On Wednesday, October 1 the New York Times carried a front page article titled, “Hong Kong Protests are Leaderless But Orderly.” On Thursday, October 2 the New York Times carried a front page article titled, “At 17, Setting Off Protests that Roil Hong Kong.”
On Wednesday, October 1 the New York Times carried a front page article that claimed, “Here is a movement without a clear leader, one in which crowds of largely young people are organizing themselves and acting on their own, overtaking months of planning by veterans of the city’s pro-democracy camp.” On Thursday, October 2 the New York Times carried a front page article that claimed, “The slight teenager with heavy rectangular glasses and a bowl cut stood above the ocean of protesters who had engulfed downtown Hong Kong….It was Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old student activist who has been at the center of the democracy movement…. He played a pivotal role in setting off the demonstrations of the past week.”
To anyone with even the slightest interest in leadership and followership this constitutes a major discrepancy. On one day the stunning series of events in Hong Kong are reportedly “leaderless.” On another day, one day later, the stunning series of events in Hong Kong are reportedly the handiwork of a small number of people, Mr. Wong above all, who has become “something of a political star,” surrounded by “admiring supporters” and “mobbed by television cameras and reporters.”
How can this happen? How can the best newspaper in the world contradict itself so quickly and completely on on the question of how the most important pro-democracy protests in years came about? Several explanations come to mind. Maybe it was that the paper has just announced that it was reducing its newsroom staff by one hundred people – a major body blow to the Times organization. Or maybe it was that something significant came to light between October 1st and 2nd – something that changed the narrative. Or maybe it was decided by reporters among others that the best way to frame this messy story was through a single individual, one who could be identified, named, and vividly described “as a hybrid of a solemn politician and a bashful teenage sensation.”
The full story behind this Big Story will not be known for years to come. But what’s clear even now is that neither the Times nor, it was thought, the American people could tolerate for long the idea that every now and then ordinary people, followers not leaders, take matters into their own hands.