The Right Path for Press Reforms

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The Right Path for Press Reforms

At the height of the Vietnam War, U.S. academics viewed the relationship between the press and the government as one between adversaries. They believed the press would fail to do justice to its functions of criticizing and keeping a watch on the government if their relationship turned too cozy. Actually, many argue that the negative slant of the press on the Vietnam War directly influenced its outcome. They maintain that antiwar sentiments on the part of the press had a bearing on the Johnson administration’s failure to expand the war to Cambodia and on the Nixon administration’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam in 1975.

Eric Sevareid, a CBS commentator as influential in broadcasting journalism as James Reston was as a newspaper columnist, said, “We will consider alteration of our adversary relationship when two things begin to happen when political leaders complain they are overpraised and when they admit policy mistakes of a serious nature. That will be the day.” In this world where leaders want to hear nothing but adulation and praise, and to keep their mistakes under covers, hoping for such conditions to be met is as futile as hunting for a rose in the desert.

Although the theory of an adversarial relationship between the press and politicians has come under refutation since the 1980s, there is still no change in the basic position that the press has to maintain an appropriate relationship of tension by keeping a certain distance from the government. People in power take the adversarial attitude of the press toward the government as a confrontation for the sake of confrontation, and criticism for the sake of criticism. President Kim Daejung appears to be no exception. Mr. Kim’s statement at a news conference that the press has to be reformed so that it makes fair reports and responsible criticism is shocking because it seems to be based on a perception that press coverage to date has been unfair and its criticisms irresponsible.

Mr. Kim did not bother to hide his displeasure with major newspapers’ negative coverage of, and comments on, the socalled Minkgate that implicated the wife of the then prosecutorgeneral, financial corruption scandals suggesting the involvement of key power holders in the ruling party and the unheardof concept of “lending” parliamentary representatives to another political party. Mr. Kim committed the gaffe of denouncing press reports on Minkgate as witchhunting, and he even suspects some newspapers’ reports on the sunshine policy to reflect an antireunification stance anchored in a Cold War mentality. The president of a nation is always a target of news reports and comments. No leader, however outstanding, can be free of criticism.

As for Mr. Kim’s North Korea policies, it is natural for each newspaper to publish its articles from a different perspective. Some of them can denounce the policies as a onesided big giveaway toward the North. Others can support the government’s current aidfirst, benefitslater approach as an inevitable part of the sunshine policy, which is in effect exchanging South Korea’s money for North Korea’s pledges to peace. Spurred on by critical press comments to camouflage his position on the press with populism is not an appropriate act for a democracy fighterturned president to take. Didn’t the trial results prove the press reports on Minkgate right? As for the coverage of the financial corruption cases, it is premature to make a judgment since the investigations are still under way.

The inauguration of the Kim Daejung administration three years ago saw the emergence of civic groups campaigning for press reforms. One of their demands is limiting an individual’s equity stake in a newspaper to around 30 percent. Some also talk about limiting the market shares of several key newspapers. We do not know if Mr. Kim is also considering introducing changes in the ownership structure of newspapers. Whatever his thoughts may be, he should know that the structure of ownership does not determine the quality of a newspaper.

The president’s call for press reforms, by falling into line with the demands of several civic groups, based on an implicit assumption of unfair press coverage, is nothing more than a demand for a remedy that is worse than the evil. His urgings appear to be an attempt to begin censorship to tame the press. He has to remember a press amicable toward those in power is incapable of performing its functions properly.

As it is, the press is under heavy pressure from the changes in its environment, from the “cultural revolution” touched off by the financial crisis and the change of the administration, from the readers’ waning confidence and from the demands for reforms by the civic sector. They are perfectly aware they will not remain in business for long unless they change. They face a harsh market reality. Pursuing press reforms is not something for the government to become involved with.

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