How China and North Korea corrupt the people who report your news

Fred Hiatt, the Editorial Page Editor of The Washington Post, sounds the alarm about China’s selective denial of visas to journalists and academics to intimidate them into toeing the party line:

It is deeply systematic and accepted as normal among China scholars to sidestep Beijing demands by using codes and indirections. One does not use the term ‘Taiwan independence,’ for example. It is ‘cross-strait relations.’ One does not mention Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who sits in prison…. Even the word ‘liberation’ to refer to 1949 is accepted as normal.”

Academics understand the code, he added, “but when scholars write and speak to the public in this code, the public gets the impression that 1949 really was a liberation, that Taiwan independence really isn’t much of an issue, that a Nobel Prize winner in prison really is not worth mentioning.”

Increasingly, foreign journalists are subject to similar pressure. Paul Mooney, a veteran Asia journalist for Reuters, recently was denied a visa, with no reason given, according to the agency. Knowledgeable China hands for Bloomberg News, the New York Times and The Washington Post have met similar fates.

Hiatt also refers to the case of Bloomberg News killing a major story about official corruption in China, which makes me distrust Bloomberg, at least until I hear some other legitimate reason for killing the story, and maybe after that.

I agree with Hiatt. It’s unethical to allow questions of access and money to influence what facts are reported to us, and this ought to be a scandal. It should also have been a scandal when the AP signed undisclosed agreements with the North Korean government — agreements that for all we know included the transfer of money and editorial restrictions — and then filed fluffy, pro-regime reports (some of which contained outright disinformation) from the comfort of Kim Jong Un’s lap. Those misleading reports were then published in newspapers all over the world.

But even if the Times and the Post were not outraged enough about Pyongyang’s corruption and censorship of our media, kudos to them for shining a light on Beijing’s corruption and censorship of our media. At moments when it is convenient for them to do so, the media make much of their vital role in the public debate that informs democratic governance. The media tend to win these arguments because not just because of they control what we read, but because they’re right. But with this unique power comes the duty not to whore it away, especially because it’s really us they’re whoring away.

Pyongyang also uses access to cultivate academic types. For those who still remember him, Selig Harrison used to boast incessantly about the number of trips he’d made to Pyongyang, and about his unique access to regime officials. Harrison’s views about North Korea’s intentions, however, have been proven to be reliably wrong.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for North Korea watchers: their independence (and thus, credibility) is inversely proportional to the number of trips they’ve made to Pyongyang. A corollary to this rule is that a journalist or academic who is unwelcome in Pyongyang is more trustworthy than one who is welcome in Pyongyang.