The mission of the media
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The media are often referred to as the fourth branch after the three constitutionally-defined branches: the legislative, executive and judicial entities. But that is an over-stretched definition. The press cannot be a power. Its role is restricted to challenging the power in the quest for truth and dutifully informing the public.
The lines in the three branches have become blurry these days. The legislative, judiciary and executive branches have blended under the Moon Jae-in administration to exercise unilateral power. A ruling party lawmaker even attempted to summon the person in charge of a portal site because he disapproved of the way news articles were arranged in its main page.
Scholars have become watchful of what they say amid a spooky ambience of dictatorship. Political satires in TV comedy programs also have disappeared. The media is the only establishment that can keep the mighty power in check.
The press must not bear a particular design or emotion in its critical approach. Its judgment should be strictly based on fair and universal values. It can sometimes side with the conservative or the liberal, depending on the issue. A media organization’s view can be more titled towards the conservative or the liberal. In such a complex world, it cannot be entirely on one side.
The press is surrendering its role if it outright advocates for Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and her predecessor Cho Kuk under favoritism allegations related to their offspring or far-right pastor Jun Kwang-hoon.
A society should have a diverse press if they are qualified in reporting and fair in reasoning. As in many developed societies, diversity in the press can help enrich the public debate. But Korean media are not used to drawing consensus through discussion. They mostly target opponents, helping fuel ideological wrangling. They are happy to stand at the forefront of the right and left extremities. Some even change sides upon the shift in the governing power. They cannot be regarded as true press.
The press today must confront fake news. Unverified and maliciously distorted information goes viral through social media. Heedless and incorrect writing and videos are posted without restraint. Fake news generated by groups feigning to be the press has undermined the credibility of the overall press. They also have become epicenters for social conflict.
Still, it is wrong to disparage the overall media role because of fake news. Associating the established media with fake news spreaders can aggravate distrust and hostility toward the media. The term fake news was first used under the Nazi era, with Hitler calling antiregime media as “lying press,” or “lugenpresse.” Bob Woodward, a veteran journalist who reported on the Watergate scandal, claimed that U.S. President Donald Trump uses the phrase “fake news” in a political attack on media critical of him. President Moon Jae-in also speaks of fake news often. Both populist leaders flag news as fake instead of admitting their faults in causing division in politics.
The primary role of the media is to keep watch and check on the mainstream power. An honest press will always be pitted against the government. But it is better to sustain tension between the two, instead of coziness. Governments have always been disgruntled about critical press. Governments under liberal presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Moon have been more sensitive towards criticism. Roh defined himself as a victim to “some envious and hostile press.” If the press criticizes him, it is assumed to have a political design to attack the liberals. The excess victimhood may be a relic from the days of democracy movement when they could not trust anyone on the other side. They also adhere to self-righteousness about what is just and what is not.
Moon’s view toward the press is no different from Roh’s. He called upon the media to “self-reflect” on fairness in reporting the truth when they attacked his aide and former Justice Minister Cho Kuk over a plethora of allegations about his family corruptions. Moon’s remarks suggest he found offense in the media’s role to criticize. The Economist observed that the Moon administration often criticizes others, but does not take criticism against it.
“The people would live in light if the press reports on the truth — and in darkness if it becomes a servant to the power,” Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan once said. No matter who comes into power, the press must keep power in check.