from Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary Event

Trading Foreign News for Talking-Heads

As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow Donald Kirk considers the strange inverse proportion of improving communications and dwindling foreign reporting. He also remarks on the importance of exposing atrocities committed during the Korean War. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

October 15, 2009

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow Donald Kirk considers the strange inverse proportion of improving communications and dwindling foreign reporting. He also remarks on the importance of exposing atrocities committed during the Korean War. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.

Since my year at the CFR, 1974-1975, probably the reporting I’ve done that’s had the greatest impact, or inspired most controversy, was on the payoffs for the North-South Korea summit in June 2000. The meetings in Pyongyang between South Korea’s President Kim Dae Jung and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, an historic attempt at inter-Korean reconciliation, led to DJ’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize in December of that year. The next month, on January 31, 2001, the International Herald Tribune published an article by me headlined, "The South Korean Spy Chief Who Paved the Way for Thaw with North,"  focusing on the role of Lim Dong Won, one of DJ’s top aides,  in arranging for the summit. The article said that Kim Jong Il had agreed to receive Kim Dae Jung after receiving several hundred million dollars in payoffs funneled into his overseas accounts via Hyundai Asan, responsible for the Hyundai group’s dealings with North Korea "While the payoff remains unconfirmed," I wrote, "it is believed that it was necessary in a society where bribery, often in the guise of gift-giving, is a longstanding tradition in both Koreas, North and South." The chief of the Korean Overseas Information Service wrote a lengthy protest to the IHT denying payment for the summit. The IHT editor, David Ignatius, who had suggested the article during a visit to Seoul, talked to me and then ran the letter without apology or retraction. Two and a half years later, after the suicide of the Hyundai Asan chairman during an investigation into the payoffs, they were revealed in hearings by the Korean National Assembly. Korean reporters called asking where I had gotten the story. (I discuss the summit and payoffs, "Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine," to be published by Palgrave/Macmillan.)

Is there another story or topic, perhaps one that is not already widely cited, that comes to mind that you believe has had a significant impact? This can be a story reported by you or someone else. Tell us about it.

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Expose of the suffering inflicted by U.S. and South Korean forces during the Korean War is an example of news that’s had a certain impact. Three Associated Press reporters, Choe Sang Hun, Charles Hanley and Martha Mendoza, revealed the killing by U.S. troops of South Korean villagers fleeing from the war. Many were gunned down by U.S. troops while cowering under a bridge at a village named Nogunri. Choe, then in the AP’s Seoul bureau, had suggested the story to the AP, which took a year before expanding the investigation, for which the three won a Pulitzer. Choe later reported other atrocities, as revealed by South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for the New York Times; Hanley and Chang Jae Soon, with the AP’s Seoul bureau, on the basis of more of the commission’s revelations, reported on massacres of thousands more. The degree to which people are now concerned with these historical wrongs is not clear. Many Koreans prefer to forget them while foreigners remain unaware. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to report on much greater ongoing atrocities in North Korea, to which about 200,000 people are consigned in sprawling camps for political prisoners. Defectors, including children, routinely report having witnessed public executions. Stories of torture and famine are widespread. Editors’ interest goes up and down. When I first reported on interviews with defectors for the International Herald Tribune in 1998, a skeptical IHT editor asked how executions in North Korea differed from those in Texas. One IHT editor refused to run my story on the fates of Christians handing out bibles in the North. Time Asia in March 1999 finally published my impressions in a viewpoint, "Lambs to the Slaughter." From all I’ve seen and heard and reported since, not much has changed.

Do you have any ideas--whether yours or someone else’s--for how the news industry can sustain serious international reporting at a time of great upheaval in the media?

It seems strange, as communications improve so dramatically, that reporting on foreign issues has dwindled in inverse proportion. There was a time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was possible to write from overseas for a wide range of American and British papers, as I did from Asia, especially Japan and Korea. They ran news and features as well as commentaries. Now none of the papers for which I wrote then carry anything other than wire stories from overseas, mostly on wars in the Middle East and flare-ups elsewhere. Some papers say they will publish commentaries but won’t pay for them. That’s a reprehensible if not unethical policy that discourages many from writing anything while encouraging publicity-seekers and axe-grinders with an assist from highly paid, anonymous, PR people and "consultants." The three or four top American papers do carry their own foreign news, but one wonders how long they’ll do so while also suffering economically. There may be no way to redress these problems. When newspapers are losing money, the first casualty is foreign news. Much of cable TV’s expanded coverage consists of talking heads, experts and analysts, in between longer segments of celebrity and crime news. To some extent the internet fills the need. The Christian Science Monitor, for which I’ve filed from and about Korea, endures with its own foreign and national news as a web-only publication. The Asia Times, for which I also have been writing, survives on-line after an 11-month fling at putting out a daily paper in the late 1990s. The good news is that far more people see these articles than read my writing in print. Maybe the web represents the hope for "serious international reporting"-though how and where it’s going is far from clear.

 

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