Stephens didn’t call for isolation, he called for objectivity and full disclosure (updated).

The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield has written an opinion piece in response to Bret Stephen’s column yesterday, on which I commented in yesterday’s post:

If we can’t report from the gulag without a guide, by Stephens’s logic, then we shouldn’t be reporting from North Korea at all. Or from Iran, or Syria, or Gaddafi’s Libya or probably present-day China, where journalists are closely monitored. Certainly not from the Soviet Union before the Iron Curtain came down.

Whenever we journalists go to these places, though, we invariably come back with some snippet of information that can enhance our understanding about these countries and the lives of the people there. And by passing that on to our readers and viewers, we can share information about countries — and their threatening regimes — with a wide audience that includes the people who make our policy towards these countries (and often can’t go to these places themselves.)

In the case of North Korea, we know so little about what happens there that every piece of information, no matter how small, can add meaningfully to our understanding. [Anna Fifield, Washington Post]

But with due respect to Fifield, whose reporting I’ve generally regarded highly, she missed Stephens’s point.

Stephens didn’t argue that reporters shouldn’t go to North Korea. He argued that when regimes put express or implied limits on their reporting, they should “spell out what those rules are, so that readers can judge for themselves whether reports … are censored, self-censored, or genuinely comprehensive and unfiltered.” He argued that they should avoid (or at the very least, disclose) regime entanglements and conflicts of interest. He argued that they should be skeptical, not obedient. That if they must submit to self-censorship, they have a duty to tell us that. (Fifield obviously agrees, saying, “In going to these highly controlled places, it is incumbent on us as journalists to be transparent about the restrictions placed upon us, which I did during my last trip.”)

Stephens argued that reporter’s duty is to show their readers the subject as it is, not as the regime wants it shown. They should show its reality, not a fraud. That they should not deceive their readers by mislabeling an illusion as “Everyday DPRK.” When other reporters ask them important questions about self-censorship, accuracy, and conflicts of interest, they should answer them, not duck them, or shunt them off to softball interviews.

Above all, journalists shouldn’t lie to us and tell us they aren’t censored when they clearly are. (Because if the AP’s reporting isn’t restricted, why haven’t they gone to Camp 22, interviewed residents of Hoeryong privately, and explained the fate of its prisoners? If AP’s reporters aren’t being censored, it can only mean they simply don’t care.)

Fifield says she has met those standards, and I see no reason to doubt that she has. The AP—the main target of Stephen’s column—has fallen short of all of them, and Fifield offers no defense of how the AP has comported itself. In fact, if you read what Fifield and Stephens are saying about how reporters should behave in North Korea, they’re saying the same things.

If Fifield can follow these basic rules, so can AP. After all, that’s what the AP’s own ethical standards tell it to do. I posit that the AP has made a conscious choice to abandon its standards, obey its minders, and show us the fraudulent illusion the regime wants to show us out of a combination of gullibility and greed. That is how a free press loses the trust of a free people.

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Update: A journalist and reader tells me that Guttenfelder is no longer with the AP, and that it was The New York Times that commissioned this work. It’s worrisome to see the Times’s coverage of North Korea, which was never particularly good, make the same mistakes that have caused so much harm to AP’s reputation for such small rewards.

2 Comments

  1. Rule #1 of media criticism: When one criticizes a journalist (or photojournalist), especially one who works for a major newspaper,
    and particularly on a topic that could reflect poorly on the work of other journalists, one must always expect a “circle the wagons” type of response from the colleagues of the target of one’s criticism. It is
    a kind of reflexive “rah rah for the home team” reaction. It seems not
    so much a matter of defending a practice or point of view as it is a
    “don’t you dare mess with one of ours” type of reaction.




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  2. Of course, this rule of media criticism often applies to criticism of
    insurance salesmen or pharmacists or other professions. It is
    human nature that one has a certain sympathy for those who
    share one’s line of work. With regard to journalists, however,
    the tendency to “rally round” often seems more pronounced and
    can result, as in this case, in the “team for the defense” often
    missing the main point of the criticism in a rush to “stick up for
    an embattled colleague.”




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