The AP should release its MOU or register as a N. Korean propagandist

Those who expect to shatter the illusions of 23 million North Koreans by airdropping copies of The Interview over the no-smile line probably overestimate the translatability of its humor into North Korea’s socially conservative culture. But for all its flaws, The Interview approached brilliance on one level — not as a parody of Kim Jong Un (Randall Park wasn’t nearly fat enough) but as a parody of the Americans who choose to nuzzle up to him. When James Franco was immediately taken in by his minder’s display of a store, so well-stocked with (plastic) food, and by a fat kid licking a lollipop, he might as well have been an AP reporter.

Which brings me to Nate Thayer’s groundbreaking report on AP Pyongyang, which exceeds anything else done on the subject. Some readers have told me that its raspy tone was off-putting, but which of them exposed so much about the bureau’s inner workings, or published details of its agreements with the North Koreans, both written and unwritten? Thayer has done us a great public service here:

The document says the AP will “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of policies of the Worker’s Party of Korea and the DPRK government,” that changes to state-produced content would have to be made with “full consultation between the two sides,” that the “KCNA shall nominate” the full time staff the AP would hire for their Pyongyang bureau, and that “the average $12,000 per month” for salaries and office rental fees be paid by a “method requested by (the) KCNA.”

“(The) KCNA shall be responsible for all the procedures inside the DPRK for the opening and operation of Bureau,” the document says, the authenticity of which was confirmed by interviews with 14 current and former AP staff involved in news production from the AP’s Pyongyang bureau. [NK News, Nate Thayer]

Thayer’s story also contains a link to a complete copy of a draft AP-KCNA MOU. It suggests that, contrary to its numerous public representations that it “does not submit to censorship,” the AP accepted extensive editorial controls on its reporting by North Korea’s state propaganda agency, KCNA. AP had an unwritten agreement not to write about Kim Jong Un.

It employed North Korean “journalists” picked and paid by KCNA, who (surprise!) appear to have acted closely in concert with North Korean interrogators to print carefully selected parts of the “confessions” of detained Americans, who had been coached to manipulate the American people and their government.

KCNA got a veto over where the AP could go, and what stories it could report; consequently, AP Pyongyang contributed no useful reporting to any of the biggest stories coming out of Pyongyang in the last three years, many of which remain unresolved.

AP accepted reporting quotas, including “monthly transmission of about 10 Korean articles” which could be “translated into English and distributed with the dateline of “Pyongyang (AP).”

AP was prevented from establishing independent communications, and was kept in close physical proximity to KCNA, and dependent on its internet connection and SIM cards to communicate.

At Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fisher has an excellent summary of the “damning accusations” in Thayer’s piece. It’s also well worth reading. Also worth your time is this comment, from Don Kirk.

So how did the AP respond to all of this? Surely it redacted the proprietary numbers out of the final MOU and released it, to prove the independence of its bureau. Surely a series of AP reporters went on the record, offering frank and candid answers about how they work, where their independence is limited, and where it isn’t. Surely AP commissioned an independent review of its bureau’s practices by the respected dean of a journalism school, and promised to follow any recommendations necessary to protect the public’s confidence. Ha! Silly you, for letting me let you think that. Here’s the response from AP’s Director of Media Relations, Patrick Colford:

In the late 1990s, Nate Thayer, a former AP stringer, became disgruntled over a distribution agreement with AP covering video he had shot in Cambodia. More recently, he dismissed the value of AP’s North Korea bureau shortly before he sought from AP detailed proprietary information about the bureau for further articles that were published on Dec. 24 by NKnews.org. [Associated Press]

Let me get this straight: Colford’s story is that Thayer fabricated all of these allegations — and if Colford isn’t suggesting they’re fabricated, what’s the point of raising this? — over a twentysomething-year-old grudge he’s been nursing all of these years about some video?

No serious news organization would hand over the kind of business agreements, salary information and other payment documentation that Mr. Thayer sought.

Fine, then. Redact out the salary amounts and proprietary arrangements (there is one flat amount for salaries and rent in the MOU I’ve seen), and release the final, true, and correct version. Still, the payment arrangements are a matter of legitimate public interest, given U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094’s limitations on providing bulk cash to the North Korean government.

There is a much more important public interest question than this, of course. The public has a right to know whether the AP has agreed, in writing, to serve as North Korea’s publicity agent or “information service employee” — a term the Foreign Agents’ Registration Act defines as “any person who is engaged in furnishing, disseminating, or publishing accounts, descriptions, information, or data with respect to the political, industrial, employment, economic, social, cultural, or other benefits, advantages, facts, or conditions of any country other than the United States or of any government of a foreign country or of a foreign political party or of a partnership, association, corporation, organization, or other combination of individuals organized under the laws of, or having its principal place of business in, a foreign country.”

I’ll let the Justice Department decide whether, as a matter of law, the AP should register as a North Korean propagandist — the answer depends on whether the AP is acting under North Korean direction or control, and whether it’s practicing “bona fide” journalism here. But surely, from a citizen’s perspective, this must be precisely the kind of arrangement the Act was designed to make subject to public disclosure.

Colford continues:

His latest articles from Dec. 24 are full of errors, inaccuracies and baseless innuendo. The “draft agreement” between AP and North Korea’s KCNA news agency that he cites is remote from the final document.

Such as? Well, read on, and Colford makes some bald assertions and denials that he expects us to take at face value. You can decide on your own whether Colford or Thayer supports his version with more evidence.

While we’re on the topic of that MOU, I’d like to mention some strange things I noticed about it (Thayer shared the draft with me before he published his piece. In the interests of full disclosure, he also showed me an early draft of his article.)

First, notice the font and grammar. Does that look like the kind of font one of the world’s most sophisticated media organizations would use, or does it look rather more like KCNA wrote this and set the terms — a case of “life imitates The Interview”?

Second, the draft in my possession is annotated “092211,” which I suppose means that it was a version dated September 22, 2011. What’s very weird about that is that the AP announced its deal with KCNA, allowing for its bureau to be opened, in June! The very existence of a September draft of this MOU suggests that the terms were being renegotiated three months later. For those of us familiar with North Korea’s diplomatic history, the idea that all agreements are subject to constant renegotiation makes perfect sense. If Colford hesitates to produce a “final” MOU, it might well be because there are several of them. Or none at all.

Among other inaccuracies, AP does not distribute outright KCNA stories, as Mr. Thayer concludes, but at times AP cites KCNA reports, as do most other news organizations, including his publisher.

If so, the line between KCNA’s stories and the AP’s can be blurry. In this story about a North Korean accordion player, for example, the AP says, “Associated Press writer Pak Won Il contributed to this story from Pyongyang.” Pak Won Il is a North Korean, selected by the North Koreans (at least according to the draft MOU) and detailed to AP from KCNA. This story carries the byline of KCNA detailee Kim Kwang Hyon. And the stories I parodied here, here, here, and here, ostensibly written by the AP’s Jean H. Lee, have so little news value and so much propaganda content that they might as well have been KCNA’s own.

Because of his reliance on this “draft agreement,” he makes the laughable assertion that AP’s Pyongyang bureau submits to censorship by the North Korean government.

But the assertion isn’t laughable now that Thayer has produced a document, which Colford implicitly authenticates as a draft of the agreement between AP and KCNA. And in that document, AP ostensibly agrees (take a deep breath here) to “serve the purpose of the coverage and worldwide distribution of the policies of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the DPRK government and the reality of the DRPK with a view to deepening the relations between KCNA and AP, promoting mutual understanding between the two peoples and contributing to the improvement of the relations between the two countries.” And to allow KCNA to “be responsible for all the procedures inside the DPRK for the opening and operation of the Bureau.” And to agree to the “monthly transmission of about 10 Korean articles on politics, economy, and culture of the DPRK.” And to obey the “DPRK laws and regulations.” Does that also include North Korea’s censorship laws and regulations?

It is unlikely that Mr. Thayer spoke to as many AP sources as he claims.

For obvious reasons, these AP sources declined to go on the record. To say something is “unlikely” is a very different thing than refuting it with evidence and transparency.

Indeed, Chad O’Carroll, the editor of NKnews.org, told an AP news leader several days ago that he would not publish Mr. Thayer’s latest attack against AP after all. It is regrettable that the website decided to reverse course on Dec. 24 because of a newly found “draft agreement.”

Colford doesn’t know the reason for that, or what it has to do with the accuracy of Thayer’s story. For all Colford knows, O’Caroll’s vacillation about the article was because of the most common points of contention between reporters and editors — length, style, and fact-checking. Whatever O’Carroll’s concerns, Thayer satisfied them, and O’Carroll had enough confidence in the article to publish it. That took great courage on O’Carroll’s part, and it distinguishes him from many of his more timid peers. Then, Colford reprints a series of stock responses he provided to O’Carroll.

To Mr. O’Carroll, we had provided this statement last month:

“We recognize the unique challenges in reporting from North Korea. We are proud of our work in all formats and will continue to provide robust coverage going forward that will widen still further the world’s view of this little-known state.

“Regarding AP interviews with the three American prisoners and coverage of court proceedings: In accordance with normal practice, AP editorial decisions were made about the news value of very similar material available from three different interviews in short order from a captive individual. When we felt the material was newsworthy, we filed stories; when we felt it offered nothing new, we passed.

“Journalistically, our local staffers in Pyongyang are supervised and in regular contact with their supervisors. We rely on our international staff for our journalism and the local employees do not ever file or transmit stories on their own, independent of supervision. AP work is not submitted for any kind of review by North Korean authorities.

“AP does not submit to censorship. We do not run stories by KCNA or any government official before we publish them. At the same time, officials are free to grant or deny access or interviews.”

None of which ever seemed particularly credible before, and which seem even less so now.

With the exception of Rimjin-gang, I can’t think of a single case of any journalist who infiltrated past such a tight web of secrecy where others could not. In a just world, a man as intrepid as Thayer would win a Pulitzer for this, but of course, ours is the sort of world that awards Pulitzers to the likes of Walter Duranty … and Charles Hanley. It respects narratives, institutions, and interests. Thayer does not, which makes him a dissident and a gadfly within his profession, but by no means an outcast. If that were so, he couldn’t have obtained so many damning quotes from multiple AP employees, who sound as troubled about the AP’s ethical choices as I’ve been for the last several years.

~   ~   ~

Update: Colford denies authenticating the draft MOU published by NK, but his denial doesn’t quite manage to be as clever at reporter Stephen Gutowski’s questions.

The AP’s official statement did not deny the authenticity of the 2011 draft agreement, but said only that it is “remote from the final document.”

When asked directly about the agreement’s authenticity, AP director of media relations Paul Colford told the Washington Free Beacon, “Simply put, I don’t know what that ‘draft agreement’ is.”

When asked again whether the 2011 document was an authentic draft created during the negotiation process between the news company and North Korea, Colford declined to respond. He also declined to release the “final document” referenced in the AP’s statement. [Free Beacon, Stephen Gutowski]

Definitely read Gutowski’s entire article.

I really, really would love to see a complete and final version of that MOU.

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