The media’s primary roleThe 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon, was forced to resign from office before his second term because of the Watergate scandal and cover-up. He had been notoriously press-shy. But he did not hold back when he sat down for an interview with Frank Gannon, a former aide and historian, nearly a decade after his resignation. Nixon talked frankly for 38 hours about his fall from grace.
Some of the interview was made public, but the whole 38 hours gathered dust in a university library until their recent rediscovery. They shed new light on one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history.
Nixon talked about the “smoking gun” tape that connected him to the cover-up of a burglary at the Democratic Party headquarters at Washington’s Watergate Hotel complex ahead of his re-election.
“They [the media] had the big guns, and we passed them the ammunition, and they proceeded to shoot it right back to us. They say it’s the responsibility of the media to look at the government generally, and particularly at the president, with a microscope,” he said. “I don’t mind a microscope, but boy, when they use a proctoscope, that’s going too far.”
But to a surprising extent, the disgraced president spoke with respect about the role of a media that helped oust him from office.
Former President Barack Obama, in his final news conference with the White House press corps in January, expressed similar admiration for the media’s role. Addressing the journalists, he said, “You’re supposed to be skeptics; you’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You’re supposed to cast a crucial eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here. And having you in this building has made this place work better. It keeps us honest, it makes us work harder.”
The two former U.S. presidents defined the role of the media as keeping a close eye on people in power to prevent any illegalities or excesses. If the media performs its role, there won’t be past misdeeds to be readdressed, fixed and punished when a new government comes in.
So, can we be assured that we will be free from a legacy of misdeeds five to 10 years from now because the incumbent power vows to be honest?
A committee probing past practices of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) claimed that the spy agency under President Lee Myung-bak in May 2009 tried to stop public broadcaster KBS from reporting on the agency’s meddling in a state prosecution by delivering 2 million won ($1,785) to the head of its newsroom at the time, Ko Dae-young.
I connected that with the finding that the NIS intentionally leaked to the press an allegation in a prosecution report that former President Roh Moo-hyun had received an expensive wristwatch from Park Yeon-cha, head of Taekwang Industrial, and threw it away in a field when state prosecutors launched an investigation into the ex-president, who was highly popular even after his retirement.
The two leaks have the same purpose: shaming a former president. The current government has been condoning strikes at KBS and MBC as the left-leaning administration cannot be happy to have their chiefs, who were loyal to disgraced president Park Geun-hye, running the two major TV stations. How is the incumbent government’s behavior different from the past conservative governments that blacklisted left-leaning figures in the broadcast companies to control what goes on the air?
The candlelight vigils that ended up removing an isolated and manipulated president did not make bad political practices go away. As long as political influence is at play, we may never see the kind of changes needed at our public broadcasting networks.
Regardless of the replaying of dirty political tricks, the media should have learned to get its act together. It is the role of the media to hunt down past wrongdoings to ensure they do not reoccur in the future. But digging up dirt on a past administration to cozy up to the incumbent ruling power is hardly the same thing. That is a neglect of the media’s primary role of keeping a critical eye on the present leadership, not just past leaders. One of the reasons Korean politics fail to evolve and get cleaner is that the media ignores its primary function, which is to maintain vigilance on issues in the present, not chase demons from the past.
KBS reporters staged a strike in front of their president’s home over the weekend, marking a year’s anniversary of the beginning of the candlelight vigils. We hope they return to their role of keeping watch on the national leadership and not on their company’s boss. As Nixon earthily put it, the press should be dusting off the proctoscope to keep our current leaders on their toes.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 31, Page 30
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.