[OUTLOOK]The underworld’s messenger

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[OUTLOOK]The underworld’s messenger

I was on Jeju Island last weekend, for the first time in a while. As luck would have it, the weather was foul. It snowed, and heavy winds kept planes grounded. As a result, I could not return to Seoul and was stuck on Jeju.
Wanting to know when the weather was going to clear up, I turned on the television, to find that a (rival) news channel was reporting ceaselessly about how unethical the MBC network was in covering the controversy over Professor Hwang Woo-suk’s stem cell research achievements.
As I watched, I just could not believe what was happening, and all I could think was, “How can they do that?”
MBC’s current affairs program, “PD Notebook,” approached three of Professor Hwang’s researchers who are working as part of Professor Gerald Schatten’s team at the University of Pittsburgh, saying that they were making a special three-part documentary on bioscience.
When the PD Notebook team met the researchers, they reportedly told them that Professor Hwang’s research on stem cells proved to be fake, that the journal Science would disavow his thesis, that the professor would be arrested and that a similar investigation of Professor Hwang’s work might begin in the United States, in which case others who participated in the research could also face prosecution.
In addition, the PD Notebook team coerced and, in effect, threatened the researchers, saying that they could work out a solution for the young researchers, who had a long future ahead of them, and that they just wanted to “bring down Professor Hwang and his associate, Professor Kang.” Furthermore, ignoring the researchers’ demands, they used hidden cameras, as well as tape recorders to film the conversation that took place.
Unarguably, the network program went too far. Even if the testimonies they obtained this way should turn out to be true, we will not tolerate it.
This is worse than wiretapping done in secret. To be honest, I can only say, “Damn! Where is this country headed?” when I see the indiscriminate flogging that PD Notebook is carrying out on Professor Hwang’s stem cell research.
The network presumably aired a program on Professor Hwang’s research with the intent to show that we, South Korea, needed to play by global rules and standards. When the program met with an unexpected torrent of criticism, the network prompted yet another controversy, this time over the authenticity of his work, as if it were their hidden card to quell the public backlash.
But by positioning itself as the “last judge” in scientific research, PD Notebook really went overboard. And by doing so, it headed for doom.
Since when have television producers risen to the position of verifying scientific research? And just how could producers mention a prosecution investigation and a possible arrest, based merely on allegations that Professor Hwang’s research may have been tampered with?
Does this mean that broadcast producers can act like prosecutors, by attempting to exercise the power of indictment?
Was it appropriate for the program’s producers to coerce innocent researchers by saying that they would work out a way for the researchers to remain and continue their research in the United States? Should they be allowed to use methods that intelligence agents of the past dark regimes might have used?
I am not saying that Professor Hwang and his work are beyond criticism. In fact, there may be some aspects of his research that need scrutiny. But what the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation’s PD Notebook team did is not simple criticism or bringing up justifiable questions about his work. There is an emotional element to it.
Worse, it seems that it was started and driven by an agenda to shoot down a certain target. It acted as the underworld’s messenger, winding the rope of death around people’s throats.
What they committed was not an act of violence by a major network but blackmail that could be subject to legal prosecution. MBC’s PD Notebook, which pledges to demonstrate the essence of investigative reporting, now finds itself on the other end where it should undergo some questioning.
On top of everything, what benefit is there from all the twirling and expanding that PD Notebook has done on the matter? Did it fulfill our right to know? Did it track down the truth? Was this critical investigative reporting?
These are valuable goals but they can also become hollow rhetoric when the defender of those goals acts as the Almighty in handing out judgments, a self-destructive rhetoric that may bring down the arduous effort built upon our long-desired hope and dreams.

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Chung Jin-hong
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