[TODAY]Nattering nabobs redux

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[TODAY]Nattering nabobs redux

Prime Minister Lee Hai-chan’s unreserved torrent of remarks about the press remind me of the tragedy of Spiro T. Agnew. Mr. Agnew had resigned as Richard Nixon’s vice president because of a bribery scandal about 18 months before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency because of the Watergate scandal. When I think of Mr. Lee and Mr. Agnew, putting them in the same category, I recall what Karl Marx said in the preface of his book, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Marx wrote, “The historically important identical event and figure appear twice on the stage of world history, first as a tragedy, second as a laughingstock.”
Mr. Nixon engaged in politics amid the feelings of being victimized by the media. When he was criticized for his Vietnam peace proposal by major newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post and three major broadcasters, he changed his press policy from defensive to offensive and put Vice President Agnew at the forefront of the attack. Mr. Agnew, who represented the conservative right-wing camp of the United States, took well to the part of villain.
Mr. Agnew attacked the media on a nationwide tour in 1969. He deplored what he called a press monopoly in the hands of a few people and attacked the ability of a few editors and producers in the media to interpret and decide the important matters of the country as they pleased. He contended that the age should be put to an end where non-elected executives of the press enjoyed such rights and immunities. The U.S. media gave those assertions a comic name, calling them the “Agnew Doctrine.”
In Korea 35 years later, Prime Minister Lee appeared on the stage as a figure like Mr. Agnew, just as Marx mentioned. But Mr. Lee’s tone and frequency of attacks on the media shows that his hostility toward some press outlets exceeds Mr. Agnew’s hostility toward the U.S. news outlets. Mr. Lee says that in order to raise revenues from advertisements, the media keeps pestering the government to boost the economy and that Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo should not behave irresponsibly because they are in his hands. Just as Mr. Agnew was a surrogate for Mr. Nixon in the war against the press, Prime Minister Lee is a surrogate of President Roh Moo-hyun. During his term as the minister of maritime affairs and fisheries, Mr. Roh declared that he would not hesitate to wage a war against the press.
In the three years after he began his fight with the press, Mr. Agnew was forced to step down from the vice presidency after he pleaded no contest to bribery-related tax evasion charges. Thirty-five years later, Prime Minister Lee is playing the role that could be misunderstood as a follower of Mr. Agnew on the stage of history. Granted that there is an atmosphere in the government that sees some newspapers’ criticism against the Roh administration as “curses,” Mr. Lee’s remarks are too cynical and unsuited to his status as prime minister. Even governing party lawmakers criticize his remarks as “unfitting for a prime minister.”
If Mr. Lee’s act is a comedy, it is the prelude to a tragedy disguised as a comedy. His press-related remarks seem to be a part of a bigger picture that the “386 generation” government is sketching to tame some news outlets. The government and the governing party are trying to lower the combined market share of the three largest newspapers, Chosun, JoongAng and Dong-A, from the current 70 percent-plus to below 60 percent and push up the relative power of the remaining newspapers. Under their plan, if a newspaper’s market share exceeded 30 percent, it would be penalized. This is an anti-market downward standardization applied to the press. If the governing party’s press reform bills are passed, JoongAng, Chosun and Dong-A may have to reject subscription requests from readers and publish poorer-quality newspapers.
In broadcasting circles, Seoul Broadcasting System is under strong pressure, threatened with a cancellation of its license because it did not conform its “code” to reform. Failure to get a license renewal would mean the closing of the broadcaster. Is the specter of press integration and abolition from the Chun Doo Hwan military regime coming to life again? Mr. Lee’s outspoken attacks on the press under the guise of “drunkenness” have to be interpreted as an attempt to remove the obstacle to populist reform by gagging press organs critical of the administration.
Walter Lippmann distinguished a statesman from a politician. He said that a politician pursues the interests of the party and the social class he belongs to according to prejudices and factions, but a statesman serves a greater and longer-term interest than the profit in sight. Prime Minister Lee’s words and deeds are at the level of a politician. If he, perhaps interested in a 2007 presidential nomination, adheres to the “Lee Hai-chan Doctrine” like Mr. Agnew as a politician, he will be unhappy and so will the country.

* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Kim Young-hie
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