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.
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