[OUTLOOK]How rumors rise to Page 1 news

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[OUTLOOK]How rumors rise to Page 1 news

The latest government reshuffle is complete, and Prime Minister Lee Han-dong and his deputy for finance and economics, Jin Nyum, kept their jobs. This is good news for those gentlemen and their families, and only a grump would gripe.

But let me play the churl. This newspaper and others reported on their front pages Monday that Mr. Lee and Mr. Jin would be dismissed. Then we reported on Tuesday that they wouldn't be. Well, half of our reporting was spot-on. A 50 percent success rate would surpass all the batters who ever played baseball. But it is a lousy record for a newspaper.

As far as I know, no other newspaper has apologized to its readers for reporting the false rumor that Mr. Lee and Mr. Jin's heads were on the chopping block. Korean colleagues that I have talked to have difficulty even understanding my distress.

I think that is because my colleagues think the reporting was 100 percent right: On one day insiders were whispering that the two officials would be sacked, and we faithfully reported that. On the next day, the insiders reversed their field, and we fearlessly told our readers that the wind had shifted. So what?

The problem is that we failed to give our readers information they could rely on. Newspapers exist for one reason only, to tell readers what is going on. If we don't know what is going on, and clearly last weekend we did not, then we should report that we don't; and we should explain why it is difficult to know what the Blue House is thinking.

Gamesmanship is a part of politics, in Seoul, Washington or any other capital. Trial balloons are floated to gauge public reaction. Rumors are started to see whether a stampede of opinion can be mobilized. Sometimes a president's thinking evolves: It is even possible that President Kim Dae-jung was firmly resolved to dismiss Mr. Lee and Mr. Jin, then changed his mind the next day.

But so far we don't know how these stories found their way into print. No attempt was made to explain to readers why political reporting lurches from one confident prediction to another, diametrically opposite one.

I am told that part of the problem is the deferential attitude the press here adopts toward political authority. This is not attributable to Confucian culture alone. The South Korean press has been free for only about a dozen years. It is still exploring what it can and cannot report without triggering government reprisals. Last summer's massive legal strike on the media, in which major companies and their executives were indicted and fined on tax charges, was a sobering reminder that even the relatively liberal Kim administration is not hesitant to take on a hostile press.

In this delicate atmosphere, and without a tradition of press freedom, it is understandable that Korean journalists may feel more accountable to the sources who feed them rumors than to the readers who judge the newspaper's credibility. It will take time for the Korean press to become fully professional.

Professionalism is hard-won in any field, but perhaps especially so in journalism where so many forces conspire to undermine it. Journalists and readers may think idealistically of a newspaper as a truth-teller, fearless and impartial, but many others think of it as a billboard.

In one of my former jobs in America I dealt constantly with agents who said, "We would like to place this information in your newspaper." I gave them the telephone number of the advertising manager. The newspaper does not exist to provide free access to readers for hucksters selling products or opinions.

Unfortunately, the sources we have to rely on to find out what's going on in the government are usually hucksters. Don't blame them for that. In a democracy, they depend on votes, which means that they will try to control what gets written about them in newspapers. They are free with news that reflects favorably on themselves, and secretive with everything else. They will try to manipulate stories to present themselves advantageously. A negotiating failure, for example, will be disguised as a courageous defiance of outrageous demands by the other side.

This is a natural dynamic, and all political reporters ?in Korea as elsewhere ?understand it. What Korean reporters often lack is experience in managing these pressures. To challenge a Blue House source who is "spinning" is likely to mean that he won't return phone calls in the future. And editors have no sympathy for the reporter who doesn't come back with a story.

So, congratulations to Mr. Lee and Mr. Jin. And, let's hope, a lesson was learned by the press.


The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Hal Piper

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