WSJ’s Bret Stephens, on the latest rare glimpse of N. Korea: “Whatever that is, it isn’t journalism.”

Stephens isn’t favorably impressed with David Guttenfelder’s latest “rare glimpse” through a soda straw clenched within the fists of Pyongyang’s KCNA propagandists, as published in The New York Times. Most of it is more of the same only-beautiful-please imagery we’ve come to expect from Guttenfelder–a flag factory, tiny children performing like circus animals, well-fed factory workers. Stephens observes: “It’s a potent reminder that nothing is so blinding as the illusion of seeing.”

Because the Times‘s own coverage of North Korea tends toward shallowness and gullibility about Pyongyang’s propaganda, it’s left to observers like Stephens to ask whether Guttenfelder’s work is informing or deceiving its audience.

I don’t mean to disparage Mr. Guttenfelder’s photographic skills or his sincerity. But what are we to make of a photo essay heavy on pictures of modern-looking factories and well-fed children being fussed over in a physical rehabilitation center? Or—from his Instagram account (“Everyday DPRK”)—of theme-park water slides, Christian church interiors, well-stocked clothing stores and rollerblading Pyongyang teens—all suggesting an ordinariness to North Korean life that, as we know from so many sources, is a travesty of the terrifying truth? [Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal]

Stephens asks Guttenfelder about CNN’s attempts to cover malnutrition and human rights abuses, comparing AP Pyongyang to the Eason Jordan/CNN scandal. Characteristically for an AP alumnus, Guttenfelder won’t answer.*

I wrote Mr. Guttenfelder to ask him about his work in the country, including whether he had ever encountered evidence of malnutrition or human-rights abuses. He did not answer directly but referred me to previous interviews, which emphasize that his work is “uncensored.” That’s quite a claim, given that he admits that he “travels with a guide,” and “I don’t interview people privately.” [….]

Needless to say, none of this crosses Mr. Guttenfelder’s lens. In making the regime seem almost normal, he invites us to forget what it is. Whatever that is, it isn’t journalism.

James Pearson of Reuters first identified “rare glimpse” as a cliché of editorial self-promotion, and later as a Twitter meme for Korea-watching cynics. What delights the cynics so much about these “rare glimpses” is that usually, the work thus described isn’t rare at all; it’s simply another case of a journalist going to the effort of obtaining a visa and an airline ticket, obeying her minder’s instructions, and depressing the shutter button as her minder leads her to each stage of a well-worn circuit of propaganda backdrops. This happens to describe Guttenfelder’s work in North Korea perfectly. It is as beautifully composed and visually appealing as it is fraudulent, as much a disgrace to journalism as any words ever written by Walter Duranty.

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* A previous version of this post stated that Guttenfelder shot the photographs in this essay for the Associated Press. A reader informs me that Guttenfelder has left AP after having completed multiple assignments as an AP photojournalist in North Korea. It was The New York Times that commissioned Guttenfelder’s photographs.

2 Comments

  1. While photographs obviously can’t speak, they can “lie,” in the sense
    of giving us misleading and even downright false perceptions of reality.The last century should have taught us this lesson, from photos of smiling Stakhanovites to “contented” inmates of Theresienstadt.




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  2. I saw the piece when the NY Times published it. In addition to everything mentioned in the post, I was frustrated by the old “North Koreans are human beings too!” bit. As far as I know, no one has accused them of being Martians.




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