[OUTLOOK]The essential role of the mediaIn this age of information, newspapers are like oxygen to society. If we did not have newspapers, we would be completely isolated from the outside world and living in a suffocating closed space, with the window of public discourse shut. Wayne Booth, a former professor of English literature at the University of Chicago, wrote that one of the purposes of newspapers was not only to report the truth but to continuously educate the public to think critically and judge an issue wisely. Newspapers also have the function of showing the proper direction for society by collecting various opinions and analyzing and interpreting these opinions in an impartial manner. This is related to the aphorism that the Canadian media scholar Marshall McLuhan coined, “the medium is the massage.”
Therefore, should the pure function of the media be lost or damaged by pressure from a big, authoritative body such as the government or from ideological conflict, it would be most unfortunate for society. The current strife between the government and several major newspapers, and that between the television stations and the major newspapers, holds the danger of weakening the function and power of the media instead of reforming them in the right direction. Should the government and the state-owned television station KBS, which seems to reflect the government’s position, continue to criticize certain influential major newspapers as they are doing now, a great number of people, with the exception of intellectuals with clear judgment, would start to believe that the media that either attack others, or are under attack, are undignified and unreliable. The government and KBS might be engaged, under the slogan of “media reform,” in a strategy for next year’s elections, but their tactics could lead the public to distrust the media and bring on a complete crash of the media sector. In the long run, the open and one-sided attack KBS launched against certain newspapers would have a boomerang effect on itself. Already there is a movement in society to boycott KBS.
Although the government and KBS have obsessively pinpointed and censured the mistakes of certain newspapers and tried to dismantle them, taken from a different perspective, one finds that they have fallen into a state of self-contradiction. For example, for the deputy head of the Government Information Agency to have criticized Korean newspapers in a letter to a foreign newspaper and said that Korean journalists “regularly” receive money and other forms of bribes was a very foolish thing indeed. If certain newspapers or journalists were at fault, there were plenty of other ways to censure them. To have made such a statement to a foreign newspaper even before the allegations were sufficiently proven or to lecture the public on the wrongdoings of the newspapers through KBS is giving damage to the status and prestige of the traditional media companies. It is neither helpful to the development of the Korean press nor to our country.
The media can only perform their function properly when they maintain a tense relationship with the government. The government would either fall into a slump or a dictatorship should it not have the guiding light provided by the critical eyes of professional journalists and columnists with their sharp observation skills and judgment.
President Roh Moo-hyun claims his is a “participatory government” but without the healthy criticism of newspapers, it is not a participatory government in the true sense. An important way to participate is to provide ethical and logical criticism.
All praise without silence and criticism is not proactive participation but submission. Should the media forsake their professional worth and intellectual opinions for the interest of those in power and fall into populist dogma, they would lose the dignity and meaning of the free press.
It is truly a foolish, opportunistic action for a broadcasting company to condemn influential newspaper companies for political reasons when they all belong to the same media. Such an opportunistic action will certainly undermine the fundamental belief and responsibility of the media. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” The government and KBS should heed his words.
* The writer is a professor of English literature at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Tae-dong