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In this editor of Semafor Media: Disney’s hopes for China, the New York Times Guild is embroiled in ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
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February 20, 2023


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Ben Smith
Ben Smith

Welcome to Semafor Media, where we break the news behind the news.

Even as Washington fulminates about banning TikTok and hauling Bob Iger onto the Hill, Hollywood is back in the China business, baby. We’ve got the details of an unreported meeting between Bob Chapek and Qin Gang, and details of a new boom.

Meanwhile, TikTok is selling books, a talent agent is advising Ron Klain, Max Tani delves into the internal infighting at the Gray Lady over its coverage of trans issues, and Semafor executive editor Gina Chua spent some time thinking about how you can actually use ChatGPT for journalism, and shares her findings below.

Semafor business and finance editor Liz Hoffman’s killer, inside chronicle of how the world’s biggest companies navigated the COVID pandemic is out early next month. Crash Landing is a spectacular glimpse both at how little the masters of the universe saw coming, and how fast the best business leaders reacted. You can pre-order it here.

Box Score

New York: The latest revelations from Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit against Fox are an X-ray of media cynicism. “It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down,” Tucker Carlson texted, demanding a journalist be fired for denying Trump’s ludicrous fraud claims. — New York Times

San Francisco: Susan Wojcicki succeeded in leading YouTube because she “resisted the urge to ‘go premium’ and focused on what they knew best,” Jessica Lessin writes. — The Information

Montpelier: His daughter’s sweet TikTok made a Vermont dad’s obscure, 11-year old thriller a best-seller. — BBC

Ben Smith

Hollywood’s China dream is back

Oriental Image


Early last year, then-Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang paid a low-profile visit to the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.

Qin, who is now China’s Foreign Minister, was on the West Coast to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s visit to China. He’d warned in his speech that “ice is forming” in the U.S.-China relationship, and “sending chills.”

Qin met with Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek in the historic bungalow where some of Disney’s earliest films were made, and the chills could be felt even there. The Chinese government had blocked a series of releases, from Black Widow to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. And while the meeting had no formal agenda, the studio hoped Qin, a rising star, could help them find a way back in.

But Chapek surprised even the Disney team with his optimism: In the meeting with Qin, he raised the question of whether Disney+, the company’s subscription streaming service, might be welcome in China, according to two people familiar with the previously unreported meeting.


Chapek’s ask was farfetched. American digital services from Facebook to Netflix have long since abandoned their dreams of selling directly to the huge Chinese market. And he has since been replaced by one of the most experienced navigators of the lucrative, fraught trade between the U.S. and China, Bob Iger.

But his request reflected Hollywood’s persistent Chinese dream. And one year later, to a degree that was almost unimaginable at the time, Hollywood is back in the China business, with Disney again in the lead. Chinese authorities let Avatar: The Way of Water run through the country’s Spring Festival, and it grossed $240 million. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania are also opening in China, along with a wave of movies from other studios: Paramount’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Warner’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and even Universal’s M3GAN, a rare horror movie allowed into the country.

“There’s been a dramatic turnaround and way faster than I ever could have imagined — and I’m an optimistic guy,” Rich Gelfond, the CEO of IMAX, whose large screens are popular in China, told me. “I just didn’t think it could have happened this quickly.”

An American movie executive who speaks regularly to Chinese regulators said that years of tightening ideological scrutiny — Top Gun was too celebratory of the American military, Captain America projected a vision of the U.S. as global policeman — have been replaced with an intense focus on the economic growth and recovery of China’s domestic entertainment industry.

There’s no return for Hollywood to a decade in which studio executives blithely edited movies to avoid offending the Chinese government. That will now carry a cost in the United States, where a bipartisan House committee on “strategic competition” led by Rep. Mike Gallagher has promised to call Iger to testify. (A Disney spokesperson declined to discuss the matter, and Chapek didn’t respond to an inquiry through an associate.)

And the subscription business model, which for Disney integrates Disney+ into the network of films, theme parks, and other attractions, won’t work in a country that blocks streamers.

But the return of China as a lucrative market reflects the paradox of the broader relationship. Even as Washington and Beijing search for a floor in their political relationships, trade between the countries is at record highs.


Chinese consumers rushed back to theaters this year to a changed market, in which the maturing Chinese film industry regularly beats out imports for popularity. This season’s biggest hit was the historical epic Full River Red.

“Efforts should be made to guide children to love ancient Chinese culture,” read an approving headline about the film in the Global Times.


Chris Fenton, a producer and critic of Hollywood’s deference to China, said some great movies can “appeal to Chinese audiences and, without any sort of premeditated kowtowing or censorship, feel benign to Beijing’s authorities. Those films will get through and will hit gravy in China.” In the U.S., he said, it’s time for a blockbuster in which Jason Bourne or James Bond “finally face their most realistic on-screen modern day villains — ones who may be using sophisticated spy balloons to drop catastrophic EMPs over the United States or ones who’ve smuggled a nuclear device into the heart of Taipei during a key U.S. Congressional Delegation visit.”


  • Variety’s Tatiana Segel noted that “Avatar” was approved two days after Iger’s return. Disney’s removal of a Simpsons episode in Hong Kong, she writes, suggests the relationship isn’t about to get less complicated.
  • Full River Red producer Steven Xiang described the film to the Hollywood Reporter as a “period-mystery-suspense-drama-comedy,” and explained the economics of the hit.
One Good Text

Kelly Farber is a literary scout

What We’re Hearing
Leonardo Munoz/VIEWpress

The New York Times Guild has become embroiled in an internal debate over its response to the open letter that some Times staff and contributors signed this week criticizing their colleagues’ coverage of transgender issues.

That letter, which singled out several articles and authors who the letter said gave legitimacy to conservative anti-trans legal activism, prompted executive editor Joe Kahn and opinion editor Katie Kingsbury to email staff defending the paper’s coverage, and calling some employees who signed the letter into meetings to reprimand them for openly criticizing their colleagues.

In response, the New York guild president Susan DeCarava posted a public letter affirming the right for Times staff to criticize the paper and its masthead, stating that “employees are protected in collectively raising concerns that conditions of their employment constitute a hostile working environment. This was the concern explicitly raised in the letter at issue here.”

But that letter, too, caused friction internally among union members. In an exchange that filled Times’ union Slack all weekend, several journalists complained that the Guild had crossed a line, and brought the union into a public protest that implicitly pitted it against some of the Times’ own union members.

“Susan has no right to send out letters regarding editorial content without consulting with the membership,” reporter Stephanie Saul wrote. “Criticism of workplace conditions does not include attacking the journalism of other members. I strongly object to this letter and I would hope other members of the unit agree with me.” (The local leadership responded that its four-person committee, which includes Times journalists, had signed off.)

One Times source told Semafor that the several members wrote notes to DeCarava expressing frustration over the Guild’s public statements around the letter. Others in the Slack exchange criticized NewsGuild national president Jon Schleuss, who posted a tweet on Friday endorsing a separate NewsGuild letter (letter five, if you’re counting) that expressed concern about bias in newsrooms, including at The New York Times.

“This is awesome!” he wrote. “Just to be really clear to New York Times management and any manager: workers have a right to engage in concerted activity. Engaging in an effort to discuss and change editorial policies are protected activities because those are workplace issues.”

Still, others in the unit defended the Guild’s note, saying the union was simply doing its job by defending staff threatened with discipline from management.

“The guild has an obligation to protect those facing discipline,” another member said.


The Times is not a monolith, and internal opinions about this week’s saga vary widely. Over the last several days, I spoke with rank-and-file staff who signed the contributor letter who feared they faced retribution, and one trans staffer at the Times who was deeply upset with the paper’s coverage. I spoke with others who supported Kahn and Kingsbury’s response, and were outraged that the paper’s staff would openly criticize reporters who they felt were doing their best to cover a sensitive topic.

But Friday’s intra-union dispute comes at a moment when members of the Times Guild are hoping to maintain the unit-wide solidarity around a contentious contract negotiation process. Two members told me that they were concerned that the friction between Guild members this week could jeopardize unity around the contract renewal.

The aggressive pushback on the contributor letter from the Times reflects a growing boldness by leaders at news organizations who seem willing to push back against internal staff revolts, regardless of the flak they may take among rank-and-file staffers and on Twitter. The note and decision to reprimand staffers is not dissimilar to the one that Washington Post made earlier this year when it fired reporter Felicia Sonmez for criticizing the paper and some colleagues.

— Max

Read the story on the web here


Fox News is expected to host the first Republican primary debate the week of July 15,  a year to the date before the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee…WME’s Henry Reisch is helping Ron Klain manage the incoming offers for a post-White House career in books and television…

…. A correction to last week’s newsletter: Joe Kahn is knocking down a wall between two conference rooms to expand his office, not expanding Dean Baquet’s old office. All the same, he’ll have more space for sober conversations about collegiality.

Lies and Statistics

Yale School of Management Professor Jeffrey Sonenfeld is taking out a full-page ad in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal saluting companies that pulled out of Russia, according to a list his team assembled.

He’s also in the midst of a bitter dispute with European academics who published a competing study, which claimed most Western companies were still in Russia. Sonnenfeld has been beating the drum about that study’s quality — notably, iconic Russian companies like Yandex are listed as Western because they have corporate domiciles abroad.

But the dispute is a case study in how statistics travel: The New York Times, the FT, and Politico all cited the contested study, despite elements, like Yandex’s inclusion, which strain common sense.

The study’s co-author, St. Gallen University’s Simon Everett, said he’d faced “relentless attacks from Jeff Sonnenfeld.” He defended the inclusion of companies like Yandex, citing “the perils of assigning nationality to a firm based on the perception of where the company has its largest presence.”


There’s been a ton of ink spilled about all the things ChatGPT and other AI chatbot systems can’t do well. But what it can do well — importantly for newsrooms — is work with language.

I’ve been playing with various AI-powered chatbots for the last week or so, and two things are absolutely clear to me:

  • There are useful, here-and-now real world applications that could materially improve how journalism is practiced and created;
  • The statement above might no longer be true.

I asked Claude, a chatbot created by Anthropic (which Google recently invested $300 million in) to copy edit stories that I had deliberately introduced factual, spelling, and grammar errors into.  For good measure, I threw in some internal inconsistencies. It aced the test.  It fixed the errors, corrected the inconsistencies and made the stories read more smoothly.  It even gave an explanation of all the changes it made, and why. Having an AI system do a first pass on all copy in a newsroom before a human touches it could help improve both quality and efficiency.

I then asked it to rewrite one of those stories — about China’s attempts to reverse its falling birthrate — in the style of various news organizations.  The results were eye-popping.  The Times version was, befitting the Grey Lady, staid and filled with background. The Fox News version had this headline: “China Demographic Crisis: Is Communism to Blame?”  (Click here to see screenshots of the edit, and the other versions.)

Is there a use for this capability in newsrooms? Maybe. Organizations that are trying to appeal to different audiences may want to find AI-assisted ways to rework their stories into multiple versions — something some already do now, just not at speed and scale.

But here’s the interesting thing: when I tried to repeat the experiment a few days later, Claude told me it didn’t have the capability — indicating that something was tweaked in its systems during that time. 

Which is a reminder of several things:  We don’t really have control of these tools, and by “we,” I include the creators of them as well.  They’re constantly evolving.  They’re not like a washing machine you buy that works pretty much the same way for decades, if it doesn’t break down.  It’s more like a washing machine that next week might decide you ought to wear your clothes a little longer so as not to waste water and preserve the environment.

So all of this may be a bit premature; but it’s while we’re musing on what they do badly, who controls them, and how they’re evolving, it’s also useful to keep thinking about what these systems do well.

— Gina

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— Ben