[Viewpoint] Our manipulated media
It is strange how the largest and longest walkout by media workers remains so low key and of scant interest to the public at large. An acquaintance recalled a recent visit to a funeral hosted by an influential figure from the liberal camp. The most renowned liberals among scholars, journalists and labor activists were there. But none of them talked about the unprecedented media strike, which is demanding fairness and freedom of the press and the resignations of the media outlet CEOs handpicked for their positions by President Lee Myung-bak.
The strike at MBC has reached its fourth month, followed by KBS, YTN and Yonhap News Agency. Management and labor are attempting to throw heavy punches - penalties, accusations and lawsuits - one after another. Politicians and broadcasting agencies only feign interest in arbitration and intervention. They may fear they could lose more than gain by interfering.
The public’s lack of interest in the affair is also one reason politicians are looking away. Viewers are simply angry and frustrated that they cannot watch their favorite weekend TV shows like “Infinite Challenge” due to the strike at MBC, the second largest TV network. Traditional media no longer wields its past influence. People access news mostly from smartphones or the Internet rather than from newspapers or TV. For entertainment, they order and watch dramas and other programs from cable channels on their free time.
Years back, if a national TV network strike took place, the entire country would have been confounded by the loss of sources of information and news. But the viewers have a multitude of choices in today’s media environment. More are interested in the verbal brawls between striking and non-striking TV figures than the actual purpose of the protest. Many are appalled by the scandals MBC president Kim Jae-chul is accused of, but I wonder why a private lifestyle should be a reason for a prolonged strike at a major broadcaster.
What the union demands is not a pay hike, but an end to censorship and state interference. High-handedness by the management exacerbated the situation. Sacking someone is an extreme measure, stripping the employee of his or her livelihood. Journalists who pursue justice couldn’t have kept silent on the injustice being heaped on their colleagues.
But there is more to be said about the public apathy. The public has become disillusioned by the justice-versus-injustice argument of past demonstrations. They have learned that the motive behind the so-called confrontation of justice and injustice and good versus bad was actually a struggle for power. The flow of news coverage of the impeachment of former President Roh Moo-hyun was “unjust however you see it,” said the Korean Society for Journalism and Communication Studies.
A union activist was named the president of a national TV network and he promised balanced broadcasting. But after stepping down, he became a proportional representative for an opposition party. His successor ran for a governorship as a ruling party candidate and a prime news anchor who had been critical of the ruling party won a nomination from the opposition and was elected as a lawmaker. The public no longer believes justice is the noble cause of the protests. They regard the media strike as a disguised political struggle among different factions.
With their jobs on the line, journalists should at least pursue the loftier aim of revamping the governance structure of public TV networks instead of crying out for the dismissal of presidents. Major broadcasters KBS and MBC should seek independence from political power. Public networks should be free of control from not only the incumbent ruling power, but also future administrations. Jung Yun-joo, a former journalist at a liberal newspaper, should not have become chief executive of KBS, and Choi See-joong, a former journalist at a conservative paper, should not have taken up the mighty position of head of the Korea Communications Commission.
The media should not serve as instruments for the governing power. That is why the government accuses TV networks of being union mouthpieces while the unions lament their companies doing propaganda. To end the clash, the ownership system must be overhauled.
Under the current system, the president and ruling party can control the Communications Commission, the KBS board and the Foundation of Broadcast Culture that owns MBC. Politicians are on the sidelines because they are waiting for the industry to fall under their control if they win the presidential election in December.
But reform in ownership won’t solve the problem. Other public broadcasters also become tools of the government. BBC and NHK are often interfered with by the government. What is more important than the system is the government’s will to uphold independence of public broadcasting. Austria turned public service broadcaster ORF into a public fund in order to stave off political interference.
The people are a bigger problem than the system. Kang Hyung-chul, professor of Sookmyung Unviersity, pointed out that the fundamental problem of public networks lies with our political culture. I have to agree.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun