[GLOBAL EYE]Media has no innate powerSpeaking at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Journalists Association of Korea, President Roh Moo-hyun emphasized that “the press, as a power holder, should think seriously of exercising self-restraint.”
He has watered down his language and did not use the term “uncensored and unchallenged power” to describe the media. Still, because he mentioned that power comes from information and that the media controls the information, and requested the media to abstain from the “abuse of power,” his understanding that the press is in power has not changed. But the press cannot and should not have this power. The strength of the media comes from readers and viewers. The force does not give the media power but political and social influence. But if we consider the media an unchallenged authority and even the president himself assumes he is a victim of the press, the situation gets tense.
In developed countries, the press is the media. Japanese journalists call themselves members of a news organization, instead of the press, that expresses various opinions with words or letters. There are two reasons why the media in Korea is being attributed with the power. The press might lose its impartiality by meddling in politics and becoming an interested party in Korean politics. In the past, some media companies supported individual candidates in the presidential race and sided with or boycotted political parties.
The other reason is the abuse of the media’s influence to help maximize the interests of its owners who run a group of news media under nepotistic managements.
Some conservative media are not free from criticism on both counts, and their arrogance and deviation deserve criticism. They once overestimated their influence and misread it as power, but they never had true authority. The election of President Roh and the consequent election victories of the ruling Uri Party are proof of this.
It is not realistic to presume that the media is the authority because of its grip on information. Confidential information about the government, the administration and multinational business giants is getting harder to gather, and the media lacks the expertise to check and criticize it.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Edmund Burke called the media the “fourth estate.”
The fancy quotes make us believe that the mass media has authority. But Thomas Jefferson intended to praise the function of newspapers in accommodating communication between the federal and state governments in the formation of the United States of America. Edmund Burke meant that the fourth estate kept an eye on the three estates to prevent possible abuses of power. After all, the media might be an independent watchdog on power, but not the power itself.
Korean history has been tainted with a disgraceful past of cozy relationships between media and power. The media had been a parasite on the government. Sometimes the watchdog went too far and bit what it was watching.
The shameful behavior brought self-destructive results, making readers and viewers turn away from abusive and violent media.
It is imprudent to denounce the owners of media giants as evil. Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, has said that the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal rose as the most prestigious American newspapers because of tight family ownership. When a company goes public and becomes too big, it inevitably becomes commercialized in consideration of the interests of the shareholders. But family-owned companies value the reputation of the family, tradition, and history over short-term interests. Often, owners of media companies are more active in protecting freedom of speech than reporters and journalists. They know too well that newspapers published without a guarantee of the freedom of speech will not sell.
In order to maintain a healthy tension between the government and the media, both organs need to acknowledge and respect each other. The government perceives the criticism of the media as attacks on the administration because it misreads the media as a power.
Thankfully, President Roh added in his speech, “By rebuking the shortcomings with care and hope, let’s cooperate with each other for a better future.”
I hope the speech will serve as a turning point away from destructive antagonism towards constructive tension.
* The writer is the editor in chief of the monthly publication NEXT.
by Byun Sang-keun