[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Lessons on dealing with the pressPresident Roh Moo-hyun and the Korean media continue their battle of nerves. The latest outburst came last week, when the president refused to accept the resignation of his personal secretary, Yang Gil-seung, who was caught on videotape drinking with a suspected criminal. Mr. Roh refused to accept the resignation because he did not want to be seen as giving in to media pressure. The mainstream media and opposition parties responded by questioning Mr. Roh’s commitment to a free press and democracy itself.
Both sides want to portray themselves as victims. To Mr. Roh, the media are run by entrenched conservatives who are bent on dooming his presidency. To the media, Mr. Roh is a temperamental leader who represents a threat to the freedom of the press and the economic survival of media organizations. Because both see themselves as victims of the other, criticism and disagreements take on a life of their own, leaving the Korean people distrustful of both sides.
In many countries, politicians and the media work together even as they appear to be in conflict. Politicians need the media to get their message out, while the media need politicians to create the news and photo opportunities that they require for their existence. News and photo opportunities range from racy scandals to grand posturing on the global stage. What the media think about a politician is not important because they need to report the news and present the photo opportunities to survive.
The Kim Dae-jung administration illustrates this point. In 1997, the media establishment did not want Mr. Kim to win and only began to take his candidacy seriously when it was clear that he had a strong chance of winning. Until then, the media reported on Mr. Kim with the assumption that he would never become president. As president, his strong leadership style produced a steady stream of news and photo opportunities that the media enjoyed. The peak of this creation was no doubt the inter-Korean summit in 2000. At various points throughout Mr. Kim’s administration, his staff and sons created scandals that hurt his popularity, but the administration rarely criticized the media directly. Instead, Mr. Kim blamed the opposition party for thwarting his proposed reforms. Though he left office with low approval ratings, his standing among the public is better than that of any of his predecessors.
In the United States, former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were masters of news and photo opportunity creation. Until he was elected in 1980, Mr. Reagan was seen as a dangerous conservative, but the media warmed to him because he created a steady stream of news complete with attractive photo opportunities. He coasted to a landslide re-election in 1984 and was able to weather the Iran-contra scandal in his second term with ease. Mr. Clinton was a similar master of the media game and, like Mr. Reagan, won re-election and survived a major scandal in his second term because of high popularity ratings. In times of difficulty, both presidents criticized political opponents rather than the media. President George W. Bush, hardly a media darling, is following the Reagan-Clinton strategy, and is moving into 2004 from a position of strength.
Apart from creating news and photo opportunities, a president needs to ignore petty criticism and turn it on his opponents when necessary. Kim Dae-jung, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all stir strong emotions, with at least a third of people never accepting them as president. Yet each knew that if he kept the political center, he could keep his virulent opponents at bay and get things done. And each was a master of photo opportunities that projected presidential leadership. In this sense, the strength of minority criticism is a measure of the strength of majority support.
Instead of allowing the media to make news, Mr. Roh should be the one making the news and providing the photo opportunities. Media desperation to make news shows that the president is not making enough news to keep the media happy. A more serious problem, however, is that the president is not making enough news to keep the people happy. A recent poll showed the president’s approval rating at 24 percent, which is not much better than that of Kim Young-sam during the economic crisis of 1997. The people feel that the nation is adrift and blame it on a lack of presidential leadership, not a media conspiracy.
Instead of whining about the media, Mr. Roh should figure out how he can make news to restore optimism about the future. Scandals will happen and criticism will flow, but as long as the president is at the center of news that gains support from the people, the media will find that he is more a partner than an adversary.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser