Korea’s media wields a feeble pen

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Korea’s media wields a feeble pen

President Park Geun-hye’s New Year’s address was her first this year. But this country has become a strange place, wherein the president only gives a news conference once a year. So this rare occasion should have been full of tension. There are so many problems, and pressure has been elevated to a dangerous level. The president should have been pressured to defend herself from the media’s attack.

But instead of tension, the news conference was filled with laughter. The president wore a big smile and played the field of her choice. When she was faced with an obstacle, she simply jumped over it, instead of tackling it head-on. It was a crushing defeat for the media. The format of the news conference was simply wrong, and the press used blunt blades.

At a proper news conference, the media would ask those in authority critical questions. Instead of asking “What do you think?” the reporters should have said, “Why did you do that?” But the questions asked there were not sharp. Journalists took turns and merely asked Park her thoughts about certain issues. Bringing up a topic is the job of an emcee, not a reporter.

The biggest problem was that the questions that should have been asked were not addressed at all, and there were no follow-up queries. The appointments arranged by the Blue House and the ruling Saenuri Party are seriously undermining the public sector. Someone should have asked, “The president has appointed a 78-year-old Korean-American comedian as an auditor at a major public corporation. Do you consider this appointment to be part of public corporation reform?”

Not allowing follow-up questions is a more serious problem. One journalist clearly asked about the involvement of the president’s brother, Park Ji-man, in scandal over the leak of an internal Blue House report. But the president equivocated in replying and made no mention of her family. The reporter should have pressed her on the issue but did not.

Regional bias is also a problem. A reporter from a local newspaper in the Honam region asked about how her choice of appointments are mostly from one certain region. In fact, her administration, more so than in past administrations, is made up of people from the same area. The prime minister, the chief of staff, the prosecutor general and the chairman of the Board of Audit and Inspection are all from South Gyeongsang. The speaker of the National Assembly, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the chief justice of the Constitutional Court are all from Busan. The vice prime minister for economics, who sways real power, and the director of the National Tax Service are both from North Gyeongsang. And all the key members in the Park government originate from the Yeongnam region of South and North Gyeongsang.

When the nation’s leadership is inclined to a certain region, it negatively affects not just civil servants but society as a whole. Regional antagonism flows from top to bottom. When leadership positions are filled with people with certain affiliations, those in middle and low-level seats easily feel deprived. This sentiment discourages civil servants to pursue reform. And that feeling spreads around society, through family and friends. Even if people don’t suffer directly, those sentiments can make them skeptical of the president. But even if Park was right, they wouldn’t listen. That’s why she initially promised to make fair appointment decisions.

When asked, however, she simply gave a convenient answer. She chooses based on competency, so sometimes, a candidate from a certain region gets the job, and other times, those from other regions are chosen, she said.

Yet, Park’s logic is different from the reality. Since the beginning of her administration, there has never been a time when appointments and promotions were dominated by those from a certain region, other than Yeongnam.

The reporter should have been given a chance to follow up: “Has there ever been a time when you appointed more people from regions other than Yeongnam?”

But the Blue House and its correspondents have agreed on a news conference format that does not allow follow-up questions, so many are left unanswered. It also doesn’t help that a presidential news conference occurs once a year. There are so many topics and so little time, and reporters cannot inquire further. They should have addressed this issue first.

In fact, the media is responsible for swaying the authority. Power is only scared of the pen when it’s sharp. And the media’s blade can only be sharpened by facts. When asking questions to those in authority, it needs to provide solid ground. In order to win a trial, the prosecutor needs to present clear evidence. If not, the accused is acquitted, and if that is consistently repeated, then no one would fear the prosecution.

In the scandal involving Park’s former aide, Chung Yoon-hoi, and her three secretaries, the media acted like an incompetent prosecutor. While the press argued that Chung and the president’s “three doorknobs” influenced the national administration for more than a year, no clear evidence to support that theory has been presented. Without a clear target, the arrow will miss. The power of the president is a whale, but the media attacked it with a needle, not a harpoon.

“We should not get involved in foolish things and keep ourselves together,” Park said, referring to her brother. At the same time, she was chastising the media for reporting “groundless rumors.” Indeed, it is getting attacked instead of doing the attacking. The pen is supposed to be mightier than the sword, but in Korea, the pen is feeble.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 14, Page 31

*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin

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