Readers Should Initiate Press Reforms

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Readers Should Initiate Press Reforms

The Government Must Desist From Reforms That Hold Readers in Contempt

During his New Year''s news conference, President Kim Dae-jung broke his silence on press reforms. To paraphrase what he said, "The press has to report fairly and criticize responsibly. In unison, the press, academia, civic groups and the National Assembly have to devise steps for introducing impartial and transparent press reforms."

It was Mr. Kim''s first mention of press reforms in a public forum since he became president three years ago. The timing he chose to broach the subject is significant and stirs curiosity as to his motives.

Why did he decide to discuss press reforms now, of all times? It coincides with the unprecedentedly acrid press criticism mounting against the current administration and its alleged misrule. Could the leadership of the current government be feeling an urge to blame the press for the crisis in state administration, as did its predecessors toward the end of their term of office?

Mr. Kim is also trying to resort to a kind of corporatism, with members of the press, academia, civic groups and the National Assembly playing a key role in press reforms, without the government getting directly involved. It would be safe to view this attempt as a populist approach.

In the process of amending the Integrated Broadcasting Act, we learned that corporatism can end up as the government''s agent if society does not have genuine bargaining power. The proof is in the already rising calls for re-amending the broadcasting act.

The current government claims of being faithful to the principles of the market and democracy is its guiding star in state administration.

I can also see the need to reform the press, but the initiator of press reforms has to be the market ?readers, in short. As for the contents of news reports, this is not something for anyone, including the government, to meddle in. The press has to pursue its own reforms voluntarily, based on readers'' demands.

JoongAng Ilbo, Donga Ilbo and Chosun Ilbo, the daily newspapers that some civic groups are taking issue with, are the most widely read newspapers in Korea. Readers have their own reasons for reading them. Nobody forced them to read these particular dailies. Nine daily newspapers are published in Seoul alone, a world record for a city. South Korean readers enjoy a wide range of choices, and they pick one out of the many for a good reason.

The ownership structure of several newspapers is different from that of these three dailies. Based on the norms of journalism, however, I am hard pressed to find any evidence that the former produces a better news report than the latter. The number of their readers is the proof.

Some say ending a newspaper subscription is even harder than quitting smoking because the companies keep delivering the newspapers. This is not true. As a professor of journalism, I once subscribed to eight newspapers, which I cut to four. I ended the subscriptions without difficulty. The deliveries stopped when I said I was not going to pay the bills.

The government must desist from pursuing reforms and making assertions that hold readers in contempt. It must never make a fool of the readers.

Newspapers are different from public air broadcasting programs that viewers watch free of charge. Readers buy newspapers with their own money to read. Korean readers are not so foolish as to pay for expensive newspapers if the contents are weak and the editorials unreliable. Especially in this age of multi-channels and multi-media, newspapers failing to answer to the needs and demands of their readers have a hard time staying in business. Most of the problems with unfair practices in expanding newspaper sales will be solved if the Fair Trade Act is applied strictly. It is absurd to create laws while failing to execute the existing laws properly.

The government must have clear goals in everything it pursues, be it press reforms or policies. Mr. Kim was not quite clear about his goal at the New Year''s news conference.

It was not evident whether he was intending to use the press as a publicity tool for the administration on the pretext of press reforms or whether he was intending to reform the press so that it faithfully performs its role as a forum for critical discussion by the public, a process essential in formulating public policies to promote a better relationship between the government and the public.

Press reforms must never repeat the blunders of the Broadcasting Reform Committee, which came under fire for initiating changes for the worse. At the time to amend the broadcasting law, an alliance of broadcasting and newspaper unions withdrew from the committee to protest its intended reforms. They called on the government and the opposition to stop their deceitful attempts at controlling the broadcasting media by using the reform committee as a tool.

The same call applies to newspaper reforms. The government must never pursue reforms in an attempt to secure a leverage for controlling the press.

The writer is a professor of journalism at Hanyang University.

by Lee Min-woong

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