[Viewpoint] Some things are not a joke

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[Viewpoint] Some things are not a joke

My cab driver suddenly turned up the radio during a game of the Hanwha Eagles, and he beamed to hear his favorite sportscaster’s voice. He said Park Jong-hoon, play-by-play announcer for CMB Daejeon Broadcasting, is a kind of celebrity in Daejeon. The cab driver in Daejeon explained that although the Hanwha Eagles are among the last in the professional baseball league, he tunes into its home games because Park’s intentional one-sided commentary in favor of the home team is amusing.

Opinionated sports commentaries are popular on other networks and in Internet broadcasts. Sports games have legions of frenzied fans. Fans prefer announcers who indulge their enthusiasm for a team. Shouting, cheering and getting enraged at a game is easy when the announcer is equally emotional. It provides an emotional release. Nobody is breaking the law. It is fun for sports fans.

But politics is not a mere game. If too many people go to extremes of that sort, the country would soon be in a wreck.

I was attending a community charity fair in Daejeon. The guests at the event were all Daejeon locals, but the main topic during lunch was next week’s Seoul mayoral by-election. One lawmaker of a splinter party attacked both the ruling Grand National Party and the main opposition Democratic Party, saying the sudden rise in popularity of Ahn Cheol-soo, a software pioneer and professor who, despite repeated denial of interest in running for office, leads polls about promising presidential candidates, is a symbol of popular disgust with politics as usual. A member of the Democratic Party sitting nearby unabashedly nodded his head in agreement. He seemed to that think Ahn and Park Won-soon, an independent candidate for Seoul mayor who has the united support of the liberal opposition camp, are on his team and that the public’s disgust is aimed entirely at the ruling party. The true voice of the people gets muffled and distorted by the very nature of mob politics.

The DP representative went on to criticize conservative newspapers, saying they aggravate the division between conservatives and liberals. He advocated for Park and went so far as to claim the campaign is a contest between Park and the main conservative papers, namely the Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo.

I reminded him that the JoongAng Ilbo said in an editorial that the ruling party’s accusation that Park dodged the draft - using his adoption record from his teens - was far-fetched. He was surprised to learn that the JoongAng Ilbo had made such commentary. I was surprised at his strong opinion that the JoongAng Ilbo was incapable of advocating for an opposition liberal candidate.

Does criticizing a civilian candidate or the Democratic Party make a newspaper one of the “bad” guys? The JoongAng Ilbo repeatedly urged the Blue House and the president to fully confront the scandal over the president’s purchase of a large plot of land for a retirement residence in a posh neighborhood in Seoul under his son’s name.

Without reading the papers thoroughly, people brand them as pro-government and anti-government, pro-liberal and anti-liberal. The JoongAng Ilbo has a pool of young journalists who hold hearings on fair journalism every two weeks, poring over signs of unfairness in reports and commentary.

Everything is about taking sides. A popular online satirical talk show, “I Am Ggomsu” (which can be loosely translated as a sneak or iconoclast), was the first to blow the whistle on the president’s suspicious real estate deal. The program enjoys mind-boggling popularity among the digital generation for its sensational commentary and mockery of public figures ranging from celebrities to politicians. The main host, Kim Eo-jun, founder of the online renegade Ddanzi Ilbo, and his co-hosts ruthlessly rip apart the president and the ruling party.

When we laugh at cynical parodies and mockeries of people at the top, politics turns ridiculous. The audience is naturally drawn in by the humor and eventually won over by the cynics. In a recent interview, Kim snapped at his critics, saying they were free to make programs of their own if they do not like his.

Political commentary does not not have to be poker faced. A bit of humor can add color and pique people’s interest in politics. Talk shows have broadened interest in politics. But all fun and no facts can be misleading - and perilous.

Anyone can engage in Web casting. What they produce can be distributed through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. We can be deluged by a flood of personal opinions about public figures.

We cannot expect civility from frenzied fans of a spots team. Serious debate has become something to mock. The traditional media must steadfastly defend truth, credibility and fairness in news as the lines blur between fiction and nonfiction, commentary and comedy.

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

By Kim Jin-kook
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