Floundering Disputes Over Press Reform

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Floundering Disputes Over Press Reform

The death of Adolph Ochs on April 8, 1935, at age 77, was marked by tributes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, among hundreds of other leaders, and the wires of the Associated Press were silenced for two minutes around the world. Every business office and factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, his hometown, closed for a day, and New York City's flags were at half-mast.

Mr. Ochs, who began work as a small town printer's devil at the age of 14, ended his illustrious career as a newspaper editor and publisher by leaving the New York Times, the venerable institution respected throughout the world as the "quality paper," as his legacy for future generations.

Readers might be wondering why I am quoting from "The Kingdom and the Power" by Gay Talese to talk about a former publisher of a foreign newspaper. It is because we can draw an instructive lesson from Mr. Ochs and the New York Times as we grapple with the controversies over press reforms in Korea today.

The extended clan of siblings, nephews and nieces of Mr. Ochs, who was the oldest of six children, all had a hand in the management and production of the New York Times. His son-in-law, grandson-in-law, grandson and great-grandson have succeeded Mr. Ochs as publisher. At one time, one of his nephews and a cousin of his son-in-law held sway over the newspaper, one as the editor-in-chief and the other as an influential columnist covering international affairs. The Ochs family also retained control of the company ownership.

But the New York Times did not suffer from any ill effects of family-controlled management because Mr. Ochs set clear standards for management philosophy and for objective, independent and responsible journalism. He demanded complete objectivity from the editorial staff based on a principle of distinguishing between news and editorial opinions. Despite an early shortage of capital that made him go round offices turning off lights after the employees left, he refused advertisements he considered dishonest or in poor taste, including a major contract from the New York City.

What does this tell us? It shows that family ownership of a newspaper does not automatically equate to a biased and self-seeking newspaper. Family management and a bad newspaper do not go hand in hand. It is the vision and values of the owners and the publisher that determine the quality. If I find one thing lacking in Korean newspapers, it would be the absence of a publisher resembling Mr. Ochs during the 100 years since modern newspapers were first published in Korea.

Many believe such respected newspapers as the New York Times have complete editorial independence, but that is a myth. First of all, the company head steps in by appointing an editor-in-chief faithfully following his or her editorial guidelines.

In 1908, a foreign correspondent of the Times interviewed the German Emperor and wired back an article on Germany's war preparations. After consultation with President Theodore Roosevelt, Mr. Ochs killed the article, lest the emperor's anti-British remarks agitate the American public. The paper also underreported a scoop on the Kennedy administration's plans to invade Cuba in 1961 because the publisher opposed heavy coverage for the sake of national security.

Complete editorial independence exists only as an ideal theory; it is a matter of degree. A newspaper that forfeits its impartiality and cripples its operation due to excessive intervention from company owners and the publisher loses its readers fast. It is a market principle far more frightening than pressure from those in power.

Some call for limiting newspaper circulation in Korea, citing the risks of the three largest dailies distorting public opinions by controlling over 70 percent of the market. If so, what kind of measures should be taken with the three public-air TV networks enjoying almost 100 percent of news ratings? Broadcasters pride themselves that the influence of TV broadcasting surpasses that of the newspapers, and yet they are joining in the partial calls for reform that target only newspapers.

The government and the ruling party are taking advantage of the public and opposition's calls for press reform as a means of controlling the press. The tax audits and the Fair Trade Commission's investigations into newspapers in themselves are not a problem. The real issue is the motive for the investigations, whose reasons only those in the highest positions will know. Opinion polls should not be asking the respondents whether they support or oppose newspaper tax audits but what they think is the real background for the sudden investigations.

The press will continue to publish newspapers long after an administration ends. No one objects to press reforms aimed at making fine newspapers. Each of the newspapers is seeking its own ways for reform to adapt to the rapidly changing press environment. We will soon see the results. We might even see the emergence of a Korean counterpart of Adolph Ochs. It is time to move beyond group selfishness and begin rational discussions on press reform.
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