[Overseas View]Roh’s policy pushes media into the present

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[Overseas View]Roh’s policy pushes media into the present

The war between President Roh and the media went nuclear last month when the government announced a plan to close press rooms in ministries and change how it deals with journalists.
Right now, the prevailing opinion is that the move is a vindictive attack on press freedom, akin to those made on the other side of the world by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who has closed a TV station that criticized him.
However, in evaluating this news we should remind ourselves to be wary when the media themselves become a story in which, to borrow from Karl Marx, they own the means of production. In other words, they are telling the story. That and the reluctance in this country to debate is why right now theirs is the prevailing view.
But there are two more viewpoints to consider. One is the government’s and the other is “the people’s.” How will they benefit or lose from the new policy?
My view is that all sides can win. President Roh is making a historic move here, cutting the umbilical cord with the media, just as he cut the judiciary and ruling party from the executive Blue House when he came into office.
The result may be more rational and articulate government public relations. At the same time ― although this is not a government concern ― the press is being presented with an opportunity to be more professional and competitive.
The overall winner will be the consumer, who although enjoying increasing freedoms in recent decades, is patchily informed by his or her media.
Here’s what will happen.
Specifically, in August, the government will reduce the number of briefing rooms, close press rooms in ministries and police stations, start distributing government announcements and take everyday questions from reporters online.
This is a big change from the present system. Readers may not be aware, but most newspapers structure their reporting around government ministries. In other words, individual journalists are assigned to specific ministries.
This is unusual. It makes sense for reporters to be dedicated to the Blue House and the one or two ministries that are a major source of important news. But it doesn’t make sense to have reporters in 37 government agencies.
For example, you would expect a reporter covering health to have a desk in his or her own newspaper and go out to meet sources and find stories about hospitals, government policy, research, the pharmaceutical industry and so on. But in the Korean system, he works out of the Health and Welfare Ministry.
In the past, this system was a form of press control. The authoritarian government could keep an eye on reporters and spoon-feed them information.
In democratic Korea, it contributes to a continuing bias, not so much in favor of government, but in favor of the old top-down structure. Most information and opinion still flows down from the government. It flows from producer to consumer. From the powerful to the powerless.
Check your paper for the number of stories that are announcements from government.
Check also and see how few news or feature stories are really about ordinary people.
(When there are profiles of individuals, I think it’s not because their stories are intrinsically interesting, but because they have made the country proud, such as by winning a golf tournament, a best actress award or coming in third in Miss Universe.) That is because the media are an elite whose historic mission has been to educate and guide the unwashed masses with an eye to the perceived national interest. The unwashed masses are not, as individuals, very interesting to the elite.
But because we live in a democracy now, the system should change.
Korea is being increasingly driven from the bottom up, by the consumer, by the voter, by the individual. It’s time the press caught up with the times.
Another consequence of press rooms is that reporters develop close ties with officials who leak them confidential information that ― sorry, reporters ― the public has a right to know that the government is protecting.
From a public relations perspective, these relationships need to be established on a professional footing. The government should speak with a unified voice to avoid confusion. In Korea, however, ministries say different things and even officials within ministries contradict one another. As large companies learned long ago, the way to deal with that is both to limit and train those who are talking to reporters.
(This is bad news for reporters, but good news for anyone they write about). The government needs to train its officials to communicate better.
It has to learn to debate. Introducing policies without debate is an abuse of power. In fact, one of the most upsetting aspects of the new press regulations is the rude way in which they were introduced.
Another feature of the ministry-based reporting system is press clubs. Each ministry’s press corps has one. In my eyes, this leads to a strange tendency in Korean journalism whereby reporters covering the same field ― or “beat” as it is called ― view one another as colleagues who tend to share information, not as competitors. It seems to me that the real rivalries are between reporters from the same newspaper. This may be one reason why newspapers here are so similar. From a reader’s viewpoint, there is no reason to have so many of them.
These press clubs, incidentally, have successfully kept foreign reporters from being members of the clubs.
So, why is Mr. Roh doing this? The fact that it has come so late in his term suggests that it was an afterthought. Indeed, critics charge that Mr. Roh is being vindictive. This may be true. But even so, it’s a well thought-out response.
Many reporters feel the plan is an attack on their freedoms. “The new measure will not only harm reporters’ objectivity toward government policies, but will also infringe upon the public’s right to know,” the Korean Association of Newspapers said in a statement.
This perception comes from a natural anger that the level of access to government is going to change. Now reporters will have to meet with official spokespersons only and formally apply for interviews with other officials, rather than just drop into their offices, but it does not mean their freedom is being curtailed. What is really infringed upon is the reporter’s right to roam rather than the public’s right to know.
My advice to publishers and editors is to recognize the historic moment and respond competitively.

*The writer first came to Korea in 1982 as the Seoul correspondent for the Washington Times. He has written several books about the country. He is currently president of Insight Communications Consultants.

by Michael Breen
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