through.

Some mock the result of the purchase as turning the NYT into a Chinese official newspaper. Others think the Obama administration would do everything to stop a liberal newspaper ending up in the hands of a communist country.

Supportive voices came from those in the population that are fed up with one-sided China reports by the NYT, or who are excited by capturing a core US liberal asset. Ironically, the staunchest defenders of the NYT ownership staying the same are probably also within the Chinese public.

Even if Chen made this deal work, he would still come to realize later it's not enough to produce favorable China coverage from one newspaper, as misperceptions and misunderstandings about China are systematic in the US. Courting foreign media to glorify a competing country will prove to be a daunting challenge.

The author is a commentator with the Global Times.

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