On 7 July 2011, The Economist published an insightful special report, entitled ‘The Future of News: Back to the Coffee House'.
From the editorial ‘Back to the coffee house', to the introduction ‘Bulletins from the future', and to the final conclusion ‘Coming full circle', there is one theme that runs unequivocally and consistently through the entire report: how "the Internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan", while alternative sources of news - even coming from non-journalists - are being taken seriously by a growing number of news organisations.
In short, the Internet has "upended newspapers' traditional business model, demolishing old ways of doing things while making new ones possible...the Internet may have hurt some newspapers financially, but it has stimulated innovation in journalism", the Economist forcefully contends.
Overall, the report gives a very positive assessment on the abundant availability of information flowing through the Internet, concluding that "although the Internet has proved hugely disruptive to journalists, for consumers - who now have a wider choice than ever of news sources and ways of accessing them - it has proved an almost unqualified blessing".
Now, let's turn to Tay Tian Yan's sharing of his thoughts after reading The Economist.
"Everyone was free to talk in the coffee house and it would naturally turn into an information spreading platform as long as there were people talking and listening.
"There was a great sense of participation in coffee house communication platform as people could talk freely. It could also bring great satisfaction as they could listen to the topics they liked. The words might also be sharp and harsh as they were protected by the walls.
"The problem was, however, no one, including the speakers and the listeners, could be sure about the authenticity of the content being spread. Also, no one would care about objectivity and fairness.
"Everyone could be a reporter, editor and commentator in the coffee house but there was neither professionalism nor ethical standard.
"Therefore, such kind of information spreading was unable to build accountability journalism as required in journalism."
While one may presume the Economist report should simultaneously be concerned about the authenticity of news sources, this however is not the issue that it drives at.
If one cares to read through the 14-page report as I did, one will know it is in no way about gossips or rumour-mongers, but people whom news organisations can rely on to enhance their contents.
In other words, it seeks to highlight to the readers how trustworthy sources of news that come through the modern technology can help make the media scene more competitive, diverse and vibrant, benefiting the audience along the way.
Tay's concern over the credibility of news sources gained through the Internet is legitimate, but this unfortunately is not part of the theme that makes this particular Economist report interesting and important to read.
In view of this, Tay has clearly taken out of context a report that cherishes the bourgeoning social media in order to serve his own purpose of warning against unreliable information.
It is akin to one citing a line in a report on crime rates to emphasise on the lack of resources confronting the police force, a sheer distortion on an unmatched scale.
Or we call it quote mining, meaning the practice of scouring a report for quotes that can be readily presented in support of one's preferred position or argument regardless of whether those quotes provide a fair reflection of the very report concerned.
Alternatively, Tay may simply have misinterpreted the report, which is also likely given that he has even got the concept of coffee house completely wrong.
The title of Tay's original Chinese column on this particular issue - published on July 18, 2011 - is ‘Hui Dao Ka Fei Dian', which is ‘Back to the kopitiam' if translated literally.
Again, the English translation by Mysinchew, ‘Back to the coffee house', is plain misleading,
Here, I quote my previous article ‘The Chinese press and the kopitiam'.
"The coffee house in England of the 17th and 18th centuries was in fact a place where men (yes, hardly women in those days) of ideas met for discussion and exploration of thoughts over a variety of topics. The Whigs and Tories each had their own usual haunts, much like the public houses with different football affiliations in nowadays England, save the rowdiness and occasional violence.
"The coffee house was even known as a 'penny university' precisely because for the price of a penny for a cup of coffee, one would come out of the premises a more enlightened person.
"However, reading Tay's piece gives one an erroneous impression that the erstwhile English coffee house was no different from the typical kopitiam in Malaysia, where ordinary folks gather and gossip over a cup of kopi, relishing in rumours and hearsay that are hard to verify."
The profound and rational debating culture in the coffee house in the 18th century England awakened the patrons to their identity not only as the king's subjects but, more importantly, also as citizens. And this is confirmed in a review in the Independent:
"These coffee houses had become the spine of British democracy, the place where men met as equals and where their opinions carried equal weight - equal even to the king. These institutions had both created and ensured the rights of the people, rights to ‘an unofficial knowledge of affairs of state'".
Simply put, the coffee house - chaotic it might be - was informative, intellectual, edifying and enriching, a far cry from what one would associate with the nowadays kopitiam.
I do enjoy a cup of kopi-o and a slice of roti bakar, and generally appreciate the boisterous and egalitarian atmosphere of the kopitiam, but to compare it to the coffee house of 18th century England would be a ‘compliment' too far.
So, when Tay mistakes the enlightening coffee house for the jabbering kopitiam, what does it tell us about his reading ability or language proficiency?
But this is not the only error. Another fatal mistake of Tay is his misunderstanding of the front-page cartoon.
Those people and items in the cartoon are in fact anything but ordinary: the notices about Pitt the Younger and Marie Antoinette on the wall, the latest leak of Josephine Bonaparte's emails, the mention of Thomas Paine by a patron, and a copy of the Tea Party Gazette on the floor. One man is apparently asking: ‘How goeth ye American Spring?'
Taken together, it gives a student of modern history a clear clue to the background - somewhere around the 1780s, when the French Revolution was in full swing while American Independence was at hand.
The cartoon therefore portrays a scenario of how these historically influential figures would have made use of modern gadgets such as Tumbler, YouTube and Twitter to spread news and information and to advance their various causes.
As I wrote before, the coffee house was a common phenomenon in that period of English history, and the men in the cartoon were therefore the rightful subjects of King George III, not Queen Victoria as Tay has wrongly assumed.
If anything, the Victorian age did not begin until some five decades later!
Tay, a journalist with more than 20 years experience, also claims in the article that modern press industry in Britain was yet to emerge during the Victorian era, and that "coffee houses were channels to spread news and exchange information at that time".
Again, he cannot have been more wrong.
The fact is, the British press industry had begun to flourish in the early 1800s, with the Standard (now the London Evening Standard), the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian), the Scotsman, the Daily Telegraph and News of the World - which has recently been consigned to history to save Rupert Murdoch's skin - vying for social influence.
The Times of London, meanwhile, had been in circulation since 1785, while the Economist was founded in 1843 with a clear aim: to champion the abolition of the Corn Law for the sake of free trade.
On the other hand, coffee houses - outlets which Tay erroneously believes to be the major conduits for news and information - had largely died out by the 1830s to make way for tea rooms. By the time Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, the modern press industry had already come of age.
Tay also writes that ‘such kind of information spreading was unable to build accountability journalism as required in journalism'.
With this, he exposes his ignorance to the full, and no-one does the job of debunking better than Chang Teck Peng, who rightly explains in his column at Merdekareview.com that ‘journalism accountability' as alluded to in the report, actually refers to investigative reporting and political news that can hold the powers-that-be answerable for their misconduct or abuse of power, rather than a set of principles and ethics that form the pillar of modern journalism.
The latter is of course of utmost importance, but it is not the point that the Economist report addresses in this context.
As newspapers suffer drop in revenues in the wake of the stiff competition from the Internet, they may begin to consider cutting budgets and this could in turn harm investigative journalism.
This is precisely what the report means when it says in ‘Future of news: back to the coffee house' that "shrinking revenues have reduced the amount and quality of investigative and local political reporting in the print press".
Are ethics and credibility crucial to journalism? Yes. Is this the issue under discussion in this special report by the Economist? No.
So, was Tay's mind on a different plane when he was reading it?
When I reach for a book on Lawrence of Arabia and someone tells me it is the Arabian Nights that I am about to read, is it distortion or misunderstanding, or both?
The Economist ends the intriguing and exhilarating special report with the conclusion that the traditional media "need to reorient themselves towards serving readers rather than advertisers, embrace social features and collaboration, get off political and moral high horses and stop trying to erect barriers around journalism to protect their position".
I fully agree, and Sin Chew Daily may start to do so by acknowledging that one of its most-read deputy editors-in-chief has made a horrible mistake with grave repercussions. It'd better do so not just to Malaysiakini.com readers, but to the 1.3 million faithful supporters of the best-selling Chinese daily in Malaysia too.
Sin Chew's glaring betrayal of its mission
JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.