The Ghosts of Quality Journalism Past: The Far Eastern Economic Review Remembered
By Nate Thayer
April 3, 2017
(This is a revised version of an article first published in 2014)
I have always loathed the fact that print journalists almost never control what ends up as the headline blaring over the articles we pen.
Invariably, headlines disproportionately influence, define, and trump the content of the article itself in a reader’s mind’s eye as our news stories filter into the public debate.
But with the Far Eastern Economic Review, the editors and poo-bahs always passed the headline by me for approval first–an unthinkable act of respect for both the reader, the reporter, and, indeed, the usually delicate subjects who were the protagonists in the topic of whatever article was worthy of making the news cut that week.
That nuanced respect for all involved in the institution of a free press is non-existent today.
The Far Eastern Economic Review took its mandate to provide quality journalism without fear or favor and without compromise.
The many and varied and sordid and dysfunctional and talented motley group of alumni of the Far Eastern Economic Review included some of the very best journalists of our generation.
More importantly, FEER, as a publication, represented the very best of the institution of journalism and its importance to free people everywhere.
It was, in my mind, the single best news publication on earth when it effectively ceased publishing more than a decade ago.
Never once, over the many years I proudly represented that magazine in my irrelevant little corner of Asia, did the final edited copy of my published missives, including headlines, photographs and their captions, and every word printed under my name, not first be sent back to me for final approval before going to press.
FEER respected their reporters.
And the reporters respected FEER.
And that meant everyone else vital to producing the unfiltered truth of import to the common good that magazine insisted on disseminating to every interested person in Asia and beyond, respected each other and recognized each other’s equal contribution to defending the concept of a free press to free people everywhere.
And that culture resulted in the subscribers and readers respecting FEER.
That, in turn, meant advertisers respected the quality of the readership, too.
Even more remarkably, even those, the subjects of our reportage, who knew that they would be portrayed in a less than flattering light, usually because they somehow fucked up, like we all do, invariably agreed to participate by being interviewed, because they, too, respected that they would be treated fairly and portrayed accurately, regardless of what unethical or illicit shenanigans they had been guilty as sin of committing and up to their necks in creating.
(That last sentence is an example of what would never have made it to print, because the editors–the vital defense line between reporters and readers–would have ripped the above sentence apart and reconstructed it into palatable shape. But editors have all gone the way of the Dodo bird, now, so you are stuck with reading this.)
But much less quantifiable was there was a deep sense of public service felt by each and every one of those who made that publication brilliant.
For those whose lives intersected with FEER, it was as if we all were entering a Catholic confessional during the production of the magazine, called to repent and partake in reconciliation and redemption and confess to our sins in the booth of the Free Press– a Sacrament of Penance–in order to be forgiven and achieve salvation by bringing unvarnished truth to the readers.
Review reporters were routinely expelled, sanctioned, threatened and jailed by governments and political thugs who had reason to fear accurate and unintimidated reporting from the Far Eastern Economic Review.
From advertisers to reporters, to secretaries, the editors, the support staff, the management, the administrators, the motorcycle messengers, the photographers, the layout production staff–they all knew they were equally vital and involved in producing and defending something important.
We all were equal parts of that extraordinary machine that proudly and without compromise provided unvarnished facts, beautifully transformed into a readable and entertaining and substantive and important product that reached a fervent peak precisely at 5:00 pm every Wednesday Hong Kong time, when the magazine went to the printer.
And then that nobly orchestrated sausage making process would start all over again.
The legitimacy of the magazine, and support of its extraordinarily loyal readers, was fueled and driven by the very odd, quirky, brilliant, and invariably insufferable mob of specialist grunt reporters in the field.
It was a true team effort of mutual respect between the editors, the management, the support staff, the administrators and those of us based in our unlikely patches of Asian real estate whose decidedly challenging traits as individuals were uniquely acknowledged and forgiven, and understood to be trumped by talents that were recognized and nurtured and supported and defended like a fiercely loyal dysfunctional family.
And the Far Eastern Economic Review provided the full support, respect, resources, and authority from the home office, the cockpit, in Hong Kong, without fear of anyone–including the governments and influential moneyed and political power elite throughout Asia. This included not just an absence of interference from, but the respect accorded by the advertising, business, marketing, and corporate side of the owners of FEER.
We were all part of something much bigger than ourselves, then.
To me, that makes them my now extinct, mythical God.
The truth is every worthy part of me has remained with, and been guided by, my cherished many years with FEER, ever since they published my first article in 1989 until I ceased writing for them in 2000, shortly before the final demise of the magazine.
It was in 1989 that the Review took me under their wing and they did what they did best: they nurtured and encouraged and nudged me forward, slapping me upside the head when I not infrequently needed to be. They made me the best I could be.
This may sound a bit melodramatic to many–but not to anyone who was lucky enough to have been associated with the Far Eastern Economic Review:
Whatever I have done that has been a worthy addition to the concept of a free press for free people, is because of what FEER did for and to me. And what they did for the vital institution of a free press and the integrity of the institution of journalism in the name of free people everywhere.
The Far Eastern Economic Review gave me religion.