Time for the Press to Address Reforms

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Time for the Press to Address Reforms

In her autobiography “Personal History,” Katharine Graham, chairman of The Washington Post, wrote of her anxieties about confronting the government as she steered her paper through its coverage of what is now known as Watergate.

When five burglars were arrested as they were breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex, Post reporters investigating what initially appeared to be a case of simple theft followed a trail that eventually led them directly to the White House, occupied by Richard Nixon, who was campaigning for reelection. Mrs. Graham gave total support to two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, for their investigation into the Watergate breakin, despite her worries over whether she and the paper would be able to withstand the pressure from a government determined to stop them at all costs.

As the paper continued its investigations, President Nixon, who won reelection, pressured the newspaper both directly and indirectly, ordering a tax probe in a bid to close down a subsidiary of the Washington Post Company and maneuvering to have the newspaper taken over by another company. Even as she contemplated the horror of spending four more years under Mr. Nixon’s rule, Mrs. Graham was convinced that the best strategy for fighting her way out was to investigate all the facts and report them accurately. The investigations into the Watergate breakin ended with Mr. Nixon’s resignation in disgrace.

The two reporters’ role in the case is well-known, but not the refusal of the paper’s management and editorial staff to bow to pressure as they held fast to their prin ciples. A newspaper can earn respect only when everyone involved in its management, from publisher to each reporter, shares a clear perception of the goals and missions of the press.

The subject of press reforms is a hot topic in Korea today. In my opinion, it is high time that the members of the press took matters into their own hands by discussing the purpose and methods of their reforms, instead of trying to evade the unavoidable. The press is not above being a target of reforms. I believe the first task for the Korean press lies in establishing its relationship with the government. At such times of rampant political corruption and conspiracies, journalists have to ask themselves if they are doing their jobs properly.

One of the basic missions of the press is watching over and criticizing those in power. Have Korean journalists really kept a proper watch on the government since the nation won its struggle to establish democracy?

More than 180 Assembly candidates were found to have diverted at least 100 billion won ($78 million) from the central intelligence agency’s funds to finance their campaign in 1996. Yet all that Korean journalists are doing is merely reporting when the prosecution’s investigations began and ended?without digging into the truth. A string of illegal loan scandals of huge proportions involving powerful government figures has taken place, none of which the press is investigating.

Their older counterparts criticized the government and tried to stop abuses of power by reporting facts and making sound criticism during the rule of military dictators, when punishment was swift and harsh. Despite a far more free and open environment, the articles today’s journalists turn out can be mistaken for governmentissued press statements. Journalists have to look back on their failure to live up to their jobs and think about the efforts necessary for improvement. This should be the point of departure in discussions of press reforms.

The calls for changing ownership structure of newspapers, to prevent conglomerates from owning newspapers or to limit equity stakes of individuals, could have some merit. But we cannot determine the essential objectives of reforms if we lose sight of the fundamental goals of the press.

The Washington Post has been in the possession of Mrs. Graham’s family for several generations? from her father, who turned over the management to his son-in-law on retirement, Mrs. Graham, who took over the paper on her husband’s death, to her son. As many as 264 widely respected newspapers in the United States are family-owned.

Whether a newspaper is owned by a family, the public or employees is not important. More important is the reader’s judgment on whether it is faithful to its role. Instead of competing to increase circulation, press reforms have to begin with each newspaper reflecting on whether it has performed its basic functions of criticizing and watching the government. From the way discussions on press reforms are going, however, one gets the impression that all that is really necessary to reform the press is to change the ownership structure.

Korea will be able to pursue proper press reforms if it heeds Mrs. Graham’s counsel that democracy relies on newspapers, public or private, capable of reporting such incidents as Watergate with courage and independence.

by Kwon Young-bin

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