“The AP’s problematic North Korea bureau” is explored in a must-read piece in the Weekly Standard by Ethan Epstein. Here’s just a sample:
Just last week, as Kim Jong-un was again threatening war, the AP reported from Pyongyang: “ ‘I’m not at all worried. We have confidence in our young marshal’ Kim Jong Un, a cleaning lady at the Koryo Hotel said as she made up a guest’s bed. ‘The rest of the world can just squawk all they want but we have confidence in his leadership.’ ”
Other dispatches read like New York Times travel features, à la “36 Hours in Pyongyang.” “Lively NKorean capital celebrates Lunar New Year,” said an AP piece from January 2012, which reported that “hundreds of children scampered and shouted as they flew kites and played traditional Korean games in freezing temperatures.” In another dispatch, Lee wrote, “A little boy skips along grasping a classmate’s hand, his cheeks flushed and a badge of the Great Leader’s smiling face pinned to his Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt. Men in military green share a joke over beers at a German-style pub next door to the Juche tower. Schoolgirls wearing the red scarves of the Young Pioneers sway in unison as they sing a classic Korean tune.”
This points to another problem with the Pyongyang bureau’s coverage: its focus on the trivial, mundane, unimportant, and just plain wrong at the expense of genuine news—a direct consequence of the bureau’s coverage being directed by the North Korean regime. So for example, last summer, in the same week that the Washington Post was reporting how the North Korean authorities had been ramping up border security and making it even harder for the population to escape, Lee filed a story breathlessly reporting:
From Mickey Mouse and a mysterious female companion, to the whiff of economic reform and the surprising ouster of his military mentor, evidence is mounting that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will lead very differently than his secretive father.
Seven months after inheriting the country from Kim Jong Il, the 20-something leader suddenly began appearing in public with a beautiful young woman. Dressed in a chic suit with a modern cut, her hair stylishly cropped, she carried herself with the poise of a first lady as she sat by his side for an unforgettable performance: Mickey Mouse grooving with women in little black dresses jamming on electric violins.
And so instead of providing hard-hitting coverage of the world’s cruelest regime, the AP has seemingly morphed into TMZ: Pyongyang.
It’s plain to see why this is happening; the AP has put itself in a tough spot. For reasons passing understanding, it really wants to operate in North Korea. But in order to do so, it has to make sure not to offend its hosts, lest it get summarily kicked out of the country. (Malcolm Muggeridge once described a similar phenomenon among Western reporters in the Soviet Union.) Jean Lee at least appears to recognize this, sort of; while she denies that any hard censorship is occurring, she has conceded that the authorities “certainly see [her stories] after they move on the wire.” The AP, thus, is in a serious bind: If it reports real news, it will certainly get thrown out of the country. But if it softens the news, it will make its reporters look like fools. Lamentably, the AP seems to have chosen the latter course. That also explains why, ironically, some of the AP’s reporting on North Korea is still good—so long as it’s conducted from outside the country.
Read the whole thing.™
CNN found itself in a similar bind in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as it later confessed — and in today’s North Korea as well. While CNN’s coverage of Kim Jong-un’s saber rattling and staggering human rights abuses haven’t been bad from what I’ve seen this week, when CNN reports from inside the Hermit Kingdom, they’re forced to produce items such as this infamous puff-piece:
As with AP, the above clip demonstrates everything wrong with arranging your news organization so that it can say “Dateline: Pyongang.”