In my lonely critique of the AP’s sketchy relationship with the North Korean government, throughout its recent absorption into North Korea’s official propaganda apparatus, I’ve often observed that its new Pyongyang correspondent, Jean H. Lee, isn’t very good at asking obvious questions. As it turns out, her editors aren’t very good at answering them, either.
In a new article in Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish becomes the first actual journalist to question, however gently, this new relationship and its potential impact on the quality of the AP’s coverage. Fish asked about a third of the questions he should have asked; most notably, he doesn’t inquire into the contents of the AP’s secret agreements with North Korea, fails to mention its distribution of an altered photograph, and barely brushes against just how stupefyingly gullible Lee’s breathlessly “exclusive” reporting has been. Fish tells us some things we’d already supposed, but which the AP didn’t see any need to tell us — its correspondent and its photographer have no internet access, and either can’t leave their office or their hotel without minders, or are seldom that inquisitive. Now here’s something I did not know:
The full-time presence at the bureau consists of two North Koreans, journalist Pak Won Il and photographer Kim Kwang Hyon, about whom little is known. [AP Senior Managing Editor John] Daniszewski describes Pak as a “young journalist with multimedia experience at KCNA, speaks English, said he had lived in Thailand for part of his youth,” but didn’t have any information on Kim; Colford later added that Kim had previously worked for Kyodo, and that he impressed Guttenfelder when he saw Kim’s work during a photo workshop last fall. KCNA is the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state news agency, which “speaks for the Workers’ Party of Korea and the DPRK government,” according to its website. Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar, says that Pak and Kim may have journalism training but puts the odds at “99 percent” that “they come from the secret police or intelligence services.” (AP’s Colford responded to that allegation with “I don’t know Mr. Lankov, I’m unfamiliar with his point of view, and I’m not going to comment on it.”)
The most charitable way I can interpret this is as an admission that Colford is also unfamiliar with the subject matter. I’ve complained that the AP ignored my repeated e-mail questions to its media relations staff. Fish managed to get responses, but he didn’t do much better at getting answers:
AP declined a request to interview its journalists working inside North Korea; AP’s media-relations director, Paul Colford, said that to his knowledge they have not given any interviews. He arranged an interview with […] Daniszewski, who accompanied AP CEO Tom Curley in negotiations with the North Koreans and at the bureau’s opening ceremony. “I think it’s novel to have an office there, and we’re very pleased and happy with it,” said Daniszewski, a veteran foreign correspondent. “It’s new territory for them and for us as well.”
Asked whether Lee and Guttenfelder were allowed to wander freely in Pyongyang, Daniszewski said, “I’d rather not comment on that.”
Not only does the AP’s coverage fail to disclose these rather important points, it conceals them from anyone who might want to read its coverage critically. Transparency is for other people. Worse, I’ve wondered whether the AP might be tempted to downplay the North Korean regime’s totalitarian character for fear of jeopardizing its access. At least I don’t have to wonder anymore:
When asked about secure communications between Pyongyang and the outside world, Daniszewski said that the bureau doesn’t have any means of communicating with the outside world that wouldn’t be monitored, adding “I think in every country in the world, even in the United States, they can monitor the communication. Do you assume that in Germany no one is listening when you make a phone call?” He declined to provide further details about other telecommunications links to the outside world for competitive reasons.
That’s at least a 6 on the Maazel scale. It’s enough to make you surmise, like Peter Beck does, that the AP will “have to stay in the good graces of Pyongyang to operate there or even to visit Pyongyang on a regular basis.” And if Peter Beck, you, and I surmise it, you can bet the AP surmises it, too. The AP can’t imagine that co-hosting just one underpublicized Kim Il Sung commemorative propaganda exhibition will satisfy the North Koreans forever, so the obvious question is whether the North Koreans are already holding the AP’s coverage hostage. What’s that, AP? It’s not a propaganda exhibit? Then what is it?
According to KCNA, the exhibit is to mark the “significant Day of the Sun, the birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung.” The photo exhibit will display great men “who made immortal contributions” to North Korea’s prosperity and the people’s happiness, as well as “photos on various fields of the DPRK including politics, economy and culture.” The KCNA article quotes AP’s director of photography, Santiago Lyon, saying that the exhibit will provide an opportunity to compare the different styles of photography between the news agencies. AP confirmed Lyon’s quote is accurate, adding that each side would select its own images and that “KCNA’s characterization of the exhibit is entirely their own.”
That goes for you, too. See and characterize for yourself. Depending on your perspective, it’s the brave new world of journalism or an ethical compromise that every newspaper would claim a solemn duty to investigate if it involved Rupert Murdoch or George Will.
OFK reader and occasional sparring partner Mike Chinoy is featured prominently in Fish’s article, suggesting that North Korea’s treatment of the AP will be a test of North Korea’s interest in openness. Chinoy has often perceived such an interest when the rest of us really didn’t, but that’s sort of beside the point. There isn’t going to be a test unless the AP decides to question KCNA’s narrative.
“If the copy that comes out of the AP bureau is just a kind of jazzed-up version of KCNA, it risks seriously undermining AP’s credibility, and the AP of course knows that, and they’re going to do everything they can to make sure that it’s not the case,” says Chinoy, the former CNN Asia correspondent.
Really? Starting when?