Why is the NY Times running the Bo Xilai scandal into the ground?

Since news of the Chinese politician Bo Xilai’s fall from grace broke on March 15, the NY Times has run close to 50 articles that either deal specifically with the scandal or mention Xilai in some related context.

The totality of articles concerning Xilai amount to what is the most comprehensive coverage of the scandal anywhere online or in print.

The stories range in subject matter from the specifics of the scandal itself (wiretapping, murder, wire transfers) to the political implications in China (communist-party shakeup, boon for Chinese vice-president) to the periphery of relevance (a red Ferrari and Jon Huntsman’s daughter, impact on Chen Guangcheng’s fate).

The Times is indeed in thrall, with headlines that read, in part or in full, “Layers of Intrigue in Chinese Political Scandal,” “…More Political Intrigue,” “China’s Rumor Mill,” “…Crime Crackdown Adds to Scandal,” “…Race to Contain Scandal” and “…Wife Adds to Chinese Mystery,” among many others.

The story is juicy, there’s no denying that. But in scrolling through the four pages of headlines that the Times devoted to the story, I didn’t see one that mentioned whether the scandal has implications for US/Chinese relations or whether any of this will play out on the world stage. Perhaps the Times is just calling the play by play on a Chinese Watergate.

But what other news outlet has covered this story so voraciously? Is it simply a case of the Times owning a story as they so often do? I don’t know, but I think the question is worth asking.

By contrast, take the case of Gareth Williams, the British MI6 spy and apparent fetishist who was found dead – entombed nude in a duffel bag in his own bathtub – in August 2010.

Williams was a code-breaker, worked for the same outfit as James Bond, had some pretty far-out sexual tastes ($30,000 in women’s clothing, bondage), and wasn’t missed at MI6 until a week went by with nary a peep.

So how many stories did the Times run on Williams? A whopping two, one on May 2 of this year and another on April 27.

Granted, Xilai’s story has been breaking and Williams was found in August of 2010. But if you take the ingredients and impact of each story, 50 articles on a Chinese political scandal compared to two on the extremely mysterious death of a British code-breaker, something doesn’t add up. Perhaps there was nothing to find on Williams death. But John Burns was the only one writing about it. The Times had dozens of reporters on the Xilai story.

The only plausible reason I can think of for this deluge in coverage is that the Times is writing for its Chinese and/or business audience. Titillation factor notwithstanding, I doubt the average news consumer stateside has the endurance or inclination to follow the Xilai story as far as the Times has.

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About Daniel Fitzsimmons

Staff writer for the Manhattan weeklies Our Town, Our Town Downtown and the West Side Spirit.
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