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[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Taking on the media is not wise

Apr 02,2003
With so many serious issues facing the nation, President Roh Moo-hyun’s obsession with the media is bizarre. The latest salvo in the president’s “war against misreporting” came Saturday at a workshop for presidential staff where he called the media “a dangerous uncontrolled force.” He went on to say, “We must protect ourselves from the envy and oppression of some media organizations.” As if this were not enough, the president promised to “set forth a new order for the Korean press.”
All political leaders in democracies have trouble with the media, but few express it as openly or as frankly as President Roh did that day. Currently, George W. Bush and Tony Blair are tanning under the glare of media scrutiny over the war in Iraq. They have expressed irritation at rumors and analysis that suggest that the war is not going as well as planned, but they have not allowed their irritation to develop into an obsession. Instead, they have let their subordinates deal directly with the media.
Leaders who try to micromanage the media usually end up paying a high price. Of all recent American presidents, Richard Nixon was the most paranoid and obsessed by the media. His desire to control the media drove him to authorize the cover-up of the Watergate break-in during the 1972 election campaign. His participation in the cover-up eventually forced him to resign the presidency in 1974 in the face of almost certain impeachment.
Until democratization in 1987, dictatorial Korean presidents could easily manipulate the media through censorship and intimidation. Roh Moo-hyun came of age during the darkest years of the Park Chung Hee dictatorship when media censorship was at its worst. The harshness of the dictatorship created a rich underworld of news gossip that spread quietly by word of mouth, undercutting the legitimacy of the established media. Like most smart people during those years, Mr. Roh knew that much of what was written in major newspapers were lies.
Those days are gone, but the newspapers that printed the lies are not. President Roh and many of his supporters believe that this historical fact makes such organizations incapable of objectivity. What they ignore, however, is that media organizations change with the times. The reporters and editors of today are not the same people as those who supported dictators in the past. Editorial stances shift with changes in staff, ownership, and readership. Finally, the media organizations are businesses: they must attract readers to maintain the value of advertising space, thus forcing them to keep a close eye on the public mood.
The president’s media obsession is particularly odd because many new media organizations that have wide appeal, particularly among younger voters, are sympathetic to his administration. President Roh should know this since many of these organizations played a critical role in stirring up support for his candidacy in the 2002 election. In the years immediately following democratization, many new newspapers and magazines opened and many have succeeded, despite economic ups and downs. The spread of the Internet, particularly broadband, in Korea, has stimulated the rise of influential Internet news sources. Cable television diffusion is also high in Korea, further expanding the range of news sources.
Indeed, the average urban middle-class Korean family probably has access to more news sources than its counterparts in almost any other major city in the world. The comparison with Japan is striking where most urban middle-class Japanese families still rely on a few established daily newspapers and television sources for their news. Broadband Internet and alternative (cable and satellite) TV diffusion are increasing, but they remain lower than in Korea.
The “new order in the Korean press” is already here. It was created by a combination of high levels of education and rapid expansion of news sources. The number of people who rely exclusively on the established print media is limited and shrinking. Instead of worrying about fighting a risky “war against misreporting,” the president should play the media by encouraging it to report on what his government is doing for the good of the nation.

* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.


by Robert J. Fouser


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