The Wilson Quarterly

Part of the reason journalists are about as highly esteemed as termite inspectors and telemar­keters is their failure earlier in this decade to challenge U.S. government estimates of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Press critics charge that reporters downloaded the assertions of government officials and Iraqi exiles into news stories as uncritically as songs from iTunes. Then, even after Iraq’s weapons of mass destruc­tion failed to materialize, writers repeated the same credulous per­form­ance in covering North ­Korea.

America’s largest newspapers presented a “simplistic narrative” that focused “entirely on North Korean duplicity” in the breakdown of a 1994 “agreed framework” between the United States and North Korea that was de­signed to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons, writes Hugh Gusterson, an an­thro­pologist at George Mason University. In truth, he says, nei­ther side fully lived up to the agreement, but leading publica­tions covered only accusations of North Korean perfidy. They relied almost entirely on anony­mous diplomatic sources, retired gov­ernment officials, and specialists in nuclear nonproliferation, rather than academics or other students of the Korean peninsula. They also failed to make enough interna­tional phone calls to experts monitoring the situation from South ­Korea.

Pundits tend to portray Kim Jong Il as a paranoid pygmy who watches Daffy Duck cartoons and spends nearly $1 million a year of his impoverished country’s treasury on rare cognac. Entertaining reading, but it hardly advances under­standing of what a former secretary of defense called “the most dangerous spot” in the world, Gusterson says. Relying mostly on unnamed Amer­ican offi­cials for their facts, reporters wrote in 2002 that North Kor­ea admitted it had been cheating for years on its commit­ment to freeze its nu­clear weapons pro­gram. Four years later, Newsweek declared that “diplo­mats now say that was a trans­lation error.” What North Korea had actually done was to assert that it was “entitled to have nuclear weapons” to safeguard itself from an American threat, Guster­son writes. (Some Korea special­ists have since dis­missed any “translation errors” as quibbling in light of North Korea’s announce­ment in 2006 that it had deton­ated a nuclear weapon.)

But details do matter, and so does a judicious attitude, Gusterson says. Reporters should identify U.S. gov­ern­ment officials who make accusations about Pyongyang, diversify their pool of Korea specialists, occasionally dial the 011 international access code instead of turning exclusively to District of Columbia analysts, and separate news about nuclear develop­ments from opinion about Kim Jong Il’s personal peculiarities. More objective reporting would yield better national debate and sounder foreign policy regarding one of the world’s gravest areas of ­concern.

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The Source: "Paranoid, Potbellied Stalinists Gets Nuclear Weapons" by Hugh Gusterson, in Nonproliferation Review, March 2008. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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