Saturday, April 7, 2012

AP = acquiescence to Pyongyang?

Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea has been beating the drum about the Associated Press's accommodating news coverage of the DPRK in exchange for the right to have the first (and thus far only) Western news bureau in the Hermit Kim-dom, which he likens to The Onion. His recent post (first link above) was prompted by a series of tweets by Chico Harlan, the WaPo's Man on Pyongyang (see here, here, here, and here).

Jean Lee of AP Pyongyang
bureau (Twitter feed)
Frankly, I share Mr Stanton's disdain for the Pyongyang regime, even in the post-Kim Jong-il era, as well as his concern that AP is being used as a propaganda tool.

Having worked quite some time in news media, I may perhaps be a little more grounded in pragmatism than idealism. That means that, unlike Joshua, I do see some potential value in a major Western news service constantly having boots on the ground in North Korea, when/if some serious sh¡t goes down up north.

Even with a generally compliant media partner like AP seems to have been so far, it would be harder for Pyongyang to contain news and information about, say, a North Korean version of an Arab Spring, were that to occur. (And I think it may be coming.)

There are two other potential positives here. One is that AP has a chance to show regular North Koreans (or as regular as you can find in the North Korean capital where one must be a party loyalist) being regular North Koreans. It's humanizing, in a way that's an antidote to the way an entire country gets demonized if they have a leader whose the subject of angry political speeches or late-night comedians.

Second, I dare say there may even by a sort of Hawthorne Effect at work here, whereby the authorities kinda sorta behave better knowing that there are observers in their midst.

Ultimately it comes down to this: North Korea allows no one into its house unless they agree to play by their rules, not some froufrou "international norms" that everyone else abides by, and AP knows it. Perhaps they thought they could effect more positive change by doing it this way. For now, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, but Jean Lee and her editors back in Washington should know we're watching them (meant in a watchdoggedly diligent way, not a creepy way).

Pyongyang's position leaves us with two choices: go along to get in the door, or stay locked outside. Although I wouldn't want Reuters, AFP, the NYT, WaPo, LAT, BBC, etc., etc. to all choose this path, methinks it might be good that at least one agency is inside the lion's den.

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1 comment:

  1. You make an interesting case. But I don't think having journalistic "boots on the ground" will ever pay off in North Korea. To respond to three of your points:

    it would be harder for Pyongyang to contain news and information about, say, a North Korean version of an Arab Spring

    I disagree. I think it would be very easy to contain. There is little communications infrastructure, and that's tightly controlled by the regime. Travelling to a neighboring country, or having someone take the information there, isn't viable. So I think the regime could effectively silence the AP if they ever wanted to.

    In fact, I'd be surprised if the AP's connection to the outside world wasn't pre-built with a big red "abort" button, and a way to monitor everything that is sent through it.

    More importantly, I think Pyongyang would have the mentality to pull AP's plug the minute anything newsworthy happens. They're obsessed with the complete and pre-emptive control of information about themselves, and what information their citizens see. I don't think they'd just let foreign journalists walk around freely during an uprising.

    North Korea allows no one into its house unless they agree to play by their rules, and AP knows it.

    Which is exactly the problem with this arrangement. I'm not seeing any pro quo for the quid of the Associated Press serving as North Korea's PR flack. And AP is already doing some pretty sleazy stuff on their behalf.

    AP didn't just make a deal with the devil; they forgot to ask for anything in return.

    I dare say there may even by a sort of Hawthorne Effect at work here, whereby the authorities kinda sorta behave better knowing that there are observers in their midst.

    Only if they care that they're being observed. There's no reason for Pyongyang to behave, because they're no repercussions if they don't, and they set all the rules.

    -- Gary S. (OFK reader/occasional poster)

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