So far, the profession of journalism has reacted to the AP’s North Korean propaganda amplification project with more bemused professional courtesy than ethical introspection. Still, we’re seeing a small trickle of mildly curious reporting on this arrangement, whose details the AP continues to protect from the eyes of its readers. Here and there, however, that trickle carries us a few more facts the AP never told us, in this case, about one of the two “journalists” embedded in the AP’s Pyongyang bureau:
They told us the selection process occurred over multiple meetings last fall. Present at the meetings were* the AP’s Jean H. Lee, David Guttenfelder, Asia editor Brian Carovillano and Asia photo editor Greg Baker, explained media relations director Paul Colford. The North Korean government provided a pool of candidates to select from and among those was Pak. “We selected him for his current role among news-gatherers who were available,” said Colford, who noted that Kim was selected in a similar fashion. “We met him, we considered him very carefully, and he works under the supervision of Jean H. Lee and other AP editors.”
If the hiring of a reporter who was part of the late Kim Jong Il’s propaganda machine sounds like a tough trade-off for operating in the country, that’s because it surely is. On the flip side, the AP argues that having zero Western bureaus in the country would mean even less information coming from North Korea. Another factor to keep in mind is the promise of an expanded bureau in the future.
Needless to say, the suggestion that the AP selected Pak seems suspicious in the extreme. And despite this, the Atlantic’s piece ultimately concludes:
The obvious question is whether a reporter trained in the business of propaganda can be trusted to deliver fair-minded reportage. Colford notes that the AP’s editors “work closely” with Kim and Pak. While press critics will ultimately decide how objective the reporting is over time, at least at this point, its stories seem to pass the smell test. [The Atlantic]
I suppose the message presented is at least as fair-minded as the one the AP is presenting to its readers. Read these quotations from the AP’s editors and ask yourself just how far the AP has gone beyond objective reporting toward prostituting itself to the North Korean regime as an agent of influence:
“It is our hope that this exhibition would give exhibition-goers visual understanding of the people, customs, culture and history of the DPRK, thereby helping to deepen mutual understanding and improve the bilateral relations,” Kim Chang Gwang, KCNA’s senior vice president, said in an address at the show’s opening.
“In this exhibit, we are offered two perspectives of the DPRK — as viewed by her native daughters and sons from KCNA and by AP journalists visiting to chronicle news and daily life there. We can appreciate the different styles and techniques and points of view,” Carroll said. “These photographs also show us that different people can find common ground. [AP]
Ladies and gentlemen, I present some selected examples of daily life in North Korea, its people, and its customs, brought to you by the Associated Press, in partnership with the government of North Korea. Can you tell whose photos are whose without mousing over the “alt” text?
What’s jarring about this is how much it contrasts with the AP’s perspective when it reports on the U.S. government. For all the bias and inaccuracies we saw in Charles Hanley’s reporting on No Gun Ri or Iraq, I still prefer critical, skeptical journalism over the AP’s half-caff North Korean state propaganda. If ever there was a government whose secrets needed to be told with a critical eye — for the sake of its own people and ours — it’s the one that keeps 200,000 of its people in gulags, steals international food aid while kids starve, and squanders its treasury on luxuries and WMD programs in violation of multiple U.N. resolutions. North Korea, after all, doesn’t have a Freedom of Information Act that can be enforced in federal courts (something else the AP and KCNA have in common, as it turns out).
Instead of new information about any of that — information that the AP might have gleaned from a growing network of clandestine defector-run news services — the AP has abdicated the relevance of the lives of the 99% of North Koreans who live hardscrabble lives in fields, markets, blighted factory towns, and labor camps, far beyond the limits permitted by the AP’s contractual obligations to the regime. The AP may want us to think that they’ll eventually get to that after a few months, or years, of compromised reporting and fake news. The devil’s bargain with North Korea has always been the hope that these morally questionable arrangements would eventually change its character, but it has never really been North Korea’s character that has changed. Assuming that this theory will finally prove correct in the AP’s case, how much propaganda are you willing to consume before it does?