You know it’s a slow news day when the newspapers are jumping on a man for posting about sex. Not because he did anything explicitly illegal. Just because he posted photographs and videos on his blog. I expected this from The New Paper, maybe even Lianhewanbao. But Yahoo! and The Straits Times jumped on the bandwagon too. This isn’t news. It’s a slime job.
The newspapers call it news — but for something to be newsworthy, it needs to be news worthy. It needs to have news values. Alvin Tan is an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) scholar — making him an elite person. He and Vivian Lee posted sexually explicit content on Facebook and their blog, and faced pressure to take them down — unambiguous conflict. Both of them are Malaysians, and Alvin studied in Singapore — therefore, proximity. It is out of the ordinary — making it a surprising event.
Beyond news values is framing. Here, Alvin’s story is framed in the light of Singapore’s perceived societal values and expectations. Implicit in the narrative is the expectation that an ASEAN scholar and law student must be squeaky-clean and desire-free, that regular or elite people in society find his behaviour immoral or illegal. Therefore, the narrative continues, what Alvin did is wrong. This story is a story only in reference to Singapore and a perceived set of moral values.
Admittedly, objectively covering a story like this requires a delicate touch. But instead of upholding the journalistic tenant of objectivity, the news is quietly disapproving of his actions.
In its online report, The Straits Times’ third and fourth paragraphs included a lawyer’s opinion. Underlying that is the subtle accusation that Alvin broke the law and violated school rules. To non-ST online subscribers, that is all they see of the issue. The notion that a non-Singaporean who committed a deed outside of Singapore may be subject to Singaporean law is more shocking than the story, but the journalist — or at least the paper — did not bother to expand on this. That this came from a lawyer, supposedly trained in law, is even more interesting: Does the lawyer know what he’s talking about? Did he know the full story? Did he even explain why he said that? The real question is whether he violated Malaysian law — the content, as far as I can tell, was produced in Malaysia — and on that, the papers are silent.
(In brief: It is illegal to sell or possess pornography in Malaysia, but viewing of pornography online is not restricted. But comparing Alvin’s deeds to Malaysian law doesn’t produce as much controversy.)
Yahoo! Singapore’s online report tried to paint a more complete picture. But the headline says it all. The phrase ‘shockingly erotic, gross’ is not objective. There is no objective means to decide ‘shocking’, ‘erotic’ and ‘gross’. These are personal reactions, influenced by personal preferences and societal norms. For a news organisation to use those terms in a news report is unacceptable. It is favouring one set of values over another without cause, and it is not respecting Alvin’s and Vivian’s preferences — or those of people with similar tastes. Nobody is hurt by what Alvin and Vivian did, and anybody offended by the blog is free to go somewhere else.
This isn’t news. This is a slime job masquerading as moral guardianship pretending to be news.
The New Paper doesn’t even pretend to be objective. The front page says it all. The words ‘SO GROSS!’ will tend to have a negative influence on most readers. Because it is not stated as a quote, it appears as though the paper itself is saying that to the audience, not someone else. That is not the job of any newspaper, even if it’s a tabloid.
What really irks me is that the newspapers didn’t even check the facts.
Let’s start with the basics. The media I’ve mentioned above consistently described Vivian Lee as his ‘girlfriend’. She is NOT his girlfriend. She is a very close friend with benefits, but they are not in a relationship. It seems that the journalists who wrote that on 15 October didn’t bother to verify with him before submitting the article. He told me he wasn’t interviewed on the 15th. He also said he told Yahoo! that Vivian was his girlfriend to keep things consistent with the other papers, figuring that setting the record straight wouldn’t change much.
Maybe it wouldn’t, but if the other journalists couldn’t be bothered to verify this most basic of facts, can they be trusted to verify others?
Not for The New Paper, apparently. They called him an ‘ex-NUS law scholar’. He’s not. He took a leave of absence from the National University of Singapore to run his business. Whether or not NUS will expel him has yet to be determined — but as of time of writing, as far as I know, he is still part of the NUS student body, and his scholarship has not been revoked.
The New Paper also called in a ‘psychologist’, who according to the front page said his behaviour is ‘narcissistic’. Bringing in an expert is generally a good idea when faced with situations out of your league. Generally. This is the exception.
When TNP quotes a psychologist saying that, TNP is subtly implying that he’s mentally unsound — that Alvin has narcissistic personality disorder. But as far as I know Alvin is sane.
DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, lays out many key criteria for narcissism. According to Wikipedia, the symptoms of narcissism as laid out by DSM-IV include:
- Reacting to criticism with anger, shame, or humiliation
- Taking advantage of others to reach their own goals
- Exaggerating their own importance, achievements, and talents
- Imagining unrealistic fantasies of success, beauty, power, intelligence, or romance
- Requiring constant attention and positive reinforcement from others
- Becoming jealous easily
- Lacking empathy and disregarding the feelings of others
- Being obsessed with oneself
- Pursuing mainly selfish goals
- Trouble keeping healthy relationships
- Becoming easily hurt and rejected
- Setting goals that are unrealistic
- Wanting “the best” of everything
- Appearing unemotional
How did the psychologist come to the conclusion of narcissism? You can’t make a diagnosis by reading a blog alone. One data point, one encounter, is insufficient for any kind of diagnosis. What you see from one source of information does not give you the whole picture. You need a cluster of data points, which means interviewing him, his friends and his family. So, either the psychologist made a snap judgment based on one data point — which is clearly unprofessional — or the psychologist breached patient confidentiality — which is even more unprofessional. Or maybe the psychologist meant ‘narcissist’ in the pop-psychological (i.e. personal opinion, not professional one) sense, which means that psychologist’s opinion is about as valid — and useless — as that of the man on the street. No matter what, the psychologist’s opinion clearly cannot be trusted, and that person’s words are just being used for a slime job.
Also, I happen to know Alvin Tan personally. We were in secondary school together, and I used to drop by his class often during recess and after school. I didn’t interact much with him, but I did observe him. Later he would be on my Facebook friends list, and he would post about his life and exploits on Facebook. Unlike the psychologist, I’ve observed Alvin’s behaviour for years. His observed behaviour does not fit at all the diagnostic criteria laid down by DSM-IV. I believe he’s an unabashed hedonist out to enjoy life (and sex) as much as he can, but is emotionally and mentally sound. I haven’t seen him demanding positive attention, manipulating people, being easily jealous or unemotional, or setting unrealistic goals. He does talk about himself a lot, he does have a lot more confidence than the average Asian male, and he is open about his sexuality and his desires. But that does not make him a narcissist, or mentally ill. He may not live like you or me, he may not have the same values as you and me, but it does not make him immoral, insane or a criminal unless otherwise proven. This ‘news’ narrative is character assassination with the stilettos of assumptions and implications.
The media is supposed to be objective. It’s supposed to get the facts right and report objectively. Instead, the newspapers are sliming Alvin and Vivian overtly and covertly. They’re not reporting news; they’re playing moral guardians while pretending to report the news. They didn’t even get all the facts right, especially The New Paper. TNP, Yahoo, The Straits Times and maybe others have reached a new low in news reporting.
And people wonder why I don’t read the news or want to be a journalist.