Fast and loose
The author is an editorial writer of the JoonAng Ilbo.
Lee Kang-taik, president of TBS, the Seoul-focused traffic radio station, defended a popular program host who has been openly rooting for ruling Democratic Party (DP) presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung on his own podcasts. The TBS CEO claimed, “The New York Times and CNN publicly support a certain candidate during election seasons.” He suggested that a bigger problem is just pretending not to support a certain candidate when it was obvious whom a media organization supports. That was his answer to a question from a Seoul city councilman at an audit session on November 2.
Lee is not entirely wrong. For instance, The New York Times publicly backs candidates. During the last presidential election in the U.S., 119 media organizations backed Democratic candidate Joe Biden while only six supported Republican Donald Trump. The phenomenon is not because of Trump. In the race between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, the preference was 124 to 42 in favor of Obama. In the U.K., media organizations also declare what party they support. The Times, The Sun, The Daily Telegraph, and Daily Mail usually stand behind the Conservative Party while The Guardian and Daily Mirror support the Labor Party. The same happens in France. Among popular dailies, Libération backs the left and Le Figaro the right.
“I think it is natural for a media organization to express support for a certain candidate. I think it is even better than attempting fabrication or distortion of facts to help or shame a certain person without publicly declaring a preference,” said former President Roh Moo-hyun. He had a point: concealing a preference is worse.
Media neutrality is legally binding and deemed a social virtue in Korea largely owing to its unique experience with authoritarian governments. When the media was forced to take sides, they could cite their duty to keep “neutrality” in order to fend off political pressure. The law has protected media independence and guaranteed its freedom to criticize the powers that be. Times have changed, but given the mighty nature of the presidential system in Korea, the governing power still has the power to squash or push a media organization out of business. Such cases can be found from not long ago.
Let’s go back to CEO Lee. When he was asked whether he deemed Kim Ou-joon really fit to host a TBS news program despite his public support for a presidential candidate, Lee evaded a direct answer by citing the cases of The New York Times and CNN. Such an evasive response has become fashionable among public figures these days.
This year, TBS received 37.5 billion won ($32 million) from the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Through a revision in the Seoul City Ordinance, the radio station became independent from the city government last year. Still, it relies on taxes from Seoul citizens for its operations. It is still a public broadcaster — and quite different from the privately owned New York Times. That’s why the TBS president was summoned by the city council. In a nutshell, the host of a news program of a public broadcaster wants to help a certain candidate win the presidency. So we ask CEO Lee: Are there any public media outlets in the world that do the same?