Just days after the AP fell victim to a photo hoax by KCNA, the official North Korean “news” agency it partnered up with, the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Jean H. Lee, seems not to have taken to heart that “journalist” does not mean in North Korea what it means in other places:
But this year, David and I have been granted unprecedented access as part of AP’s efforts to expand its coverage of North Korea. We traveled into the countryside, accompanied by North Korean journalists, not government minders. We had a cell phone, Internet access and a van with a driver who took us to Kaesong to the south, Mount Myohyang to the north and Nampho to the west. During our wanderings, we got a glimpse of daily life in one of the most hidden nations in the world and found a country on the cusp of change. [AP, Jean H. Lee]
I can’t believe that any sensible reader with enough interest to read this story would really believe that those North Korean “journalists” did not also have the duty to carefully mind Ms. Lee and David Guttenfelder, the photographer accompanying her, while ferrying them to the cusp of change. The cusp of change, as it happens, lies just within the brink of famine, somewhere between “Kaesong to the south, Mount Myohyang to the north and Nampho to the west,” which means the same tired circuit of propaganda spectacles, far from North Korea’s gulags and WMD facilities, and far from where the food crisis is always worst. Good for Lee for at least conceding that the itinerary her
minders fellow journalists chose was “calculated to show the bright side.” If there is one, Guttenfelder’s strikingly bleak pictures don’t show it.
So what evidence of change did Lee see? Well, there’s glass on the Ryugyong Hotel, for one thing. Unasked: How does a nation justify that cost during an acute food crisis? Also, some people had consumer goods. Unasked: Don’t those goods come from the same black market this regime is trying to stamp out, and if so, what kind of change does that suggest? Also, Lee discovers North Koreans like to drink, eat kimchi, and sing Arirang. Amazingly, just like other Koreans! Bob Carlin turns out to be a safe sole source for Lee’s “neutral” expert analysis. Why, he’s been to North Korea almost as many times as Selig Harrison!
I realize that reporting from North Korea requires compromises that other places don’t, and that among journalists, there’s at least a perception that the access you get in North Korea is inversely proportional to the critical content in your coverage. As a news consumer, I think that raises an important question of journalistic ethics. I allow that different journalists might grapple with it differently, but the photo hoax story presented it with binary clarity. Had this happened anywhere else, the AP and the rest of the industry would have been outraged, and rightfully so. Instead, the AP quietly sent out a kill notice, said little if anything else about the matter, and went right on providing some exceptionally gullible reporting — here, of a North Korean-style press conference:
And, in an astonishing turn of events, we are invited to a briefing at the grand People’s Cultural Palace, making us the first American reporters to cover a North Korean press conference, we’re told. Journalists from the North Korean press corps snap open Compaq laptops and set up Sony video cameras, and portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il serve as the backdrop.
Ten North Koreans repatriated after their fishing boat strayed into South Korean waters file into the room, the men in suits and the women in traditional Korean dresses. Tearful, emotional, they accuse the South Koreans of mistreatment.
A question-and-answer session follows: The Pyongyang Times wants to know what happened to the four North Koreans, including the boat’s captain, who stayed behind in the South. A query from the state broadcaster prompts all 10 to rise to sing an ode to Kim Jong Il
Unasked: well, pretty much any of the obvious questions that would get a North Korean “journalist” sent here. They certainly wouldn’t dream of asking the South Koreans’ side of the story, but what’s Lee’s excuse? Does she really take this charade at face value? She seems to.
In journalism, skepticism may be the ultimate virtue. But someone who doesn’t understand that might think that North Korea’s journalists are just as qualified as the AP’s.