Joint 3rd Place Award $2,500
Dien Luong is an investigative journalist from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, covering politics, inequality and globalization.
He has just completed his Master of Science degree at Columbia Journalism School as a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Al Jazeera, the Diplomat, YaleGlobal and other publications.
Before coming to Columbia, he had worked as a reporter and deputy editor for the English-language edition of Thanh Nien newspaper, a major daily in Vietnam, for six years.
Dien has got a long list of hard-hitting stories to his credit, ranging from the lingering aftermath of the Vietnam War such as Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance, to environmental issues such as the risk of extinction of endangered species in Vietnam and the reckless discharge of wastewater into rivers.
In his coverage, Dien tried to show the other side of Vietnam’s “development” that has actually left millions of poor Vietnamese people behind. He wrote stories about how the education crisis threatens to drag Vietnam down and stall growth, about the risks of international integration that could see free trade agreements punish ordinary Vietnamese people.
International stories attributed to him include reports on the conflicts on the South China Sea, the damming of the Mekong upstream as well as the strained history of US-Vietnam relations and the persistent aftereffects of the war.
Leading stories about some of Vietnam’s most-pressing social issues like police-brutality, the same-sex marriage debate, and the legalization of prostitution have also carried his byline, and hundreds of others have flowed from the team of reporters working under his editorship.
His master’s project, which is going to appear in the Guardian, delves into how the Monsanto Company, which manufactured the devastating Agent Orange chemical, was insinuating itself into Vietnam to promote genetically modified crops. The story depicts some of the intense lobbying efforts the company mounted to sell its products, and also delves into how the US government helped to grease the wheels.
How media coverage promotes non-traditional presidential candidates in the US and affects public perceptions elsewhere
In the 2016 Presidential election cycle the media has played a major role in raising the profiles of non-traditional candidates like Donald Trump. Ironically, the media has been promoting the image of the brash property tycoon despite being criticized, ridiculed and even censored by his campaign. Reporters cannot wait for Trump’s next incendiary comment, and almost every word coming out of his mouth has set the media abuzz.
Even among anti-establishment candidates, many of whom have not balked at making controversial statements, Trump has stood out for his rants against racial and religious minorities for derailing the American system. These controversial statements have in turn helped sell newspapers and airtime. According to the recent Tyndall Report, Trump is “by far the most newsworthy storyline of Campaign 2016, alone accounting for almost a third of all coverage (32%), more than the entire Democratic contest combined.”
The media focus on these non-traditional candidates also comes at a time when Americans are increasingly angry and frustrated with the political system due to constant gridlock on Capitol Hill. The press has been happy to capitalize on voters’ preference for non-beltway candidates and spotlight the anti-establishment hopefuls. So despite their disdain for each other (Bernie Sanders, another prominent non-traditional candidate, has also dismissed the media as “corporately owned”), the profiles of non-traditional candidates and media ratings have both grown.
The international media has focused attention on these candidates for another reason: Many of the policies they espouse will put the United States on a collision course with the rest of the world. For example, Trump’s hostile rhetoric towards Mexico, China and Muslims is somewhat not the general attitude of presidential candidates; they often talk about getting tough on other nations, but are not that belligerent.
Given that, what people in the United States are seeing is the collapse of the traditional structures of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The collapse of the understanding and restraint that produced what voters see today on the Republican side of the campaigns is the result of a drive that began a half-century ago by a handful of ultra-wealthy families and corporations to pool their campaign contributions with the goal of literally buying government policy.
Trump is the latest adherent to their political philosophy because he believes buying political influence is the only way he can get a nomination. In many ways, Sanders has taken a page from Trump and is using a Democratic concept of grassroots fundraising to challenge the party establishment. For many here in the United States, each in its own way is non-democratic for a country of over 300 million people that has been preaching at the world about democracy.
But against that backdrop, in Vietnam, where an overwhelming majority admittedly does not even know what the primaries are, the media spotlight on controversial outsiders has delivered an ironical and unexpected message. In a country where ordinary people often look up to the United States as a role model for democracy, the rising profile of Trump is, for many, emblematic of a system that gives voters and fringe candidates a fair tilt unlike in their country.
In one-party Vietnam, ordinary people cannot vote to pick their top leaders: The top echelons are determined at the Communist Party Congress, a five-year national conclave that brings together 1,500 delegates representing provinces, ministries and party organizations. On the other hand, citizens can vote to elect 500 delegates to the National Assembly, the legislature, but without a wide choice of candidates. Of around 900 candidates who normally run for the house election, more than 98 percent are nominated by Communist Party-affiliated organizations like women’s and veterans’ groups. Most of the non-Communist Party candidates are vetted by the Fatherland Front, an umbrella group of all political and social organizations. Before voters cast their ballots, brief biographies of all the candidates are delivered to their homes and displayed at polling stations.
This is the context in which many in Vietnam feel that the prospect of Trump becoming the next president of the United States is not a grim picture like the Western media is portending. Trump’s hostile rhetoric toward Muslims, Mexico, and China has not affected his profile in Vietnam. Muslim-related issues are barely on the radar there; Mexico is too far away; the historic antagonism toward China fuels a perception that anything that can hurt the giant to the north can only be good. It is in this context that a majority of the Vietnamese masses, unsurprisingly, remain in awe of a system that is rapidly becoming dysfunctional.