November 27, 2020

Event Coverage Highlight

Morton Frank Award Winners Discuss Surprises in Reporting on ‘Trump’s Trade War’

Clockwise from upper left: Jane Sasseen, Rick Young, Emma Schwartz, Laura Sullivan and Fritz Kramer. Image via Zoom.

by Chad Bouchard

When an award-winning team from FRONTLINE PBS first started asking questions about the implications of U.S. tariffs against China in the summer of 2018, they had little idea how far and how deep the story would take them.

Rick Young, the writer and director of the resulting film, Trump’s Trade War, said the team’s reporting was a process of “realizing that there was a lot more behind those tariffs, and a lot more behind the relationship between the U.S. and China, and the significance of that relationship, and frankly how that relationship was being upended.”

On Oct. 21, the OPC hosted a webinar with Young and other members of the team, including Emma Schwartz, Laura Sullivan and Fritz Kramer, who won this year’s Morton Frank Award for best international business news reporting in TV, video, radio, audio or podcast.

Jane Sasseen, executive director of the McGraw Center for Business Journalism, moderated. She served as a judge on the Morton Frank Award jury.

Their sources included former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and others who had worked inside the Trump administration, as well as U.S. companies operating in China and officials within the Chinese government. Their two-week reporting expedition to China was fraught with uncertainty about visas (acquired one day before their flight from the U.S.), about access to sources within the country, and about logistics of working within a limited window.

“The trick in this is to try and be as organized and planned as you can, and plan for chaos.” Young said. “When you get there, you’re trying to figure out where can you get to, and frankly we moved around, we got around the country a bit, which was important, and we didn’t have a minder with us, which was also unusual.”

Sullivan, one of the reporters for the film, chimed in to add: “a minder that we knew about, anyway.”

She said she was surprised to discover some of the complexities of U.S. companies operating in China, and “how complicit the U.S. business community had been in its own demise when it came to China. They were almost willing participants on the one hand, and giant complainers on the other hand.”

Sullivan said businesses want to speak out against data and identity theft from China, or complain about lack of equal partnership in multinational companies, but also keep operating and selling within China and keep quiet about those concerns and “hide behind the U.S. government.”

U.S. government sources told the team that this dynamic, where companies refuse to report problems, is “essentially tying the U.S. government’s hands.”

Sullivan cited as an example the “Operation Aurora” data hack a decade ago, in which despite affecting dozens of companies, only one came forward at the time.

She said that from the perspective of China, which denies accusations of data and intellectual property theft despite a growing number of known cases, American outrage about spying and corporate espionage is hypocritical.

“The question at hand for everybody is whether or not the United States and Americans can accept a world where America’s not number one. And I think that threat terrifies people,” Sullivan said.

Schwartz said as Western journalists increasingly are pushed out of the country, it will become more difficult to report on China’s technology and idea theft, as well as its treatment of foreign firms.

“While the Chinese government puts on a unified front and this ‘single party’ [voice], there are reformers, there are more conservatives inside the government,” she said. “It’s just not always in the public’s face the way it would be in the United States. On the other hand, Xi [Jinping] is a nationalist and a ‘China first’ kind of leader,” which has closed off other voices inside China.

Kramer, who was credited as co-producer on the film, said the team ramped up their security during the trip.

“Getting a crew of six into China with a couple hundred thousand dollars of equipment is no easy task,” he said. Kramer said the crew produced multiple terabytes of data during their trip, and used extra layers of protection to ensure footage was backed up and secure, “both so we could monitor what we had, and to get it out of the country if something should go wrong.”

He said one unexpected curve ball came when a key interview with China’s Vice Minister of Commerce, Wang Shouwen, had to reschedule at the last minute, about three hours after the film crew arrived in Shanghai from the U.S.

“You never want to go into a big interview after a 22-hour travel day,” he said.

“Yeah, and then we had to walk a mile carrying all of our gear for a formal interview,” added Schwartz, who was credited as both co-producer and reporter. “It had to be in this high security zone that you couldn’t possibly get a car anywhere near, and there was no way that we could get any exception.”

Young said while they were traveling in China he was struck by a palpable sense of pride about accomplishments in development, such as lifting people out of poverty, a factor that’s crucial in understanding trade wars with the U.S. and others.

“When the conflict is framed as ‘keeping China down; we’re going to keep China from advancing,’ [it] touches the nerves of history about what’s happened to China from foreign interests. That’s a very powerful force.”

You can watch Trump’s Trade War via this link:

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/trumps-trade-war/

Click the window below to watch a playlist of video clips from the program.