AP Watch: Columbia Journalism Review Misses the Opportunity to Review Journalism

I’ve been waiting for The Columbia Journalism Review to inquire into the AP’s Pyongyang Bureau, so imagine my disappointment to see them interview Korea (and Pyongyang) Bureau Chief Jean H. Lee and squander that opportunity by lobbing softballs.  I mean, seriously, not one question about this?  Not one probing question about the AP’s MOUs with the North Korean government? (Psst.  They have a comments section.)

The AP-KCNA experiment continues to be failure nonetheless.  Seven months later, the AP sits in the eye of a whirlwind of speculation about purges, coup plots, missile and nuke tests, border crackdowns, microfamines, and reforms, offering no elucidating facts about any of these things while fussing over fashion trends and Disney characters, reporting uncritically on misleading leash-and-collar tours of regime propaganda spectacles, or speculating — along with the rest of the foreign press — about the truth behind the latest KCNA dispatch.  To the extent the AP’s reporting from Pyongyang has been exclusive, it has not been newsworthy.  To the extent the reporting has been newsworthy, it has not been exclusive.  Edward R. Murrow this is not.

Update, August 11, 2012:  My full response to the CJR interview below the fold.

As one who has questioned the AP’s relationship with the North Korean regime that it covers, I’m disappointed that the Columbia Journalism Review missed the opportunity to review a form of journalism that raises so many ethical questions, slow-pitching softballs instead of asking hard questions. It’s baffling, for example, that the CJR passed on asking a single question about this:

This is the sign that greeted visitors to “Windows on North Korea,” an exhibition of photographs glorifying Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il held in a New York gallery last spring, which billed itself as “a Joint Exhibition by the Associated Press and the Korean Central News Agency,” North Korea’s official so-called news agency, “Marking 100 Years Since the Birth of Kim Il Sung.” By all means, examine the content of the exhibition and decide for yourself whether you agree with KCNA that the exhibition was “clear proof of broad understanding and sympathy of the world progressives with dignified Kim Il Sung’s Korea, Songun Korea.” Then, try to reconcile that with a news consumer’s expectation of fearless, critical, and objective reporting.

The newspaper should serve as a constructive critic of all segments of society. It should reasonably reflect, in staffing and coverage, its diverse constituencies. It should vigorously expose wrongdoing, duplicity or misuse of power, public or private. Editorially, it should advocate needed reform and innovation in the public interest.

That quotation, like those that follow, is from the Associated Press Media Editors’ Statement of Ethical Principles. The APME is a non-profit 501(c)(3) “association of editors at newspapers in the United States and Canada” that “works closely with The Associated Press to foster journalism excellence ….” In the case of North Korea, we are speaking of a regime that holds 200,000 men, women, and children in political prison camps. That publicly executes its people for the “crime” of trying to flee. That systematically discriminates against members of its lower political castes in the distribution of food and medicine while squandering millions on weapons, and on the lifestyle of its ruling elite. That ranks 178 out of 179 in Reporteurs Sans Frontiers’s index of global press freedom because of its ruthless repression of any reporting that departs from its official propaganda.

In 2011, the AP signed two memoranda of understanding with North Korea’s official “news” agency, the Korean Central News Agency or KCNA. The MOUs allowed for the establishment of the AP’s Pyongyang bureau, seconded two KCNA “journalists” — reporter Pak Il Won and photographer Kim Kwang Hyon — to the AP bureau’s staff, and provided for the joint photo exhibition. The AP has repeatedly refused to disclose the terms of either MOU, so consumers can only guess about the degree of control North Korea retains over the AP’s reporting, or what other arrangements now exist between the AP and the subject of its coverage.

The newspaper should report the news without regard for its own interests, mindful of the need to disclose potential conflicts.


The newspaper and its staff should be free of obligations to news sources and newsmakers. Even the appearance of obligation or conflict of interest should be avoided.

Much of what we do know, however, is troubling. For one thing, the AP’s new partner, KCNA, may be the world’s foremost practitioner of journo-terrorism. It routinely threatens nuclear war or less specific consequences against other nations and individual critics of its regime, some of which North Korea nearly made good on through a wave of poison needle assassination attempts. It recently published North Korean generals’ threats — complete with specific coordinates — to shell the Seoul offices of South Korean newspapers that published criticism of North Korea’s obscene misuse of its wealth and its dismal human rights record. Banners at the bottom of KCNA’s home page currently call for slitting the throat of South Korea’s president.

The newspaper should uphold the right of free speech and freedom of the press and should respect the individual’s right to privacy.

If not for its threats, KCNA would be best known as a global laughingstock for its stilted prose (“brigandish” is one of its favorite adjectives), its attribution of supernatural phenomena to the Kims, and for its lesser frauds, including at least two digitally altered photos it has been caught distributing since last July, one of them through the AP. The incident, which came shortly before the AP signed its MOUs with KCNA, seems not to have been a deal-breaker. Still, a good case can be made that KCNA is the world’s least credible news agency.

The newspaper should guard against inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortion through emphasis, omission or technological manipulation.

As part of its agreement with KCNA, the AP agreed to embed two North Korean “journalists” in its Pyongyang bureau. Although the AP concedes that North Koreans’ idea of journalism is what we would call propaganda, the AP seldom credits these North Koreans, leaving readers in the dark about their true role (Pak Il Won is credited as contributing to this fluff piece about a North Korean accordionist, and he probably played some role in covering this “press conference,” in which a returned defector is paraded before cameras alongside her terrified relatives to tearfully reaffirm her loyalty to the state). It’s doubtful that Pak and Kim would quality as journalists in any other country; according to this 2011 report from Reporteurs Sans Frontieres, North Korean journalists are “government propaganda tools” whose job is “to provide an uninterrupted defence of the regime and its leader.” The AP insists that Pak and Kim are reporting for the AP, which is either an insult to the profession or a disturbing concession. If they are contributing content to the AP’s reporting, the fact that they remain beholden to KCNA and to the regime’s propaganda machine is a conflict of interest.

Work by staff members for the people or institutions they cover also should be avoided.

So what has AP Pyongyang told us so far? The AP claimed that its reporting would open new windows on events inside North Korea, but it has really just looked through the same old soda straw: an elite market in Pyongyang, an elite school in Pyongyang, elite fashions in Pyongyang, loyal soldiers and citizens professing loyalty to the regime and its leaders, and most recently, gushing over Kim Jong Un’s wife that evokes comparisons to Vogue‘s treatment of Asma Al-Assad. None of this should trouble us too much if the AP made it clear that these scenes represent an infinitesimally narrow, highly privileged, and generally unrepresentative portrayal of life in North Korea. Unfortunately, that essential disclaimer is largely absent from AP Pyongyang’s reporting.

The more important question is what AP Pyongyang isn’t telling us. It has told us almost nothing about how the other 99% of North Koreans live beyond the closed city of Pyongyang, aside from a few leash-and-collar tours of model farms and shrines to the Kims. Lee has claimed that her North Korean colleagues have never refused to cover a story. So how can we explain that AP Pyongyang has largely ignored reports of starvation deaths less than a day’s drive away from its bureau? Why hasn’t it reported on North Korea’s reported crackdowns on markets and refugee flows across its border with China? Why, eight months into this experiment, hasn’t it broached the topic of the hideous political prison camps that reportedly hold 200,000 men, women, and children?

The AP hasn’t done much better reporting stories that should be relatively accessible by North Korean standards. A herd of foreign reporters stampeded past the AP’s bureau on the way to see North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket before its failed launch was first reported — from Washington. AP Pyongyang has provided no original reporting about recent purges in Pyongyang, or a rumor (which, in any other city, would be easy enough to confirm or disprove) that one purged general went down fighting. After days of speculation about a woman seen with Kim Jong Un, it reported that she was his wife, Ri Sol Ju, but only on the same day that KCNA announced it officially.

Most of North Korea continues to be a blind spot for AP Pyongyang. That’s especially regrettable given what Reporters Sans Frontiers tells us about the regime’s repression of the guerrilla journalists of Rimjingang, the Daily NK, or Open News, who risk torture and death to show us what the regime’s minders are hiding from the AP — half-empty markets, street orphans, starving soldiers, and the hardscrabble squalor in which most North Koreans somehow live. What a missed opportunity. “Special correspondents” for mainstream news services are providing excellent and courageous reporting from Damascus and Aleppo today. Instead of doubling down on the regime’s propaganda, the AP could have chosen to fund and train more clandestine correspondents to give us the kind of independent news that we can’t get from other sources, and which we still aren’t getting in a form that is well-edited, vetted, or widely distributed.

Sadly, rather than becoming an agent of change and openness, the AP seems to have acquired a distinctively North Korean approach to those who question its compromises. Its response to tough questions has evolved from obfuscation to stonewalling, and it actively suppresses criticism, most notably (to me, anyway) my own.

It should provide a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism, especially when such comment is opposed to its editorial positions…..

It should report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions or individuals. Concern for community, business or personal interests should not cause the newspaper to distort or misrepresent the facts.

The AP would have us believe that its presence will transform North Korea, but the converse seems closer to the truth — it is the AP that has become more insular and defensive, and less transparent, since it opened its bureau in January. What justifies these compromises? To the extent the AP’s reporting so far has been exclusive, it hasn’t been newsworthy. To the extent it has been newsworthy, it hasn’t been exclusive, and it wasn’t derived from AP Pyongyang’s reporting. Some readers will differ as to whether the AP’s reporting is worth the cost of its compromises, but those compromises merit serious discussion, particularly in a publication like the Columbia Journalism Review.


  1. There has been little to surprise me of the AP’s reporting, since no one should expect them to be able to discover anything the regime wishes them not to.

    However, I found one comment in the interview interesting in the section that speaks of biggest challenges: “There is no interacting with locals unless you’re in the presence of a North Korean.” Are locals not North Korean? My mind was charged with the idea that only an inhuman regime can treat so many of its people so inhumanely, as though these people were “locals” and not at all one of them, and that an outsider such as the AP, living and working among such a nefarious crowd, might begin to show signs of thinking in a similar, Freudian-slip way.