Asia Institute Seminar with Robert McChesney “Korean Media in Comparative Perspective”

Asia Institute Seminar


May 9, 2012


“Korean Media in Comparative Perspective”


Robert W McChesney

Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication

University of Illinois


Emanuel Pastreich:

The reliability of the mainstream media has become an enormous issue in Korea today as many feel that the newspapers and television broadcasts no longer serve a role of keeping citizens informed. Recently the TV comedy show “I am a Selfish Prick” (“Nanun Ggomsu da”)  was rated as more accurate than the mainstream media—even though most of its content is tongue in cheek. What exactly is the problem with media and how can we approach it?

Robert McChesney:

Firstly, one must begin understanding that the media is a problem for Korean society. By “problem” I do not mean that the media is poor quality or produces dubious content that has negative effects upon our culture, politics, and society. By this framing, if the media were doing a commendable job, there would be no problem. Whether their content is good, bad or a combination, the media is a problem for any society, and an unavoidable one at that.  The problem of the media exists in all societies, regardless of their structure.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So the very existence of media in any country, not just Korea, will bring forth issues that are problematic. Is that is to say there is not a pure state of an objective media that we could reach if we just follow a certain set of policies? To become a democratic society does not make one immune from such problems?

Robert McChesney:

Media are at the center of struggles for power and control in any society, and this is arguably even more the case in democratic nations, where the issue is more up for grabs.

The political nature of the problem of the media in democratic societies is well-known, virtually all theories of self-government are premised on having an informed citizenry, and the creation of such an informed citizenry is the province of the media.  The measure of a media system in political terms is not whether it creates a viable democratic society, but whether the media system, on balance, in the context of the broader social and economic situation, challenges and undermines anti-democratic pressures and tendencies, or whether it reinforces them.  

The crucial tension is between the role of media as profit-maximizing commercial organizations and the need for the media to provide the basis for informed self-government.  Once we understand journalism as a public good requiring, public subsidies, the flood gates can be opened for creative ways to address the problem. Until we get to that point, we are in intellectual and political quicksand. The question would be whether Koreans see journalism as a public good equivalent to providing ambulance services.

Emanuel Pastreich:

We often see that the media and journalists are swayed by people in power, even captured by them. This is true in Korea, but I would say that Korea is actually a healthier media ecosystem because it has so many media sources. Nonetheless, we see many cases in which the tough questions are simply not asked. What do you think democratic journalism, journalism that promotes democracy, should involve?

Robert McChesney:

It is important for Korean journalists to adhere a set of values and a vision of what good journalism looks and sounds like.

Firstly, it must provide a rigorous account of people who are in power, and of people who wish to be in power, in the government, corporate and nonprofit sectors.

Secondly, journalism must regard the information needs of all people as legitimate.  Thirdly, it must have a plausible method to separate truth from lies, or at least to prevent liars from being unaccountable and leading nations into catastrophes—particularly wars, economic crises and communal discord.  And lastly, it must produce a wide range of informed opinions on the most important issues of our times, not only the transitory concerns of the moment, but also challenges that loom on the horizon.

These issues cannot be determined primarily by what people in power are talking about. Journalism must provide the nation’s early warning system, so problems can be anticipated, studied, debated and addressed before they grow to crisis proportions.

It is necessary, however, that the media system as a whole makes such journalism a realistic expectation for the citizenry. There should be a basic understanding of the commons—the social world—that all people share, so that all people can effectively participate in the political and electoral processes of self-governance. The measure of a free press is how well a system meets these criteria of giving citizens the information they need to keep their freedom. That would be the question I would ask Koreans: how effective is the media of giving you the information you need to defend yourself from those forces that might reduce your political and economic freedom?

Great journalism, as Ben Bagdikian put it, requires great institutions. Like any complex undertaking, a division of labor is required to achieve success: Copyeditors, fact checkers, and proofreaders are needed, in addition to reporters and assigning editors. Great journalism also requires institutional muscle to stand up to governments and corporate power. It requires competition so if one newsroom misses a story it will be exposed by someone else. It requires people covering stories they would not cover if they were doing journalism on a voluntary basis. In short, democratic journalism requires material resources that have to come from somewhere and need to be organized on an institutional basis. To the degree that Korea can maintain the institutions behind journalism, it will be successful in the long run.

Emanuel Pastreich:

You have made a strong argument for the importance of an ecosystem that encourages a free press and yet we see all the time the owners of media interests influencing what is introduced to the public not on a basis of democracy, but rather their own interests. How can we respond to this rather subtle threat to democratic distribution of information?

Robert McChesney:

To some extent, the problem is inherent in a system wherein private capitalist control over news media is combined with a situation in which advertising provides the majority of revenues. As these news media markets invariably tended toward becoming concentrated and noncompetitive it afforded the owners tremendous political power, and tended to marginalize the voices and interests of the poor and working class.  The solution to the problem in the past was the emergence of professional journalism. This embodied the revolutionary idea that the owner and the editor could be separated, and that the political views of the owner (and advertisers) would not be reflected in the nature of the journalism, except on the editorial page.

Under the ideal of professional journalism, news would be determined and produced by trained professionals and the news would be objective, nonpartisan, factually accurate and unbiased. Whether there were ten newspapers in a community or only one or two would be mostly irrelevant, because trained journalists—like mathematicians addressing an algebra problem—would all come up with the same news reports. I do not know if Korea has held up such an ideal.

This practice of professional journalism was anathema to most publishers, who wanted no part of aggressive reporting on their fellow business owners or the politicians they routinely worked with and relied upon for their businesses to be successful. They also were never going to sign away their direct control over the newsroom; editors and reporters had their autonomy strictly at the owner’s discretion. The resulting professionalism was to the owners’ liking, for the most part, and more conducive to their commercial and political needs.

The core problem with professional journalism as it crystallized was that it relied far too heavily upon official sources (i.e., people in power) as the appropriate agenda setters for news and as the “deciders” with regard to the range of legitimate debate in our political culture.  This reliance upon official sources—people in power—as setting the legitimate agenda and range of debate removed some of the controversy from the news, and it made the news less expensive to produce.

Emanuel Pastreich:

In the case of Korea, there has been a substantial expansion of the public relations efforts of corporations, coupled with a rise in the sophistication with which powerful interests manipulate the media.

Robert McChesney:

A weakness built into professional journalism as it developed was that it opened the door to an enormous public-relations industry that was eager to provide reporters with material on their clients. Press releases and packets came packaged to meet the requirements of professional journalism, often produced by former journalists. The point of PR is to get the client’s message in the news so that it looks legitimate. The best PR is that which is never recognized for what it is. Although reporters generally understood the dubious nature of PR, and never embraced it, they had to work with it to get their work done.

Publishers tended to love PR because it lowered the costs of production. The dirty secret of journalism is that a significant percentage of our news stories, in the 40-50 percent range, even at the most prestigious newspapers in the glory days of the 1970s, were based upon press releases. Even then, a surprising amount of the time these press releases were only loosely investigated and edited before publication. It meant that powerful interests could subtly determine what was covered in the news and how it was covered.  Since the late 1970s, commercial pressure has eroded much of the autonomy that professional journalism afforded journalism, and that had provided the basis for the best work done over the past 50 years.

Emanuel Pastreich:

And yet, we would expect that the owners of newspapers and newsrooms would want to run business so as to maintain a profit. And yet overall circulation and profits has declined sharply.  Why do corporations no longer find journalism to be a profitable investment? Is the internet making up for that loss of newspapers?

Robert McChesney:

To some extent it is that increasingly monopolistic news media corporations gutted and trivialized the product, news, for decades. This process ultimately made the “news” seem irrelevant. To some extent the crisis exploded as it did because the Internet destroyed the traditional business model by giving advertisers far superior ways to reach their prospective consumers.

Studies were conducted to determine how, in this changing media moment, “original” news stories were being generated, and by whom. They tracked old media and new, newspapers, radio, television, websites, blogs, even Twitter “tweets” from the police department. What did they find? The first conclusion from the researchers was an unsettling one: Despite the seeming proliferation of media, the researchers observed that “much of the ‘news’ people receive contains no original reporting. Fully eight out of ten stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information.” And where did the ‘original’ reporting come from? More than 95 percent of original news stories were still generated by old media. In other words, a great many of the much-heralded online sites – even some that proudly labeled themselves as “news” operations – simply disseminated what was being produced by traditional old media.

Emanuel Pastreich:

And yet, we have heard so much about the blogosphere and the newfound ability of unpaid people—rechristened “citizen journalists”—to go online, launch new websites, do their own thing, tell it like it is, and have the same caliber of Internet access to the world’s attention as the mightiest media conglomerate? Won’t that combine with the commercial journalism online to solve the journalism problem in the digital world?

Robert McChesney:

Although there are an infinite number of Web sites, human beings are only capable of meaningfully visiting a small number of them on a regular basis. The Google search mechanism strongly encourages implicit censorship, in that sites that do not end up on the first or second page of a search effectively do not exist.  Mathew Hindman’s research on journalism, news media, and political Web sites is striking in this regard. What has emerged is “power law” distribution where a small number of political or news media Web sites get the vast majority of traffic. They are dominated by the traditional giants with name recognition and resources. Free speech is alive and well on the web, at least for the time being. But as Hindman has put it, we should not confuse the right to speak with the ability to be heard.

Emanuel Pastreich:

How can the Korean government help in maintaining good journalism? What suggestions do you have?

Robert McChesney:

The evidence points inexorably in one and only one direction: If South Korea is serious about improving journalism, not to mention creating a real media utopia, the only way this can happen is with massive public subsidies. The market is not getting it done, and there is no reason to think it is going to get it done. Journalism will require a huge expansion of the nonprofit news media sector as well. It is imperative to discontinue the practice of regarding journalism as a “business” and evaluating it by business criteria.  Instead, it is necessary to embrace the public good nature of journalism. That is my core argument. If one accepts that, everything else falls into place.

Let’s be clear on what is meant by the “public good” nature of journalism: That means journalism is something society requires but that the market cannot produce in sufficient quality or quantity.

The future of journalism left to the market will likely approach what education would be like if all public subsidies were removed. With no subsidies, our education system would remain excellent for the wealthy who could afford private schools in the first place, mediocre at best for the middle and upper-middle class, and non-existent or positively frightening for the increasingly impoverished lower-middle and working class, the majority of the nation.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Isn’t the basic problem that most people either have no interest in journalism, or are only interested in superficial stories about celebrities? If people really wanted good journalism, isn’t it logical to expect the commercial news media to give it to them?”

Robert McChesney:

Public good theory explains that no matter how strong the consumer demand, it will never be sufficient to provide the resources for a popular democratic journalism. Even when Americans have been most rabid about news and politics, there was not sufficient demand for circulation revenues to subsidize a popular news media.

But “public good” theory is important in another way: it also highlights that it is impossible for the market to accurately gauge popular support for the news. The market cannot express all of our values; we cannot individually “purchase” everything we value.

My experience discussing the crisis of journalism with tens of thousands of people over the past several years has reinforced my view that a preponderance of Americans, and especially younger Americans notorious for their lack of interest in newspapers and conventional news media, want to have credible reporting on corporate and government affairs, even if they do not necessarily plan to read or view the news reports thereby produced. But they want to know that the work is being done and people in power are being held accountable, issues are being covered, and they are willing use their tax dollars to pay for journalism even if they themselves prefer to watch a reality TV show or listen to their iPods.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

In Korea today there is still substantial government investment in public media, even if it may seem a bit boring to many. KTV, for example, is produced by the government and provides quite detailed descriptions of current policy. Korea continues to put a high value on such public broadcasting.

Robert McChesney:

That effort by Korea is important. Americans are more allergic to public funding for journalism these days. If one mentions government subsidies, the questions that often arise about whether news media should be regarded as a public good and receive public subsidies,  “But, wait, doesn’t that violate the American constitution and the American Way?” or  “Isn’t the American free press tradition—indeed, the democratic press tradition—built on an explicit and unequivocal ban on government subsidies?”

The answer to these questions is an emphatic No. The emergence of advertising to provide the preponderance of resources masked the “public good” nature of journalism. It gave the illusion that the market could provide a sufficient quantity of journalism, and professional standards could guarantee sufficient quality. But advertising always had an opportunistic relationship to the news, and now that there are superior means to satisfy commercial ambitions, journalism sees its revenue base evaporating.  The American free press tradition has two components. First is the aspect everyone is familiar with, the idea that the government should not exercise prior restraint and censor the press. The second, every bit as important, is that it is the first duty of the government to see that a free press actually exists so there is something of value than cannot be censored.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Do you think there was a moment in American history at which the media was reasonably functional, was serving its role properly? Or is a healthy media just an ideal out there that we have never realized, and may, or may not ever, realize? This question is critical to our attempts to formulate what needs to be done, I think.

Robert McChesney:

I think the media functioned the best back in the nineteenth century in the United States.  In corporate-professional era of reporting, journalism was at its best in the 1970s, but even then it had some very deep flaws.

Emanuel Pastreich:

So if we want to look for a relationship between government subsidies and the development of democracy, is there any real evidence?

Robert McChesney:

Well, let us consider Britain’s The Economist, a business magazine keenly in favor of private enterprise, deregulation, privatization and disinclined toward large public sectors.

Every year The Economist produces a highly acclaimed “Democracy Index,” which ranks all the nations of the world on the basis of how democratic they are. In 2011 only 25 nations qualified as democratic. The criteria are: electoral process and pluralism; functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties.  The top four nations on the list –Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden—are among the top six or seven per capita press subsidizers in the world. Yet these are the four most democratic and freest nations on earth, according to The Economist, and they all have perfect or near-perfect scores on civil liberties.

Emanuel Pastreich:

What do you think South Korea needs to do to establish a healthy ecosystem for media? What are the essential conditions?

Robert McChesney:

First, the news media system in Korea should have a dominant non-profit and non-commercial sector. Commercial interests are welcome to conduct journalism just like anyone else, but commercialism and pure amateurism cannot be the heart and soul of a democratic news media. The evidence suggests powerful nonprofit and noncommercial news media sector will elevate and strengthen the commercial news media sector.  As advertising is abandoning journalism, it cannot be relied upon as the basis for a credible journalism in the future. If advertisers wish to support some journalism—and they will, especially that aimed at the upper-middle class and higher—that is fine. But advertising can come with strings attached, and it has been grotesque to see websites twisting themselves into pretzels attempted to shake down advertising support. There is no future in this for a real utopian journalism.

Second, monopoly is the foundation of a real media dystopia, so a real media utopia must put tremendous emphasis on a pluralistic, competitive system, where there are differing funding structures and organizations. The system must be decentralized. In popular parlance the term competition is assumed to refer to commercial battle for maximum profits. I think we can just as easily imagine competition between various types of nonprofit and noncommercial enterprises. Establishing news media institutional structures is a central task for a real media utopia.  It should be relatively easy for newcomers to enter the fray. Policies and subsidies should encourage nonprofit competition, and not discourage commercial competition.

Third, and this bears repeating, public subsidies are imperative.  As a rule, subsidies should only go to nonprofit and noncommercial media. This is to avoid the problem of having commercial interests have a stake in subsidies and using their lobbying prowess to distort the system by getting ever larger subsidies. There can be some subsidies that commercial media may qualify for—low postage rates for magazines is an example—but these must be subsidies that are equally of value or of greater value to nonprofit and noncommercial media.

Fourth, the prohibition against state censorship is unconditional, no matter who controls the government. I think wise policymaking establishes differing institutions in an open process, provides resources, minimizes corruption and assumes the best possible journalism will result. There is no justification for the state to enter a newsroom and tell people what to do and not do.

Fifthly,  “newspapers” as an organizing principle for gathering and communicating information—especially information that those in power would prefer to quarantine—have a crucial role to play in a democratic society.  When I mean by “newspapers” are locally based news organizations covering the full range of political and social activities in a community, providing the news and commenting on it. A collection of niche Web sites covering different aspects of a community are well and good, but in combination they cannot recreate the coherence and unity a well-edited and resourced newspaper can deliver.  In the near-term, it’s vital that at least one newspaper remain alive in every community that has traditionally had one.  The logic for municipal ownership is clear: the newspaper is a necessary institution, much like the police and fire department or schools.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

So what are some general words of advice for Koreans concerning the future of media?

Robert McChesney:

Immediate political opposition to news media reform comes not from news media corporations, ironically enough. Those firms would possibly benefit from these reforms indirectly, and certainly would not be imperiled. But spirited opposition comes from right-wing media and the political right in general. These forces enjoy the present collapse of traditional journalism and are rushing to fill the void. More broadly, those corporate forces that benefit from a journalism-free environment in their dealings with governments also have no enthusiasm for the type of media reforms proposed herein. Hence the requirement that media reform is a necessary part of broader democratic reform. I think that this essential truth most likely applies in the Korean case as well.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

What are we to make of the success of  “I am a Selfish Prick” in Korea? How did this comedy show come to have such significance in the political sphere?

Robert McChesney:

I am a Selfish Prick” has a strong parallel in the United States in what we call the “fake news” phenomenon. That “fake news” effort is a bit different than  “I am a selfish prick” in that it makes up a mock tv broadcast which is so  ridiculously subservient to power that it cannot be taken seriously. The most important example is the Daily Show in which every weeknight Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert demonstrate the  corruption and idiocy of politics and industry with comic genius.

The Daily Show, like “I am a Selfish Prick” reached the point of playing the role of real news. Fake news filling a role it was never meant to play. And although its stars Stewart and Stephen Colbert were not sent to jail, it has encountered many of the same problems as well. The difference perhaps is that the Daily Show does not have the same sort  of  an active fan base.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

Fake  news like  “I am a Selfish Prick” does help to undermine authoritarian rhetoric and lead to a greater freedom of expression. By undermining the mainstream discourse which makes many think that certain topics cannot be brought up, fake news serves its role. But at the same time, it can be damaging in that it gives the impression that some sort of change has taken place when in fact it does not really change anything and does not present documentation. If we look at the case of the Bush administration, I think that the work of FRANCIS A. BOYLE at University of Illinois that was significant. As a professor of law, he wrote up a paper calling for the impeachment of President Bush. It was not funny; it was boring. But it listed systematically, with proper documentation, all clear violations of the constitution and US law. The boring part of changing the system are critical: creating organizations, presenting extensive documentation.

Robert McChesney:

Fake News, or humor like “I am a Selfish Prick” is going to be quite limited. Let us take a look at what Ralph Nader (alternative candidate for president and ferocious critic) recently said

“I love great political humor as much as anyone and there is little doubt that we live in times when there is tremendous political humor.”

Nader spoke about a trip he took  to the Soviet Union in the early 1960s to see life under communism. He said, “There was the best underground political humor and satire I have ever seen. It was so striking and so well received because the official journalism was so atrocious and discredited.”

Perhaps that observation is closer to what we see in the Daily Show or “I am a Selfish Prick.”  Perhaps we see something more akin to the attempts to mock the central authority in the Soviet Union in a previous age.

It is brilliant humor, to be sure, but it is based to a certain extent on how atrocious the official journalism of our times has become.

Such comedy is a response to what is so wrong, not a new approach to media.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

I feel this is the most serious limitation and risk. If the alterative media is just a response to what is wrong and only focuses on what people find entertaining, then it is stuck in the same system that created the problem. It cannot become an alternative news system but rather it is entertainment. And that serves the system in a sense.

Robert McChesney:

Let us first talk about what is positive in this “fake news” approach to journalism.

I am a Selfish Prick”  or Stewart and Colbert do not need to adopt the asinine professional practices of mainstream journalism, especially the requirement to regurgitate with a straight face whatever people in power say, and only present opposing opinions when they come from other people in power.

Pro-corporate right-wing hacks like Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, or their peers at KBS and MBC,  can get ordinary people to accept as a fact something ridiculous passed down from the government so that it becomes a a legitimate news story, empirical evidence be damned.

I am a Selfish Prick” or Stewart and Colbert actually demonstrate the idiotic, bogus and propagandistic nature of what people in power and  “newsmakers” say, in a manner that would be considered “ideological” and “unprofessional” were it to come from a mainstream newsroom. They take the techniques of these professional “journalists” to its logical extreme and make visible its extreme content. By avoiding the absurd professional practices, they can get us much closer to the truth. Fake news becomes real journalism.

But we must keep Nader’s comments in mind: although the old Soviet Union had wonderful political satire, it was an undesirable place to live otherwise. Such humor did not change the system in the Soviet Union. The official culture was one of propaganda and lies, freedom as we know it was non-existent, and the quality of life was poor. Although we in the United States and Korea enjoy precious freedoms, our economy and political system are awash in plutocracy, corruption, mindless commercialism and stagnation that are ultimately incompatible with a humane, self-governing and sustainable society and the rule of law. Our future looks dark, and the woeful state of what remains of the mainstream press holds no small portion of the responsibility.

But, as Nader reminded his audience, being able to crack jokes is great, but it can also be a sign a weakness.

We need also to bear in mind that “I am a Selfish Prick” or   Stewart and Colbert are comedians, not journalists.   They are not breaking stories with packs of investigative reporters. As our mainstream journalism shrivels, as newsrooms downsize and close up shop, the range of issues shrinks.Such comedy expand existing media stories and give inside information, but it does not have the institutional strength to open up whole new topics for discussion.   These programs cannot be a corrective to and substitute for mainstream news.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

Will “I am a Selfish Prick” or Stewart and Colbert be the new trend in journalism, or are they just a temporary phenomenon? Are we seeing a real transformation of the nature of media here? Of course they do not offer real news yet, but could they do so in the future? That seems to be the important question for us.

Robert McChesney:

The striking emergence of Stewart and Colbert has long since exceeded “flash in the pan” status, and is a long-term generational phenomenon. I suspect that “I am a Selfish Prick” also represents a generational shift, and it may be linked to how people get information and how technology is transforming our world. But the long term question of how fake news is evolving, how audiences respond to fake news like “I am a Selfish Prick” and how it effects the political system and journalism, are all real questions that need to be studied and researched.

I am a Selfish Prick” is of course different from the Daily Show in that I am a Selfish Prick” mocks people in power with some attention to the nature of media whereas the Daily Show focuses on the mainstream media system itself. Is there an equivalent in Korea of a show that makes fun of how KBS presents the news?

Emanuel Pastreich: 

To some degree we are looking at a very different culture in Korea and that sort of sarcasm is perhaps less common. The humor in  “I am a Selfish Prick” draws more from a mockery of subservience to power in Korean society than a mockery of media itself.

Robert McChesney:

So I do not want to suggest that somehow the United States is more advanced than Korea. Koreans have been very active in their demands for a more open press and we have much to learn. In fact we all have to work together.

Emanuel Pastreich: 

Of course Koreans are looking to an advanced country 선진국 like the United States to give them ideas about what they can do. What do you see positive in Korea?

Robert McChesney:

In one sense Korea may be more authoritarian than the United States in the habits of government, but at the same time it has a level of commitment within some organizations that is inspiring.

There may be some fundamental differences between the  nature of government and industry (and their relationship) between the United States and Korea. The battle for accurate information is the same.  Information are controlled by the government and the government itself is increasingly repressive in nature.

But in Korea there have been a series of strikes by reporters and by editors against both the semi-public MBC and KBS and also the commercial newspapers and TV news programs. Those strikes are not really about pay. They are about how stories are edited and the appointment of political figures as the CEOs of news organizations to keep watch over the production of news. That has not happened in the US. We have individual journalists who have resigned, but no such movements within media organizations exists. Korea is showing US journalists the way to a freer media. I hope we reciprocate. So far, we have not seen such efforts in the United States.



One response to “Asia Institute Seminar with Robert McChesney “Korean Media in Comparative Perspective”

  1. Pingback: Korean Gender Reader | The Grand Narrative

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