TAIWAN: Talk show hosts help make or break campaign
Media celebrities are a political force to reckon with, with their huge TVaudiences and power to sway voters
The Straits Times
Thursday, March 11, 2004
By Larry Teo
She has put on weight and now walks with a matronly gait. Her eyes no longer sparkle with youthful idealism and her flashy outfits are at odds with the memory of the willowy and elegant Sisy Chen many Taiwanese once knew.
But the TV talk show host, political commentator and erstwhile propaganda chief of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has not changed over the past four years in one respect: her determination to unseat the party she once helped popularise.
She says in her latest book, another bestseller, that as she nears 50, her political mission has become more urgent.
'I will write till each pen is broken, till each has exhausted its life,' she writes in the preface to Sisy's News II, which has delighted many readers with its cutting comments against the DPP government.
Ms Chen is one of several talk show hosts whose power in swaying Taiwan voters in the March 20 presidential polls is generally acknowledged.
In fact, if viewership is any indication, President Chen Shui-bian's DPP administration must find the very high ratings for her thrice-a-week show deeply worrying.
According to one media survey, at least half a million viewers are faithful fans of Sisy's News. The mass-circulation American paper, USA Today, has named it Taiwan's top political talk show on a chart of 10.
Unfortunately for the DPP, which has never stopped calling her a turncoat, she is not the only media thorn in its side.
There are at least a couple more hosts on that chart who have made it their business to berate the DPP government for misruling Taiwan and bringing it close to war with mainland China.
One, in particular, has riled the DPP no end - and like Ms Chen, he too was once with the DPP.
Mr Hu Chung-hsin, who works mainly in radio, had helped the charmless lawyer that was Mr Chen Shui-bian in 2000 to hit all the right notes during his presidential campaign.
But now he has turned on Mr Chen and the DPP, though he declares himself a supporter of neither the Kuomintang (KMT) nor the People First Party (PFP), the two main opposition parties.
The DPP epitomises the saying 'absolute power corrupts absolutely', he wrote recently in a newspaper column, pointing to its arrogant defiance against all well-meaning voices, including many from the United States, in pressing ahead with the controversial 'defensive referendum'.
His offensive against the DPP began three years ago with his book Arrogance Of Power, in which he accused Mr Chen of using big-name journalists like him to win over voters - and then discard them later.
He was the first to call Mr Chen 'Joshua' to promote his image as the best man to succeed former president Lee Teng-hui, popularly called the 'Moses of Taiwan', and to underscore their shared vision of taking Taiwan down the independence road.
That epithet appeared in his book Son Of Taiwan, which was written to eulogise Mr Chen. Many people feel that it helped seal the latter's victory in 2000.
While Mr Hu stays clear of the opposition, Ms Chen, an independent legislator, has fewer qualms about doing so.
Last November, she drove DPP lawmakers up the wall when she succeeded in persuading the KMT-PFP alliance to table its own referendum Bill to displace the government's.
That worked, forcing the DPP to adopt the awkward term 'defensive referendum' for the one scheduled to be held concurrently with the presidential election on March 20.
The DPP is not without its own supporters among the island's media celebrities, the most famous being Ms Clara Chou Yu-kou, who proclaims she takes no sides but is seen widely as a dyed-in-the-wool KMT-hater.
Her animosity could have stemmed from her failed affair some years back with a dashing KMT stalwart whom Mr Lien refused to condemn despite her appeal.
On one of her shows, when pressed by a DPP legislator to say where her heart lay, all she did was, well, giggle.
Still, she did hurt the opposition by calling its presidential ticket of Mr Lien and the PFP's Mr James Soong an 'old men's team', adding that pro-opposition voters 'should have their heads examined'.
PFP legislator Thomas Lee told The Straits Times: 'The involvement of media in party politics began with the KMT when it tried to manipulate them during the 2000 election.
'The DPP now resorts to the same tactic, causing individuals like Sisy Chen to feel justified to use their own programmes to retaliate.'
Professor Wei Ti, who teaches mass communications at Tamkang University, said the political parties themselves and the greed of Taiwan's media were the root of the problem.
'While political parties are addicted to publicity, political talk shows, especially the boisterous ones, have proven to be a great money-spinner for many TV and radio stations,' he told The Straits Times.
'Silver-tongued hosts like Sisy Chen are welcomed by the market and a few have built up a following.
'These media stars must have helped presidential candidates corner a certain amount of votes, although the final outcome hinges more on the image of the candidates themselves.'
But young Taiwanese like Ms Ruan Yuan-tze, a mass communications undergraduate, believe talk show hosts constitute a decisive force.
'Never before could a handful of talk show hosts influence so many people like in the coming election,' she said.
'Going by the viewership rates of some, we may be witnessing the most mass media-decided election in Taiwan's history.'
Date Posted: 3/11/2004