Asia Institute Seminar with Noam Chomsky: “The Problem of the Media in Korea”

Asia Institute Seminar

 “The Problem of the Media in Korea”

 Monday, April 09, 2012


Noam Chomsky

Professor of Linguistics



Emanuel Pastreich:

You may remember that in a seminar we held a few months ago there were a series of questions from the Korean students concerning a individual by the name of Jeong Bongju who had not been able to obtain a visa to come visit the United States.

His story is quite significant with regards to the question of the media, specifically the decay that some of us perceive in the quality of media in Korea and around the world. Jeong Bongju, a former politician, has become immensely famous in Korea through his television comedy show “Na num Ggomsu” (translates as something like “I am a small-minded jerk”).

This show is essentially comedy, but it treats serious political issues more accurately and more directly than anything you will find on network television. His willingness to talk so frankly, and explicitly, about issues that most powerful people would like to have disappear is one reason that he has caused so much trouble.

But even if we appreciate that the show brings up topics otherwise not treated, the trend is disturbing. There is something so dysfunctional about media environment in which the comedy show becomes the only medium in which the truth is accurately conveyed. There is of course a long history of “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of  the king” –but we find the use of comedy to convey real news increasingly pervasive.

In the United States we have similar programs like “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart that mix comedy with truth. Perhaps such programs are an indication of the decay of media institutions, or perhaps it is a natural product of the info-tainment revolution. Or perhaps such mixtures of comedy and truth have a new significance. What do you think?

Noam Chomsky:

You’re right that the court jester was the one figure who was allowed to tell the truth. That is a tradition that extended until the present, in totalitarian states as well. Yes, the situation is dysfunctional. But I’m not sure it’s a matter of the decay of media institutions, because I don’t think they were better in the past.

Emanuel Pastreich:

In the Korean case, the media ecosystem is complex. On the one hand, there is much repetition of near identical stories among different media sources and I would not say that the sources used are all that accurate. But even if the quality of any one newspaper is limited, there are some fifteen or more reasonably good newspapers out there in Korea and there are hundreds of blogs that are at times quite brave in reporting the truth. That is a lot of media for a country of just 48 million people. Korea is, if anything, super saturated in media and that state is not always a positive. Nevertheless, there are more choices for Koreans on a daily basis. In the United States, people end up reading the New York Times simply because there is no other equivalent, not because the New York Times is that great.

As for media in the United States, I was not aware of changes in media until recently, but I will say that it certainly seems to be that there was significant decay in the media between 1990 and 2005.

Stories that would have been carried back in 1980s by the New York Times are not any longer. And the New York Times often features these rhetorical traps in which a rather reactionary concept is presented using the vocabulary and tone associated with a more progressive essay.

Noam Chomsky:

I’ve been following the media closely for 70 years.  In the 1940s, there were some small newspapers like PM that broke from the Party Line.  They have all disappeared. And now even the local quality press has largely disappeared.

Thus the Boston Globe used to be a fairly serious newspaper, sometimes somewhat independent (they even let me write for them), but now it’s useful only for those who want to keep up with local events.

Nevertheless, overall I don’t see a change for the worse in terms of what does appear in the media. In the 1980s, the crimes committed by the United States all over the world were largely suppressed or marginalized. The deceit regarding Reagan’s domestic programs was remarkable. The same was true for the 1990s. I’ve been writing about this issue regularly.

In some ways the media today is better than it was in the 1960s. The experiences of the 1960s had a civilizing effect on journalism and had a significant impact on journalists and editors. I’ve seen that clearly in my direct personal experience, and I think it’s clear from following the content in the media as well.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I am curious as to how the media might be better now than in the 1960s. The question of suppression of news about immoral or even criminal activity overseas is nothing new, of course. And it could be that more recently things are improving with such campaigns as Wikileaks.

Nevertheless, there are clear waves in the media quality in the United States. I can state with considerable confidence that the period from July 2000 until September 2003 was a low point from my perspective and that many newspapers in the United States were reduced to unmitigated propaganda machines during that period. Things have improved a bit since then.

But do you really believe there is a gradual improvement? That would fly in the face of what is said about the slashing of overseas reporting, editing staff and the increasing reliance on outsourcing to Bloomberg for much of the news.

Noam Chomsky:

As I said, there have been serious cutbacks, which have reduced options for reporting.  But the belief that there was once a “golden age” of the media which is now lost, is an illusion. The 1960s had a major civilizing effect on the whole society, and that affected the media too: concern with minority rights, with women’s rights, concern for the environment and opposition to aggression. One finds positive changes all over the place.

Just as one indication of how awful the media were in the 1960s, take the fact that we are now NOT commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John Kennedy’s launch of direct aggression against South Vietnam, with its horrendous consequences.  It’s not that the information is being suppressed.  The facts were reported, but only drew a yawn from most, and were quickly forgotten.  Years later, when mild protests finally began, they were bitterly denounced by the most liberal press.  When Martin Luther King dared to object to the war in 1966-7, he was virtually destroyed by the liberal media.  That all changed by the 1980s, and even more today.

The years 2000-2003 were far better than the 1960s.  The media permitted a great deal of objection to the Iraq War of a kind that would have been inconceivable 40 years earlier.  In fact, the Iraq War was unusual in that strong objections to the war were presented before it was officially launched even in establishment sources (Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, American Academy of Arts and Sciences).  Nothing like that happened 40 years earlier with regards to the Vietnam War.  And when the huge anti-war demonstrations took place right before the war was launched, they were treated in the media far differently than the vicious attacks on the (far fewer) protestors in late 1965, when South Vietnam had been virtually destroyed and the war had spread to all of Indochina.

In fact Bloomberg is far better now than the business press was 40 years ago.  In some respects, they’ve even gone beyond the Occupy movement in their reporting.

No reason to have illusions about the press now—it’s pretty bad—but it is considerably improved over the past.  The 1960s did have an impact on the society, even if that progress is now taken for granted.

Emanuel Pastreich:

When we talk about the media being better or worse, we need to come back to that fundamental principle of the scientific method: the distinction between precision and accuracy. Just as one can have a device that measures objects with great precision, but is completely inaccurate, you can have a media that provides considerable mimetic detail, but is false. Not entirely false, of course, because of course the mimetic detail is borrowed from some aspect of human experience, but it is merely borrowed to make the particular scene more convincing.

Perhaps the greatest study of such a process of literary creativity (it is no longer deceptive once we look at the work as fiction) is Erich Auerbach’s masterpiece Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Auerbach wrote this careful study of how the appearance of reality is generated through literature while in exile in Istanbul after being removed from his job at University of Marburg. What auerbach argues is that the appearance of being “real” in writing is not related to the world as it is in any direct manner, but rather is a product of how close it follows cultural conventions concerning how reality should be represented.

So we get literary masterpieces like the New York Times Magazine that describe in the most convincing, most literary and most evocative manner their story. But whether the story related is accurate is an entirely different issue.

One interesting thing about Korean media, or media in many Asian countries, is that they report about new bridges, new plants, infrastructure, meetings of the committees of local legislature and many other aspects of how the country is actually run. For the American TV watcher, this reporting would be intolerable, but it is in fact quite healthy. It allows the thoughtful viewer to actually see what is happening in the world and draw his own conclusion as to its significance.

That is one aspect that I think is far weaker about US media today. No details. Non-ideological details: they built a bridge, they cut down some trees, the budget increased by so much, are essential to a healthy media. They are helpful regardless of the ideology of the media. And in fact the greatest weakness is the lack of detail, in both conservative and liberal media, in the United States.

Noam Chomsky:

What I mean by saying that Bloomberg has sometimes gone beyond the Occupy movement is that Bloomberg’s demand that the Security and Exchange Commission not only be reformed but dismantled and constructed on a new and much more equitable basis goes beyond anything proposed by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The rest for what you mention is interesting, but doesn’t bear on the question we were discussing: relative evaluation.

Emanuel Pastreich:

“Relative evaluation” I assume refers to an accurate evaluation of how the media works in different historical periods. The topic is incredibly complex, if we start to think about it, for we would have to consider how people get their information. The fact that there were no “newspapers” 200 years ago, does not mean that people had no means of getting information. Today as well there is a wide range of specialized journals, and when I do read them I find myself wondering why I read things like newspapers at all.

For example, I think one is better off reading the website of the Brookings Institution than reading the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post–hands down. But it is a rare bird who does so.

I cannot really engage in a comparative analysis as I did not seriously start reading the media until I was in my mid 20s, and interestingly enough I was reading primarily Japanese media at that time. So I simply do not have your historical perspective. I have read bits from past media sources, and I have observed how journals like the New York Review of Books has become increasingly narcissistic and self-involved, how the New York Times has become more concerned with visual impact and less with content. These all seem like significant negatives.

But it is also true that there is a new breed of rather brave blogs out there that go even further. But their audience is extremely limited, of course. Maybe we read them and our friends read them, but that is a limited audience.

As for my previous note. I suppose it reveals something of my own training in literature. But then again, I would say that aesthetics (covering literature) is at the crux. What are the internal standards by which we decide what seems “real.”

If the standards by which we evaluate what seems real shift, then everything else will shift as well. The declining interest in the details, which runs across the entire political spectrum, has deep implications.

Noam Chomsky

Everything in the real world is complex, but this question is one of the easier questions.  Your question didn’t have to do with the world 200 years ago, or with different ways of getting information, but with the media now and in the recent past – say the 1950s-60s.  That doesn’t take too much research.  I told you what I think, from extensive immersion and inquiry.

Emanuel Pastreich:

That makes sense. I have a slightly different question. Do you think that the primary solution to the problem of media comes from the efforts of organized citizens, or do you feel we need increased government regulation? Or some combination of both? Citizen action I think we can easily imagine, but in the case of government, what sort of a regulatory body would work, especially in this age of agency capture?

Noam Chomsky:

I’m very skeptical about regulation of the media.  A very dangerous
instrument, I think.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I agree, but at the same time the process is problematic. The best response to the challenge would be to have an active citizenship who are deeply involved in creating the media and establishing alternative sources that keep the mainstream media in check. But what if citizens are not interested? What if the vast majority do not make such an effort? You cannot force them to be activists, can you? And yet to leave it up to the interested parties to set the rules is quite dangerous as well.

So it is dangerous to have government step in, that is clear, but some would say it is the only way, and most everyone interested in reducing pornography, or misinformation, in the media turns to the government.

Noam Chomsky:

If that’s what some would say, they’re wrong.  Some cures are worse than the disease.  Having the government block “misinformation” would make Orwell’s 1984 look like a utopian democracy.
Emanuel Pastreich:

One distinct aspect of Korean media is the frequent use of labor and strikes as a means of effecting media. Korean media goes out on strike frequently, and in the case of YTN News, the political appointee president was forced to step down as a result of agitation. Do you think that organized labor within media can serve as a major protector of freedom of speech? There is of course the risk that labor disputes can distort. But it is hard to imagine CNN going out on strike.

In Korea, such strikes happen on occasion. Not necessarily because of
content, as opposed to benefits, but there can be links.

Noam Chomsky:

Depends on what they do and what the reasons are.
Emanuel Pastreich:

So when we try to imagine a healthier ecosystem for media, for the production of reliable information about critical issues for average citizens, where do we start and how do we maintain that ecosystem?

Is there some optimal balance in the control of information, the range of individuals involved in the production and consumption of news, that promotes such a positive ecosystem? The implication of your last email is that the 1960s led to a more civilized culture for journalism. I would speculate that perhaps the conflicts and the seriousness of the crisis led to a general healthy skepticism among educated readers that changed the general process of news production, and perhaps encouraged some to enter into the field who might not otherwise have done so.

But perhaps the process is something quite different from that. The danger today is that actions like the creation of blogs and newspapers that only educated people, and people who have access to the internet, can use will give the false sense of organization and protest.

Noam Chomsky:

I think your speculation is correct.  The activist movements had a general civilizing effect on large parts of the society and culture, and it had its impact on the media.

That’s the main way to develop a healthier ecosystem, or any other social system.  Other options are independent media, which don’t have to be limited to the educated and often aren’t.  Community newspapers for example.  Or labor papers.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So that leads back to the “constant gardener” question. Granted that we cannot legislate a health media environment, is there not some manner in which government, or perhaps large organizations, can serve as a gardener, pruning and pulling up weeds, to make sure that the plants grow up appropriately without being smothered, or  overshadowed. That role of gardener does not consist of telling plants what to be.

At some level I assume you would agree with the need for some form of gardening. The question would be what is the actor, if not the government? Or perhaps there is something out there akin to “emergent complexity” in society that we should rely upon. That is to say, that things are organized and regulated not by a single group, or bureaucracy, but rather through a complex set of factors. Just as the individual polyp does not understand the full complexity of a coral reef, so  also there is no one group of either bureaucrats, or activists for that matter, who is in charge of setting out, or even proposing, policies.

The whole question by which decisions are made, norms are established, is one of the great mysteries of human experience, I believe. It is easy to say that decisions are made by George W. Bush or Barack Obama, but these are individuals who are constantly responding to pressures from below. So also to say that the subject is the corporation seems unconvincing since these organizations are also profoundly conformist and follow perceived imperatives.

Sometimes it seems there is an opaque “system of things” that transcends the efforts of individuals and groups, but at other times it does seem that the individual and group effort can have very real impact, granted its ultimate form remains uncertain.

Noam Chomsky:

Doesn’t seem to me particularly opaque.  I’ve written about the nuts and bolts, as have others.  And there’s plenty of work on democratic media systems (Robert McChesney, for example), with no “gardeners” necessary – and they would be a very bad idea, in my opinion.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Let us talk a bit about the case of humor and news. The case of “I am a Selfish Prick,” the biting socials satire that has been so popular in Korea. This show seems a bit different than what we encounter in the United States. Most Americans see the media issue in terms of commercialization, the manner in which media is increasingly run for profit by large corporations. Of course the media for profit trend does impact Korea as well, and the overwhelming amount of TV about people eating food, making stupid jokes and singing songs that have nothing to do with the lives of people testifies to the power of markets. Nevertheless, the appeal of “I am a Selfish Prick”  comes from its political context. How the central government under the current administration has worked to suppress journalism, to make it subject to the office of the president. This approach does strike Koreans as fundamentally different from what is going on in the United States. “I am a Selfish Prick”   is a response to the overt control of media, through appointment of the heads of major broadcast networks of political figures with close relations to the president.

Noam Chomsky:

The case of “I am a Selfish Prick” in Korea is quite different from what we find in American media today. I am not suggesting that the American media is free, of course. Nevertheless, the explicit coercion of the media, including sending people to jail, seems more similar to what we find in more authoritarian regimes. The problems in the United States are very serious, but different in nature.

Of course we need to see the status of the media in society on a spectrum across the globe, with many variations in the nature of media and its role in society, and its relationship to government and the private sector. In the United States, the actual power of the state to coerce the media is slight. Such explicit intimation by the state itself is rare. On the other hand, voluntary subordination to state doctrine by the media is overwhelming on major issues. That voluntary subordination serves essentially to block out reporting on sensitive topics in the mainstream media. The effect is equivalent to censorship.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So let us imagine that Korea is something of a political hybrid. In some respects Korea is closer to an authoritarian system in its decision making process, and the state itself is stronger than is the case in other countries. But before we leap to the conclusion that Korea is not an “advanced nation,”  its media is not as advanced as other countries, we should realize that Korea has some strengths. Let us take the power of labor and protest. Well, I would not say I agree with all protests, but compared with the United States where the Occupy Wall Street Movement has lacked focus, here we have in Korea real organized labor, of such a nature as has been lost completely in the United States over the last forty years. And that labor has a focus beyond pay raises. In the case of Korean media, People are willing to go out on strike against government appointed CEOs and interference in the editorial process. This is remarkable. In the United States people strike over pay. I cannot think of an example of people in the media, or elsewhere striking over accurate reporting, or over ethical issues.

Perhaps you might have suggestions about how Korea can move forward beyond the authoritarian model, but you might at the same time suggest that the US can learn from Korea. I am reminded of the recent book by Ann Lee “What the US can Learn from China.” She argues that the United States should learn from the good policies used in China. Could this apply to Korea as well?

Noam Chomsky:

I completely agree. The United States has much to learn from Korea and issues in the media and in democracy are among them. The courageous fight for democracy in Korea has much to teach Americans. Koreans were willing to take tremendous risks to assure that they had a living and functioning democracy. As the same time, the dictatorship that those Koreans fought against was supported by the United States. Korea deserves our attention as we rebuild our democracy.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Let us come back to the issue of labor. Labor means, I think, having individuals within organizations who see their role as more than just a tool. There was once a powerful labor movement in the United States, but it has been reduced to a force that resists cuts in pensions or reductions in pay. It really does not fight for a free media or for fundamental changes. If anything, it has to be careful not to do so. What happened to labor in the United States?

Noam Chomsky:

The war against labor has been waged for a long time and it has been so successful that strikes are quite rare in the United States, and even more rarely successful. Labor does not serve as a counterweight against corporate decisions here, and contributes little to policy.

But before we become overly pessimistic, we should remember that this state of labor has been true before. In the 1920s, labor was virtually crushed by industry in the US and around the world. But it rose again to great power in the 1930s. Since that peak, however, labor has been subject to unremitting attack by a highly class-conscious business world. The result of the decline of labor and its influence in the United States has been so serious that the business world is able to dominate society, dominate the issues discussed in the media and the structure of power to an unusual extent. Korea offers a potential for something different.

Emanuel Pastreich:

An interesting point about the role of labor. Nonetheless, the global battle for access to reliable information is something even larger than labor, or than Korea and the United States. I think we can see the efforts of Koreans to assure accurate media by protesting against interference in the editorial process as courageous. But in the Korean case it has been primarily the reporters themselves who lead the effort.

Noam Chomsky:

That sort of an effort by the reporters themselves is laudable and the absence of such engagement in the United States by organized labor can only be understood in the context of the unusually violent and repressive labor history of the United States. The United States is to an unusual extent a business-run society and in this respect is different than Korea—in which labor and government are significant in their influence. Business in the United States is constantly fighting a bitter class war against labor. Nor is this new. There was a powerful labor movement in the United States more than a century ago that was crushed by violence. There was also the “red scare” over communism after the Russian revolution that was used as a pretext to shut down labor.

Then labor rose again in its influence in the United States in the 1930s, terrifying business. Business immediately sought to counter labor at every layer. That effort to completely suppress labor were put on hold for the duration of the Second World War, but the campaign was launched in full as soon as the war ended, on an extraordinary scale.

Since then business has eviscerated the private sector unions. Public sector unions are now under attack on a large scale. For the most part, both democrats and republicans are involved in this effort to suppress labor. So yes, Korea has had a strong labor movement with a commitment towards democracy and social justice over the last thirty years. In the United States strong labor like that has vanished, and was in decline already in the 1960s.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So you feel that labor has a real role to play in the media ecosystem. One does not hear that sort of suggestion much in the discussion about media going on in the United States, I must say.

Noam Chomsky:

What is unique in the Korean case is the long series of strikes against major broadcast companies over the last two years based on objections to bias in the media and control of content by the government. To be honest, I cannot think of anything quite like that effort elsewhere. There may have been such cases that I do not know about. Perhaps Robert McChesney would know better than I do.


One response to “Asia Institute Seminar with Noam Chomsky: “The Problem of the Media in Korea”

  1. Pingback: Korean Gender Reader | The Grand Narrative

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