[NOTEBOOK]The problems of 'off the record''Tis the season for a presidential election. But the season arrived much quicker this time than it did in 1992 or 1997. Spring is said to be the time when frogs come out of hibernation, and fall is perceived as the time when leaves drop to the ground. For a political news editor, this feels like the start of a presidential campaign, but at the same time it feels different.
The difference is not the way I feel about doing more reporting on the campaign, or in receiving reports on such things as the rise of "Roh Moo-hyun fever," or the decline of the "Lee Hoi-chang advantage" and the "Rhee In-je advantage." Even in the smallest articles this season there appear to be supporters and opponents who show a range of sensitive reactions, making newspaper editing a difficult job. To many reporters, all this means that the presidential election season has arrived.
The way the media treated Mr. Rhee's allegations about Mr. Roh's position on the media supposedly made in August, and the content of Mr. Roh's remark on the media are surely going to be the subject of case studies by political scientists and mass communication scholars. Did Mr. Roh really talk about kicking out the owners of a newspaper and then nationalizing that paper? Or was that simply mudslinging on Mr. Rhee's part? How far must a reporter go to protect a source who requests "Off the record?" Who tipped off Mr. Rhee about the alleged statement or handed him a media company's internal document? And what should be the standard of reporting when it comes to political attacks between competing candidates?
The ongoing controversy is rife with questions like these.
There is a legitimate point in asking whether Mr. Roh did talk about closing down the Dong-a Ilbo, a major newspaper, or nationalizing major papers, or whether he argued for the media to speak with one voice for the sake of reform. Those are important questions because they help the public to understand a presidential candidate's position and philosophy on democracy and freedom of the press.
If the allegations about Mr. Roh prove true, then they will show that Mr. Roh is a person who holds dangerous views on the media that run contrary to the spirit of democracy. And if he was denying a statement that he had actually made, then there is a serious problem with his integrity. But if none of the allegations are true, then Mr. Rhee, who brought them forward, should quit politics. Insincerity is a detrimental trait in a presidential candidate.
There is one way to get to the truth: The reporters who were there when Mr. Roh allegedly made the statements should come forward with the facts. What has been reported in the media about the incident has so far been disappointing.
The media have failed to go beyond publishing what the candidates claimed, omitting any testimony by the reporters themselves. But perhaps anticipating that criticism, a few newspapers have since printed the reporters' recollections.
These recollections remain impossibly vague, such as "There were some present who said they may have taken [Mr. Roh's] statement to mean shutting down a newspaper." Other recollections have lacked objectivity: "There was a statement about shutting down a paper but, when asked to verify it, [Mr. Roh] laughed and classified it as a joke."
Was it a joke? Another appalling comment was, "It was so long ago that I don't remember." It is common sense for a reporter to jot down a comment by a potential presidential contender, even if that comment was made "off-the-record." At the very least, the reporter should have passed on the comment to his editor.
Some of the media chose to say nothing, thus allegedly sticking to the off-the-record rule. Of course, keeping that vow is holding to professional ethics. But it is an equally important part of the job to give readers the truth about an issue that is rocking the country.
If a reporter tipped off Mr. Rhee about the conversation, he deserves to be criticized for unethical conduct. Certain media wonder who tipped off Mr. Rhee. Biased reporting will bring controversy to the media's inclination toward a certain candidate and at the same time arouse questions about the media's integrity.
The writer is political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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