[SCRIVENER]Press rulings make good senseThe decision last week by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to stop reporters roaming freely around its offices has upset the press.
In case you missed it, the directive was part of a restructuring of media relations that also involves replacing the ministry’s press room -- this is where reporters write their stories and hang out -- with a briefing room. Under the new rules, government officials are no longer permitted to give anonymous interviews. Nor are they allowed to make personal appeals or protests to the press to correct stories. When it considers coverage to be wrong, the ministry will post “corrections” on its Web site.
The intent of all this is to purposely introduce tension, to create, in the words of Minister Lee Chang-dong, “a healthily strained relationship” between the government and the media.
By acknowledging the natural Demilitarized Zone that exists between a free press and government, Mr. Lee seems to be saying, “Let’s both do our jobs better.”
This annoyed reporters.
They were, in fact, so vexed that they took the unusual step of quoting the other side -- theirs -- in their stories. This newspaper, for example, quoted an anonymous reporter -- why anonymous, you have to ask? -- saying, “This is government pressure on the press to feed the public only what the government approves.” The paper’s editorial referred to the measures as an “alarming” attempt to block information flow. The opposition Grand National Party also weighed in with similar criticism.
President Roh, in reaction, appeared to leave his culture minister out in the cold by saying the measures were “inappropriate.”
Maybe they weren’t packaged right ― Mr. Lee turns up to work without a tie on and reporters, being sensitive souls, take this as a personal affront. But they are far from being inappropriate.
Many years ago, Korea’s dictatorial government operated with very sophisticated forms of press control. For example, it used the first edition, which is the version of tomorrow’s paper that hits the streets around 7 the night before, as a way to control content. Stories the government didn’t like would be axed from the later editions which most people read with their cornflakes and kimchi.
Another feature is the system of government ministry-based “beats.” Reporters would be assigned to ministries, where the news flow allowed officials to more easily influence stories.
What adds the shade of gray to this black-and-white press control picture is that it operated in the context of a hierarchical, status-obsessed society. Journalists were part of the elite and when formal press control was removed, that didn’t change. Reporters in democratic Korea maintained the first edition system and the ministry beats with their press clubs ― that keep the foreign press out, incidentally, even of the Blue House -- and, seeing themselves anew as representatives of “the people,” turned the tables on government.
Now even senior government officials complain that reporters mess up their day by turning up unannounced at their offices and demanding interviews. One assistant minister last year told me that he had to personally go visit newspaper offices to request corrections to stories that appeared in the first editions.
If you want to see visual evidence of the dictatorship of the journalists, go to the foyer of a main newspaper in the early evening and witness the masses of PR people from government and businesses furiously scanning to see how they are being treated in the first edition, and then calling head office where more senior staff set about calling reporters to beg for alterations. (To its credit, the JoongAng Ilbo last year was the first to stop producing an evening first edition).
I suspect that the subtext to the culture minister’s initiative is that by moving both sides to higher and more rational ground, President Roh can avoid the kind of unreasonable press attacks experienced by Kim Dae-jung.
The new rules should lead reporters to appreciate that they are not representatives of the people, any more than government officials are. They are both servants of their respective audiences.
As they learn this, we, the reading public, should get better journalism, which can’t be a bad thing.
* The writer is managing director of Merit/Burson-Marsteller and author of “The Koreans.” He is a member of JoongAng Daily Ombudsman Committee.
by Michael Breen