[OUTLOOK]All the news that fits our biases

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[OUTLOOK]All the news that fits our biases

The Ombudsman Commit-tee that advises this newspaper was enjoying a Chinese lunch. There was a call for better weather information, a suggestion for reconfiguring the front-page briefs. Suddenly, someone pressed a hot button. "Why don't you do something to combat Korean emotionalism about the U.S. forces here?"

"This goes to the professionalism of the Korean press."

"Is it a conspiracy, or just incompetence?"

Ahem, speaking of emotionalism . . .

Only four of the 10 members of the panel are Americans; four are Koreans, and others are married to Koreans. But there was a surprising consensus that Americans are not getting a fair shake in the Korean press or from the Korean government.

It is important to note that the panel was not reacting to personal slights. Most Americans I know find Koreans unfailingly friendly, helpful and warm-hearted. I can't think of a single instance when I was the target of anti-Americanism.

What has our ombudsmen so worked up is not the Korean people, but what they see as deliberate distortion in the Korean press and pusillanimity in the Korean government. There was not much of a defense from our Korean ombudsman who has worked in both journalism and government. "The press has come a long way in 10 years," said Kim Myong-sik, director of Arirang TV. "There was a time when you couldn't do journalism even if you wanted to." He was referring, of course, to censorship under the military regimes.

Now that it has a free press, however, Korean journalists have been slow ?at least in our panel's view ?to accept the responsibilities that go with freedom. In particular the group, most of whose members can read Korean, objected to the coverage of two incidents involving U.S. soldiers ?the killing of two Korean girls by an armored military vehicle and the altercation on a subway train involving Korean demonstrators.

So far as I was able to determine, most Korean journalists made little effort to report anything other than what protest groups said about either case. U.S. Forces Korea released detailed statements, but these were largely ignored.

The day that the U.S. Army announced that two soldiers would be court-martialed, the story in the Korean JoongAng Ilbo led with statements from protest groups denouncing the U.S. military. Six paragraphs into the story, the courts-martial were finally mentioned, but dismissed: "Although the U.S. Army base said the men would be given a military trial, the civic groups said that they would escape punishment." I personally rewrote this story for our English edition.

It's not only coverage of particular stories, another panelist said, but a general framework of belief that stories must be fitted into. For example, he said, Russian and Filipina prostitutes are never mentioned in the Korean press without the explanation that they are here for the use of American GIs. Not true, the panelist said ?GIs can't afford them; their patrons are almost all Korean businessmen. That conflicts with Korean society's views that the GIs are a corrupting influence and that what Korean men do is nobody's business; so it can't be admitted.

Another fact that cannot be acknowledged, according to Tom Pinansky, a lawyer, is that Korean tax money paid for the Russian Embassy near Deoksu Palace. Instead, the local press harps on the architectural desecration that an American Embassy would wreak in the same area. And the government refuses to push through a survey to determine whether the area contains architectural treasures. It ordered such a survey, but backed off when Korean firms refused to conduct it.

Michael Breen, who is British, said a Korean journalist once asked him to comment about some issue involving Americans; he referred the caller to the U.S. Embassy. "I can't call the Americans," the journalist said, according to Mr. Breen. "My colleagues would think I am pro-American."

On the other hand, Korean journalists were once able to visit U.S. front-line troops, said Suzanna Oh, a journalist herself. Now, she said, the U.S. Forces Korea isolates itself, shuns direct contact with the Korean press and prefers to tell its story through press releases.

Perhaps, Ms. Oh suggested, the JoongAng Daily could be the bridge. Whew! Asking our little paper to soothe Korean-American resentments and reform Korean journalism is a tall order.

Rebuttal from a Korean journalist? We would welcome it.

* The writer is the editor of the Joongang Daily

by Hal Piper

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