Thursday, December 22, 2016

How Did LA Times Promulgate Fake News for Trump?

After the recent Trump-Taiwan phone call, a piece of old "news" got fried hot again: this one claims that Trump has read hundreds of books about China, and revealed his top list of twenty in an "interview" with Xinhua, China's official news agency. "Trump's China book list" went viral in cyberspace to show that the President-elect of the United States isn't that ignorant. Chinese bloggers and cyber surfers alike cite confidently the LA Times as the source of this "news."

But it so happened that two rumor-wary friends, Victor and Zhang Tuomu, both Chinese Americans with a Peking University education, had read in the July 25 issue of the New Yorker ("Donald Trump's Ghostwriters Tells All") that Trump doesn't actually read books.  Suspicious of this  "Trump's China book list,"  the two did some digging, and Zhang Tuomu published their fact-checking results three days ago on a WeChat publication titled "反海外谣言中心" ("The Overseas Anti-Rumor Center"). The article, written mostly in Chinese, is now also circulating online, for example here.  

The gist of it is that they found no Xinhua report on the said interview with Trump, but discovered the following instead: 
  • On April 26, 2011, a commercial PR website,, published a "press release" titled "Donald Trump's Favorite Chinese Books." It came from "China Books," said to "Specialize in retail and distribution of western-published books in Mainland China." (This is strange, because the "Trump's China book list" shown in this "press release" contains many books banned in China.) 
  •  On May 3, 2011, a report titled "Donald Trump has read a lot of books on China: 'I understand the Chinese mind'" appeared on the website of LA Times; the piece cites the content of the above commercial "press release" as actual news, apparently without fact checking. (Victor actually checked with the journalist, Tony Pierce, who verified that his "news" indeed came from 
  • On May 4, 2011, Beijing's cited the LA Times report (see the irony? LAT says Xinhua said it first; Xinhua says LAT said it first) on Trump's book list, without mentioning the sensitive book titles.
From then on, the LA Times became the official source of "Trump's China book list" in Chinese internet articles.

By now we have all seen that the presidential election this year was glutted with fake news and baseless rumors, on a scale I've never seen in my 28+ years living in the United States. And so, in the scheme of things, the case we see here doesn't seem to be a big deal. What surprised—and disappointed—me is the role of the LA Times in this fake news promulgation, considering that, just the day after the election, I had tweeted with a sense of urgency and confidence:
I might also add that, the latest popularity of this "news" seems to have been stimulated by VOA's columnist, Han Lianchao, "a visiting fellow at the renowned American think tank Hudson Institute" (this title seems to shine an authoritative halo to VOA's Chinese audience), who unsuspiciously mentioned the "book list" on December 4th when discussing Trump's China policy. Han said "据报道" – "as reported" – without specifying the source, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had seen the LA Times report, or the citing of it in Chinese cyberspace. Han might not be a New Yorker reader, and I don't blame him for his trust in LAT, because I trusted the paper too. That is, before this episode.

Now I can almost hear a furious rebuttal: You can't say it is the LAT!  It is just one reporter writing a blog post!  I totally agree, in fact I have been following a few real good journalists there, such as Barbara Demick, and in my mind they represent the LAT I liked and trusted.  But let's also face the inconvenient reality:  when people quote the fake news, they say "LA Times reported that," they don't care who the particular reporter is or which part of the LAT website published it.   

Btw, one thing that is still unclear to me is the motive for the 2011 "press release" placed on If it was a publicity stunt from a book dealer, which appears most likely, then why did it give a contact address in China?  Many of the books listed are not allowed to be sold there. We probably shouldn't rule out another possibility: it might have been a political stunt from … (add your guess here). If so, the irony is that the fake news has taken five years to ferment, in a now unpresidented political climate.

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