[VIEWPOINT]Is Korea’s press too powerful?The phrase “media power” has now almost become a vernacular term. It emerged during the democracy movement in Korea after 1987, and began to take root naturally in everyday life in the 1990s, when the word “power,” including cultural power and economic power, was popular.
But the term “media power” is a very embarrassing expression for the press. Traditionally, the media claimed the role of keeping watch over the tyranny of political power. The media had rarely gone beyond the role of a watcher and seldom sought power for itself. Although it was once disgraced as a handmaiden of power in the authoritarian administrations, the press was not the power itself. But now the term “media power” is used so naturally that journalists themselves do not disagree with its usage.
Paradoxically, media power is the product of democratization. As the freedom of the press has expanded in line with democracy, the influence of the press has grown rapidly. The question is whether our press maintains a level of quality matching its influence. The answers may be different depending on the criteria, but they are generally in the negative. Although it enjoys no less freedom and social influence than the media in advanced countries, Korean media are not equipped with corresponding responsibilities or professional ethics. Naturally, there have been increasingly loud voices calling for the reform of the media.
But since the Kim Dae-jung administration, particularly after its tax investigation into media companies, the meaning of “reforming the media” has changed; it now means to reform conservative-leaning major newspapers. Before that time, the main objects of media reform were broadcasters. But the broadcasters were put on the back burner one day and newspapers, especially JoongAng-Chosun-Donga, the three major newspaper outlets in Korea, took their places. The reason behind the shift, the present administration claims, is that although diversity of opinion should be ensured for democracy, the three largest newspapers are too heavily influencing public opinion.
But, in reality, 70 percent of the Korean people get political information largely from television. And in a country where the Internet and online media are more developed than in any other countries in the world, the government’s claim that the three major newspapers have almost monopolistic power in the opinion-making market is nothing but a hypothesis that should be verified empirically. Mr. Roh’s victory in the presidential election last year makes us doubt the validity of this hypothesis.
As the goal of media reform shifted based on this unverified hypothesis, a negative side effect has appeared: Media reform is degraded into ideological strife between conservatives and liberals. Instead of making efforts to find a consensus together with the people, the administration put more energy into opposing press organs that do not share the same “code” it espouses. This will only lead to divide the media and public opinion, not reform the media.
President Roh took office when public opinion was divided more seriously than under any other former presidents. This was because ideological and generational conflicts were added to the existing regional conflicts. Therefore, achieving national unity is President Roh’s task for his age. But President Roh’s perception of the media makes it difficult for him to do so. He said in his state of the nation address at the National Assembly in early April that the media is an “unchecked power” and even used the expression “clannish media.” Through these remarks, he revealed clearly his bias against the three major newspapers.
But his expressions were inappropriate as a president who has to carry out his job for all the people. If the president of a country, not a mere civil rights activist, expresses his antagonism overtly toward the leading newspapers, it will not be of any help to national unity.
Feeling uncomfortable with particular newspapers can be seen as antagonism toward not just the owners or the reporters of that newspaper, but also toward hundreds of thousands or millions of subscribers to the newspapers who like to read them. This might be just another hypothesis, but I think the majority of our people today read their favorite newspapers by their own choice. If Mr. Roh considers the feelings of these readers, he needs a more flexible attitude toward “media power.”
National unity will be possible when he embraces his critics.
* The writer is a professor of mass communications at Seoul National University and visiting professor at the University of Oregon in the United States. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yang Seung-mock