I Have Had an Op-Ed in the Asia Wall Street Journal Today (Updated)

… about the AP’s North Korea coverage. See it before it vanishes behind the pay wall. Click the image to go there.

The title is cute; I wish I could take credit for it.

UPDATE: The empire has struck back. I will let the e-mails tell the story, omitting names because I’m not interested in dragging the AWSJ or WSJ people into this individually, as pretextual and cowardly as I think their actions were. I’m fairly certain this email exchange occurred before the op-ed was published, by the way. It ought to have occurred long before it was:

Hi Josh,

Just curious, did you attend the NY photo exhibition?

Regards,

Knowing that no one is ever “just curious,” I responded:

I did not attend personally; however, as you can see on my blog, I obtained, viewed, and posted photographs of the exhibition from two different sources — from KCNA itself, and from a reader of my blog who visited the site, took photographs, and wrote a description of what he saw there. Thanks, Josh

If this was a concern, you’d think the AWSJ would have raised it long before going to print, instead of just before a deadline. After all, the op-ed had sat in their in-box for about two weeks before then. Then, this morning, I got this from the AWSJ staff:

Hi Josh,

Sorry to say, my bosses in New York have taken exception to the piece, especially that it might lead readers to believe that you viewed the exhibition in person. So we’ll have to run a correction, would this be accurate?

Joshua Stanton viewed the Associated Press photography exhibition about North Korea online, not in person. A May 23 feature, “Associated Propaganda,” didn’t make that clear.

The online version will probably be removed.

Regards,

My response:

??

Well, this is indeed a great disappointment, because the original submission to the WSJ was extensively hyperlinked, and the links made that fact abundantly clear, as do the blog post links that I forwarded you. So do what you must and no hard feelings toward you personally, but I would ask that you please be clear that I have been candid about what I saw, and given that, I would ask you call it a “clarification.” Furthermore, is anyone — including the AP folks who presumably raised this challenge — suggesting that piece is inaccurate or omits relevant information?

In retrospect, the op-ed could have waited another day to address any such concerns (is it not part of the process for New York to review WSJA submissions before publication?). As an alternative to removing the piece, why not simply add in the hyperlinks that I supplied with the original piece? Of course, I understand that you have space limitations, but given those, there isn’t much opportunity to make my point and give much background information.

Other than the word “correction,” I take no issue with your clarification.

So down it went, despite the fact that it all could have been clarified by simply putting back two of the hyperlinks included in my original submission. The AWSJ staff apologetically said that their correction would blame “an editing error,” which is fair I suppose. But where was the claim that I had mischaracterized the exhibition? There wasn’t one, of course. One AWSJ reader even had time to view the op-ed and say this:

The timing of the WSJ’s “concern” was suspicious. I don’t have to speculate much to figure that the AP raised a ruckus, because since then, an angry AP mouthpiece named Paul Colford — one of those who refused to answer my direct inquiries early on — sent this letter to the Asia Wall Street Journal:

In blogger Joshua Stanton’s screed against The Associated Press (May 23), spurred by a recent exhibit of North Korean images cosponsored by the AP, he quoted from a nonexistent AP press release, …

What, you mean this non-existent press release? In which every one of the quotations is accurate? Or is Colford perhaps confused that in the previous sentence, I accurately quoted the signage at the exhibit itself? Or is he trying to play cute word games and deceive us because we’re supposed to believe this isn’t a press release? Oh, I’m sorry, you and your staff said every single quoted word, but that was a news story. Just like KNCA is a news service. Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly present the AP’s new business partner:

North Korea is still listed as a state sponsor of journalism. Discuss among yourselves. But I digress:

… erred in describing who is staffing AP’s new bureau in Pyongyang …

Here is the first instance of Colford claiming that I misstated a fact, and if I have, then by all means, he should say how. I’ve watched the AP’s Pyongyang Journal website very carefully for the last few weeks. It has given me great material, after all. If Colford is referring to my statement that “two KCNA ‘journalists” are embedded in AP’s Pyongyang bureau,” I drew that statement from this article in Foreign Policy, which said, “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.” Maybe Foreign Policy and I both owe the AP a correction here, but given how Colford has done at backing up his assertions so far, I’ll wait for some substantiation. But then, it’s not as if Colford been willing to answer questions before. He continues …

… and cherry-picked among the many AP stories, photos and videos from North Korea to buttress his baffling case that AP somehow would squander its integrity and resources mainly “to gain special access to yet more North Korean propaganda.”

Note what’s missing from Colford’s response — a defense of the content or objectivity of the exhibit, or any citation to other AP images or content would make the exhibit any less problematic. Colford still can’t rebut my charge that this exhibition was propaganda, or the charge that the AP distributed a doctored North Korean photo. Nor can he defend the balance of Bureau Chief Jean Lee’s reporting in particular.

Next, Colford instructs AWSJ’s readers on the use of Google to support his accusation of “cherry picking:”

Google “North Korea Journal” and you will find an interactive collection of AP reports that belie Mr. Stanton’s odd conclusion. Google “The press bus took a wrong turn Thursday” and you will find one of the many AP reports that contrast with the upbeat view of the long-shrouded country that he creatively suggests the AP has gone a long way to convey above all else.

It’s too bad that Mr. Colford didn’t do a little googling himself, or he’d have seen where I linked and commented favorably on the very AP “wrong turn” story he mentions, or on another AP story just this week. So here’s a little remedial training for Mr. Colford. Having said that, the quality of the AP’s reporting has been atrocious in the aggregate. I stand by that view.

Since the opening of our video news bureau in Pyongyang in 2006, the AP has been the leading source for exclusive news in all formats from inside North Korea, as well as unprecedented insight into the way people live. AP’s Raf Wober was the only Western journalist working inside North Korea in the days following Kim Jong Il’s death in December, resulting in numerous exclusive images, video and stories.

The opening in January of the AP bureau in Pyongyang, which generates additional stories and photos, has strengthened our ability to widen and deepen our North Korea report.

As AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said in a radio interview this week: “AP has a lot of experience at opening bureaus in places that aren’t necessarily warm and friendly toward Western journalists and building a reputation of accuracy and fairness and pushing the envelope more every day so that we can tell the stories that we want to tell.”

Paul Colford
Director of Media Relations
The Associated Press

But to quote Michael Palin, this isn’t an argument. Gainsaying my conclusions isn’t the same as offering new facts, or finding any factual errors in anything I’ve said. And if the AP doesn’t see why some of us find its arrangements with the Kim regime to be so troublesome, why not release those MOUs?

I stand by every word in that op-ed barring some evidence that Paul Colford hasn’t offered. Like its new friends in North Korea, the AP has chosen the path of attacking its critics because it has no defense to offer against the criticism. I presume, but can’t prove, that the AWSJ chose the path of caving in to the AP’s bullying, which might not be so sad if the WSJ would simply tell the story itself.

UPDATE, May 27, 2012 The Wall Street Journal eventually got around to publishing Colford’s letter, but with significant edits. The AP still can’t point to any legitimate factual errors in the piece.

In blogger Joshua Stanton’s screed against The Associated Press (“Associated Propaganda,” op-ed, May 23), spurred by a recent exhibit of North Korean images cosponsored by the AP, he quoted from an AP story that he mistakenly touts as a “press release” [...]

Colford, it seems, was trying to slip one past WSJ readers by suggesting that I quoted something that didn’t exist. That is clearly untrue, so Colford’s argument now rests on the AP’s self-serving and dubious characterization of this shameless bit of corporate self-promotion as a “news story.” By all means, read and decide for yourself. If that’s what passes for news in the AP’s eyes, the conclusion does far more violence to the AP’s standards than to my argument. I stand by my characterization. The AP’s “news” story was never news.

[...] and he further erred in describing who is staffing AP’s new bureau in Pyongyang. That is, he conveniently overlooked the two North Korean nationals, identified by the AP in its own news stories and corporate announcements about the bureau, who have added weight to our report since they started working for us in Pyongyang last January under the supervision of our Korea bureau chief and chief Asia photographer.

But I did not “conveniently overlook” the presence of those “journalists;” I made an issue of them!

They don’t say whether minders accompanied Lee and Guttenfelder during their reporting, although some of the stories credit North Korean contributors. In fact, two KCNA “journalists” are embedded in the AP’s Pyongyang bureau.

Did Colford even read the op-ed at all? Colford has since clarified his charge into something that is so demonstrably inaccurate that it can only have been made with reckless disregard for the truth. Now cue the cherry-picking charge, which I’ve already addressed above for the most part, except for this: it is no defense to a news service’s credibility that it only writes breathtakingly misleading reports most of the time.

Colford makes no issue of the fact that I didn’t attend the exhibition personally. How could he? I never so much as implied that I had, and in the end, he still knows I characterized it accurately. Don’t you suppose Colford would argue the point if he could?

It saddens me (and apparently saddens some of you, too) that The Wall Street Journal put professional courtesy over telling the truth about the AP’s indefensible conduct. Their craven behavior in the face of the AP’s complaint about a factually accurate op-ed is depressing, to be sure, but in the end, the withdrawal of the online version of the op-ed may well be a case of losing the battle while winning the war. Jean H. Lee’s extended absence from Pyongyang, the toning-down of the AP’s recent coverage, and the rising concern among journalists and think tanks about the AP’s coverage from Pyongyang — I glean much of this from private correspondence that I won’t share — suggests that the AP is well aware that it has at least one persistent critic with an influential enough audience to call it out. I’m not going away when I’m having this much fun, telling a story that needs to be told. If anything, this episode affirms the importance of blogs in policing the press, which has failed to police itself. I do, however, thank the journalists and others who continue to feed me tips and information about this story.

Update 10/2012:  The op-ed is available again online.  Can I assume that the WSJ reconsidered its decision a second time?

11 comments

  1. Glans says:

    That looks like a good op-ed. Too bad it’s behind a firewall. I’ll give money to Rupert Murdoch the day after I give it to Kim Jong-un.

  2. Anthony says:

    Lee and Guttenfelder sounds like a law partnership particularly sharp in the area of elite European divorce.. For shits and giggs i didn’t find it hard to come up with a short list of semi credible pretexts for the AP doing what they’re doing up there.
    Justification No. …
    1. Beat out other journalistic organizations, which lack the cojones and connections, in having staff based in NK. Eventually win something other than that Duranty award.
    2. Someone on the ground if and when the regime collapses.
    3. The increased light they shine on North Korea will attract, like bees to honey, other journos, some of whom will inevitably take on the moral burden of exposing camps, torture, and starvation. The AP as kind of a charm offensive SAS hack vanguard.
    4. That initially they are playing the long view cooperation game, arguably, they say, the only way to play the North Koreans, and will eventually ask for more awkward access for their lenses and notebooks.
    5. All the while their guys up there are collating info for devastating book length insights into the horrors of North Korea, to be written up at leisure in the Seoul Hilton. That, or indeed, they really are working for US intelligence (that photo exhibition was obviously a sop).
    Not that I go for any of these. But you could add your own below…

  3. Bob Violence says:

    Glans: A decent amount of WSJ articles are freely accessible for a limited time before they get archived and stuck behind the paywall. This editorial is one of them.

  4. joseph says:

    yay congrats! i hope they come to their sense and keep you on as a regular on the wsj op-ed pages

  5. The WSJ link, which was working a few hours ago, is now broken, Google search results for the op-ed also result in a broken link, and search results within WSJ site (I’m inside the pay wall) also net nothing. A little help?

  6. joseph says:

    highly suspicious happenings

  7. dorkly chair of the institute for space politics says:

    It certainly would be a shame if ne’er-do-wells copypastaed the entire text of the op-ed piece in the comments section of various outlets carrying AP/DPRK coverage.

  8. joseph says:

    yea, sounds like someone on the board or some investor got his/her panties in a knot. what a fine display of 10th grade level professionalism from wsj. thank you for documenting this unnecessary (and incorrect) debacle for posterity.

  9. Danny says:

    Wouldn’t you need to have some integrity in the first place before worrying about “squandering” it.

  10. [...] some might view him as ?unqualified? to talk on the subject, the publication of a controversial article in the Wall Street Journal and support from some journalists covering North Korea suggests [...]

  11. [...] some might view him as “unqualified” to talk on the subject, the publication of a controversial article in the Wall Street Journal and support from some journalists covering North Korea suggests [...]

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