[Outlook]Stop hiding in the darkBecause I work for a newspaper, people often say to me, “Please tell me the truth. Which presidential candidate does your newspaper support?” I was asked this frequently when Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye were competing fiercely in the Grand National Party’s primary.
When I went out drinking, there was one company executive who said, “I heard who the JoongAng Ilbo supports. Everyone in my field heard the same rumor.”
He even did an analysis of why the newspaper supported that person, emphasizing that what he was saying was only a rumor. Most of it was nonsense so I said it was not true, but he didn’t believe me. My honest answer could not clear his suspicion.
I do not want to criticize him. The problem lies with the media, not the executive. Korean media outlets have not publicized which presidential candidate they support. They have criticized both sides and made an effort to appear neutral.
But if somebody reads columns and editorials carefully for a week, he can easily find which candidate a certain newspaper prefers. So there is not much we can say if subscribers think newspapers’ neutrality is mere pretense.
In the United States, newspapers announce which presidential candidate they support in every election. They sometimes say they support no one, even though this happens very rarely. The New York Times and The Washington Post both support the Democratic Party’s candidates in most cases. The Wall Street Journal supports the Republican Party’s candidates. But that hardly influences election results.
In the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry, the Democratic Party’s candidate, was more widely supported by media outlets than George W. Bush. Bush nevertheless won the election.
However, there are good things about newspapers publicizing their choices. If a newspaper says it supports a certain candidate and runs articles to promote that person, readers won’t read the newspaper anymore. A newspaper cannot do so because it must distinguish itself from a promotional flyer. But a newspaper is free to criticize the candidate for whom it announced support.
The candidate accepts the criticism because he or she knows that the newspaper does so out of good intentions. A newspaper also needs to be careful to run fair and balanced articles about other candidates in order to avoid complaints. Just like everything else, it creates more of a problem when things are done in secret and there is no big problem when things are transparent.
There is a historical background behind why Korean newspapers cannot reveal the candidates they support.
Under military rule, it was suicide to oppose the military’s candidate. The country was democratized later, but the president of Korea still has many devices that can be used to strangle the media, namely tax inspections, pulling government advertisements at a certain paper or banning reporters from making contact with public officials.
It is true that newspapers worry about results when the candidate they did not support is elected. Of course, a newspaper’s own interest is another factor.
A newspaper needs to think about those readers who do not like the candidate that it supports.
The people in the newsrooms at newspapers say if readers end their subscription, it only hurts the reader. Those in the sales department would probably be furious to read this column.
But I would like to make a suggestion. Let’s make newspapers honest, a quality required of the media. Media outlets must come out of the closet in this election. Let’s publicize whom we support and why we do so.
In that way, newspapers will have few reasons to compromise between candidates, support certain candidates behind the scenes or condemn others in underhanded ways.
This is the first step towards transparency. Newspapers should not demand that only politicians clarify their views. Newspapers must clarify theirs first.
Korea’s democracy is certainly developing. Even the president cannot punish a newspaper because it opposes him. For newspapers to publicly state their political support is a global standard. Doing so will contribute to the development of democracy.
*The writer is the senior city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Chong-hyuk