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[OUTLOOK]Don't Kill the Messenger to Avoid Truth

Tax probes can be as deadly as a sharp sword for the press.

Apr 02,2001
The press, when reporting the truth, sometimes runs the risk of suffering the fate of the messenger who was delivering news of a defeat in battle. They often had their necks severed before the emperor. The Korean press is undergoing tax investigations - which can be just as deadly as a sharp sword - for reporting the truth, as though it were a sin.

The heads of major U.S. TV news networks, including CNN, were recently summoned by Congress, but not for tax inquiries or because they had fallen out of favor with those in power. The investigations were about election-night projection blunders. Perhaps the tax office is the most fearsome institution in Korea and Congress in the United States.

Although the press is being harassed in both countries, there are major differences between the two national governments. When The Washington Post investigated the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, the U.S. government could have tried to force it to surrender by threatening the company with various financial and legal measures. Although the Nixon administration did exert pressure, the White House could not restrict freedom of the press.

Another difference is that the U.S. press does what it is supposed to do before the government takes any action. For instance, the TV networks apologized for their mistakes in making incorrect projections of the winner during the last presidential election, conducted their own in-house investigations and presented plans for improvement. They did this not out of fear of the government but of their customers.

In the last presidential election, major TV networks used the same data from a consortium they had set up to conduct exit polls simultaneously and projected election winners. The networks vowed to conduct independent polls starting with the next elections and make less expensive, less rash, but more accurate reporting. All Congress could do was strongly admonish the networks.

Then what about Korea's National Tax Service or the Fair Trade Commission's attitude toward its press? The 1994 tax probes into media organizations ended with a slap on the wrist. But former President Kim Young-sam disclosed that this was not because the media organizations had their account books in perfect order or because they observed fair market practices. The government had decided to close the case because divulging the truth would have cast the survival of the organizations in doubt.

Any such action by political circles drives a wedge deeper between the public and the press - which has already lost much of the public's confidence in the course of government attempts to control the press. The press welcomes neither the forces trying to "control" it nor the rescue forces trying to "prevent the control." Is the press such a pushover? The phrase "taming the press" is also pathetic?hat is the press, a sheep? How lightly the government must take the press if it can become such an easy target of control and conspiracy.

Washington swarms with spin doctors trying to win the press to their side. In this environment, no one is on the look out to block external forces from targeting the press. Each news organization has to become stronger through its own efforts. If the press is reduced to an inane institution, it is the public that suffers. The World Bank said in a report that one of the causes of Asia's financial crisis was the impotent press that failed to neither monitor nor check the government.

When the government attempts to strengthen its hold on affairs, the press has to counter by becoming stronger. No government will do wrong if the messenger of public sentiments refuses to kowtow to power. A strong government is not a fearsome government; it is one that does its duties properly.

In 1971, the New York Times obtained secret government papers detailing the entire history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War but could not decide whether to publish the papers after the government threatened to arrest the newspaper's head. The famous columnist James Reston said if the Times did not publish the papers, Vineyard Gazette (a small town newspaper owned by the columnist's family) would. The next day, the Times published the entire text of the Pentagon papers, changing the course of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration, which sued the Times to block the publication, ultimately benefited from the newspaper's courageous reporting because the administration is now considered a winner for ending the Vietnam War in response to public sentiments.

If the Kim Dae-jung administration wants to shore up its power and become strong, it should not create a stronger government structure but whether it should pacify opposition forces with dialogue and by solving economic problems and North Korea issues. Mr. Bush, who barely managed to become president, is leading his administration, boosted by supra-partisan support and a honeymoon with the press. He gave a lucid answer when asked what he intends to do, now that he is president. "Move on," he said.

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The writer is a U.S.-based columnist.


by Choi Kyu-jang




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