One of my favorite media experiments is to observe different reporters with different biases cover similar stories in very different ways. The anniversary of the end of the Korean War was our most recent occasion for this experiment, and Pyongyang was our petri dish. Not surprisingly for regular readers of this blog, reporters who were merely visiting Pyongyang covered it very differently from reporters beholden to its regime by business and professional entanglements. One perspective tells a story of former enemies reconciling in the capital of a proud, united, and victorious country. (Astute readers will name that news service and the reporter without peeking.) That perspective closely matches the officially approved perspective the North Koreans wanted you to see. Judging by the narration in its video, the AP even went to the trouble of signing an undisclosed MOU with Oceania to have Winston Smith to do its voice-overs.
Other reporters showed a greater interest in questioning the accuracy of this choreographed display before echoing it. Their efforts were frustrated at every turn by minders, restrictions, and fakery, but at least two reporters decided to make the story about the fakery itself, and thereby told a more interesting story than the one they came to Pyongyang to tell. Video of a minder telling a child what to tell a reporter is not only more interesting than video of the child repeating the script, it’s also more informative and more newsworthy.
It’s enough to make you wonder how many other reports from Pyongyang contain similarly suspect quotes of North Korean children that don’t tell you that the quotes were state-scripted. CBS won’t win any awards for displaying minimal standards of ethics and objectivity, and it’s a sure bet they won’t be given permission to start a bureau in Pyongyang anytime soon, but at least they informed their viewers honestly.
This CNN reporter also tried to give us an idea of that part of the story she wasn’t allowed to tell.
Aidan Foster-Carter, who favors the AP experiment despite some reservations, points to another amusing incident, via the AP’s partner “news” service, KCNA, which reports:
Pyongyang, July 24 (KCNA) — John Daniszewski, vice president of the Associated Press of the U.S., arrived here by air on Wednesday to take part in the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the victory in the great Fatherland Liberation War.
Foster-Carter later expanded on his objections in an interview with the Washington Post’s Max Fisher.
One classic case on the media today: the Associated Press, as you know, has a bureau in North Korea, with KCNA [North Korea’s state media arm]. This has been a matter of some controversy. I, in fact, am among those on balance are glad they’re there, some interesting things have come out. But I hope that even they will protest that there’s a picture on KCNA right now of [AP’s] vice president, and what does it say? It says he’s come to join in the celebrations in the anniversary of the victory against the U.S. I mean that, that’s outrageous. And I hope they will protest. He’s there as a media person, he’s not coming to join in the celebrations.
So you do have to be a little bit careful. Visiting the statues and such, there’s not a lot you can do about it. These things get used internally to show foreigners coming to bow down to the leader. Not much is left to chance by the regime, they will use you if they can. [via Max Fisher’s WaPo blog]
As of today, two weeks later, the article is still available on KCNA’s web site. I can’t say whether the AP protested, but if they did, it’s apparent that KCNA stood firm and refused to compromise its journalistic standards.