A victory lap too soonI recently finished “Ahn Cheol-soo’s Thoughts.” In the best-selling book, the software mogul-turned-professor expands on current issues put forward by a journalism professor who posed as his interviewer. A candidate usually talks to the press when he wants to be interviewed on his views. Ahn chose his single interviewer and spoke his mind from his office at Seoul National University. It was a very controlled interview. The interviewer was, unsurprisingly, charmed by Ahn. She perceived a “salient fortitude and resilience underneath his composed appearance.” He demonstrated an “extraordinary” will and desire to lead our society in a better direction. And he presented his thoughts and solutions to various questions with seeming competence and conviction.
Almost at the same time the book hit bookstores, Ahn appeared on a talk show hosted by TV entertainers and more or less repeated the thoughts in his book with a bit more color and humor. A public figure is free to appear on any TV program. We may have wished for more from a figure who happens to be a potential presidential candidate who is highly popular among the critical group of voters under the age of 50. The program, “Healing Camp,” is famous for featuring high-profile figures who talk candidly about their problems and dreams. It’s supposed to have a cathartic effect for the audience. Ahn’s episode was fun and appealing. The show did not deal with the weighty questions, or have the kind of hard rebuttals, a political debate would have. There’s no point in blaming Ahn for choosing easy and comfortable media platforms to present himself favorably to the broader public. And, although he lacks political experience, this doesn’t mean he is poor at political strategy. What’s pitiful is that newspapers and broadcasters hype his interviews without going through them in detail with the kind of investigative perspective expected of them. The press has lost its journalistic zeal.
Aspiring presidential candidates from both the ruling and opposition camps have been touring the nation. They have been shouting to the wind what kind of presidents they wish to be. But they hardly get any attention because none get the kind of attention Ahn commands. The head of the main opposition party is undermining his own party and its candidates. He implies that his party will make the winner of its primary contest against Ahn to come up with the best person to be opposition candidate. All these arrangements are made and publicized even as Ahn remains mum as to whether he will run in the presidential election.
What point is there of conducting a primary if the winning candidate is forced to compete with an outsider to claim a candidacy? What kind of political party does that? Even if a party leader does not have complete confidence in his candidates, it is shameful to admit the party may not come up with the best candidate. By doing so, he is disgracing himself and ridiculing the party system. If he wants Ahn as a candidate so desperately, he should try to recruit him before his primary takes place. Our parties no longer have any shame and are slowly driving themselves into extinction.
Why? The easy answer can be seen in a society inundated by social networking services, the Internet and mobile communication. Few read the newspaper or watch prime time news. It is the era of horizontal, open and interactive communication in which the traditional media has a diminished place. Newspapers have lost readers to bloggers and news presenters transformed themselves into entertainers in order to grab viewership. The political parties find themselves in the same plight. The opposition party already lost face in the last Seoul mayoral by-election. Its candidates lost a primary to independent rights activist Park Won-soon. A party that failed to generate a Seoul mayor may not be expected to produce a president. Mobile voters with smartphones and Internet access dominated the primary and determined the outcome.
But we cannot blame communication changes in today’s society completely. If the traditional media and political parties had been true to their duties, they would not have been so easily rejected or ignored. The media has been fighting amongst themselves by bifurcating into conservatives and liberals. The partisan tug-of-war was more compelling than justice and truth. They lost credibility and it doesn’t return easily. The parties were even worse. When one of its peers is charged for bribery, the ruling party defends his legislative prerogative not to be arrested as a common person would be. The opposition party’s floor leader used the legislature as his safe haven to investigation into bribery for more than a week. Who can have faith in the legislature or political parties that are so self-interested?
But no democratic society can get by without a press and political parties. We cannot turn to a popular vote through smartphones every time we need to make a major decision on an issue. Public opinion is faddish and as fluid as the clouds in the summer sky. That is why civilization has established systems, orders and regulations. A society needs a framework to ensure sustainability and continuity regardless of circumstantial and environmental changes. If one does not like the system of his society, he can move to another system or work for changes in the system that exists.
In today’s society, where popularity has more importance than institutions, there is only one way to restore faith in the system. If one is true to one’s duties and responsibilities, the value of his or her work will one day be appreciated. The press must reclaim its original role and examine Ahn as a potential leader.
It should investigate whether he is really fit to run for president and tell the public. It must report not on the splash he makes but what he is made of. Parties also should set guidelines. If they want to recruit Ahn, they should set a timetable and rules for the contest. It is not too late to make amends. Ahn also should stop running around the ring showing off his muscles. It’s time he steps in the ring and engages in fair competition.