Since Associated Press opened the first ever Western news bureau in Pyongyang this year, blogger Joshua Stanton has posted scores of entries criticizing the company for what he characterizes as “poor reporting” when it comes to North Korea. We caught up with Mr. Stanton to explore his disdain for the agency’s North Korea work – for more information about the debate, check out “The Perils Of Reporting in North Korea: A Conservative Jihadi VS The Associated Press”
NK News: So just to start out, has AP’s work got any better since they started in your opinion?
Josh Stanton: There was a time in the spring when I saw less bad reporting from the AP, but the quality of the reporting depends more on the reporter than anything else.
Most of it has been skewed toward showing us just what the regime wants us to see. The AP hasn’t told us anything that was both exclusive and newsworthy — the stories have been mostly fluff reporting about the lifestyles of the Pyongyang elite, or else they’ve been substantively similar to reporting from other wire services or newspapers. The quality of the reporting mostly varies according to who reports it. Tim Sullivan, for example, has been scrupulous about telling readers when he was accompanied by minders, and has tried to tell aspects of his stories that the regime won’t let him see.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of his Bureau Chief, Jean H. Lee, who has done most of the reporting. And in the process of establishing its relationship with North Korea, the AP’s corporate leadership has made some very troubling compromises that go far beyond the merits of specific stories.
NK News: So not much good reporting. Do you think there’s been good reporting from their journalists outside of North Korea, or it just something specific with the Pyongyang bureau?
Josh Stanton: The AP has done fine reporting on Korea for years, at least until recently. Since the AP signed the memoranda of understanding opening it more than a year ago, its reporting has had less to say about North Korea’s labor camps and refugee problem, and has concentrated instead on leash-and-collar dispatches from Pyongyang that are more misleading than informative about conditions in North Korea as a whole.
NK News: But of course human rights problems aren’t all that’s happening North Korea. There is a lot of other news going on and its naive to think North Korea would be opening their gulags to journalists there. So, isn’t it natural therefore for AP to be reporting on other issues from within North Korea when compared to their external coverage?
Josh Stanton: When you cover a subject, you owe it to your readers to tell them just what you’re showing them. For the most part, the AP has shown us staged propaganda spectacles, reports about privileged people live in Pyongyang, and occasional reports from a few other places that seem to have been selected carefully by the minders. That’s fine if the readers know the reporter’s limits, but a reports about showpiece schools and markets in Pyongyang aren’t representative of education, child welfare, or the food situation in North Korea as a whole. Pyongyang might as well be a completely different country from the rest of North Korea. The AP hasn’t always been clear about that important difference.
Even within Pyongyang, the AP seems to be showing us a soda-straw view. For example, most residents of Pyongyang buy their food in places like the Moran market, where merchants sell rice out of sacks, hopefully before it’s confiscated and given to the military. The AP hasn’t covered the Moran market. Instead, it covered a gleaming new supermarket built with the help of Chinese investors, which is for a tiny slice of the people within Pyongyang. Very few North Koreans could imagine shopping in such a place.
No, I don’t expect the North Koreans to suddenly take the AP up to see the concentration camps. That’s not how North Koreans operate. But at the same time, I expect the AP to cover that story without any fear of how the North Korean government might react. It’s an important part of what makes North Korea newsworthy, it’s important to how the regime terrorizes its people into obedience, and it’s important for all of humanity, if only because of what our general apathy about those camps says about us.
NK News: Barbara Demick qualifies Lee as a terrific reporter doing “the most difficult job in the business”. With that in mind, why do you have, from what it appears on your blog, so much loathing for her work?
Josh Stanton: It isn’t loathing, and this isn’t personal. I’m critical of the way Ms. Lee writes her stories, and I’m especially critical of the way the AP itself has made itself a business partner with the subject of its coverage, a subject with a long history of deceiving reporters and their readers, and of suppressing freedom of the press. I believe that by becoming a business partner of KNCA, a propaganda organ of the North Korean government, the AP has created a conflict of interest. The APME – the Associated Press Media Editors’ standards – talk about the importance of disclosing and discussing potential conflicts of interest. Yet the AP still refuses to release its memoranda of understanding (MOU) with KCNA.
NK News: But have they released any similar MOUs with other news agencies worldwide?
Josh Stanton: I write about North Korea, not the press globally, but North Korea is unique in many ways. It has a uniquely controlled press, and its regime is uniquely secretive and deceptive in its handling of the foreign press. I expect extra skepticism by those who cover North Korea from inside the country.
NK News: In China during the 70s and 80s reporters were routinely spied upon, shown potemkin scenarios, and given extremely limited access. If you’d been blogging then would you have opposed the work of those journalists as vehemently as you do of AP today in North Korea?
Josh Stanton: Not if they were honest about the limitations on the work the could do and tried to tell their readers the side of the story that the government concealed from them.
NK News: Their presence, despite the censorship, allowed for international reporting on situations like the Tiananmen Square massacre. Don’t you think AP’s presence, even if it is on North Korea’s terms, is worth it in the long term for similar reasons?
Josh Stanton: If I saw any quality of coverage coming out of the AP Pyongyang that compares to the courage, professionalism, truth-seeking and truth-telling that we saw in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre, I would follow your comparison. But instead, what we’ve seen from the AP is disinterest in questioning the dubious stories they’ve been told by the North Koreans.
I’ll give you an example: late last June, the AP published a story about a North Korean woman, Pak Jong Suk, who defected to South Korea. She later returned to North Korea and gave what that AP referred to as a news conference. In the AP’s story about this news conference, Mrs. Pak claimed she was tricked by South Korean agents into defecting to South Korea, then became disillusioned with life there, and upon hearing that Kim Jong-il had died, was overcome with pangs of remorse and decided to return to North Korea. Months went by. Bear in mind that AP has a fully staffed bureau in Seoul that could have checked up on the obvious points of suspicion. It was instead left to the Dong-a Ilbo, and later to The Washington Post, to find out the rest of the story.
According to Mrs. Pak’s neighbors and acquaintances, she had been living happily in South Korea until the North Koreans found out that she had defected. They fired her son from his position in a prestigious music school in Pyongyang and sent him and his entire family to the countryside. When Mrs. Pak heard this, she became despondent and returned to Pyongyang to try to save her family. Her family was used as a tool of extortion. The AP bears a lot of responsibility for making this story newsworthy and therefore incentivizing the behavior of the North Korean government towards this woman’s family. All these months have gone by since June. Why didn’t the AP investigate whether its story was accurate?
NK News: Well, maybe they did. We can’t be sure that the Washington Post story was any more accurate than the AP one, after all. In any case, I put it to you that even if AP weren’t there, that story would have gone ahead anyway via KCNA and North Korean media outlets.
Josh Stanton: If the AP did that, why didn’t it follow up its original report? The Post went and talked to the neighbors and others who had background information on how she found living in South Korea, and what motivated her to return to North Korea. The AP could have done that between June and September, but it didn’t
NK News: In terms of reporting from within totalitarian dictatorships, what’s your position on this in general? Do you think we shouldn’t attempt to report from from the inside of dictatorial countries f it means we have to bend to their demands?
Josh Stanton: I think journalists have to be honest and disclose the limitations of their freedom of movement, any controls on their editorial decisions, and what they’re able and not able to see. If something is concealed from them, they have to find another way to tell the rest of the story or explain why it’s not possible. Ms. Lee actually said in an interview recently that the North Korean KCNA “journalists” working in the AP’s bureau have never refused to cover a story. In some circumstances, other AP officials have been less than forthcoming as to the extent to which the AP is required to have minders or escorts with them at all times. These are things that we as readers need to know. The AP just needs to be honest about that so that a few years from now we’re not facing another media scandal like the one we faced with CNN’s coverage of Saddam Husein’s Iraq. All I want to know is what the ground rules are.
NK News: Has Ms. Lee not been quite clear in saying that she’s got minders with her while she’s there? She’s even admitted in a recent interview that she believes everything she says is probably being recorded. From this do you not get a sense of some of the restraints that she is operating in and AP as a whole? I put it to you that AP are being quite transparent about things.
Josh Stanton: Then we disagree. I’ve often noted the absence of disclosures in AP stories about whether the reporters are accompanied by minders, and you can make the same observation yourself if you examine this archive of the AP’s reporting from Pyongyang. Each story has to stand on its own. Most readers don’t have time to research news stories and reporters. It’s not the reader’s job to assume what the reporter doesn’t tell her.
The AP certainly hasn’t been transparent in its refusal to disclose its agreements with North Korea. When the AP establishes a partnership with a government that it’s covering, it should tell us exactly what the nature of that partnership is and what editorial controls North Korea puts on its coverage. For example, the AP agreed to embed two North Korean men from KCNA in its bureau. How objective could these men possibly be? At the press conference I referred to earlier, you could see photographs of North Korean journalists sitting at a table while Ms. Pak was giving her forced confession in front of the cameras, and these “journalists” were applauding. Did these men include AP’s KCNA journalists? I’ve asked that question on my blog, but I never an answer.Incidentally, I wrote the AP’s Director of Media relations, Paul Colford, on a number of occasions, but he never responded to me.
NK News: What qualifies you as someone who is worthy of his answers? You are a regular citizen and I would suggest to you that people like AP’s Director of Media Relations might not feel the need to give the kind of details you’re requesting. After all, you are a blogger, not a media ombudsman or watchdog.
Josh Stanton: That’s true, I’m just a blogger — a consumer of the AP’s news. Other journalists have also questioned the AP’s reporting from Pyongyang, however. Some of this is publicly available. Washington Post and New York Times journalists have criticized the AP’s coverage from Pyongyang on Twitter. Foreign Policy raised a number of questions that the AP hasn’t really answered, and The Atlantic wrote about how the AP agreed to allow two North Korean “journalists” to become members of its bureau staff (the story is worth reading for the correction alone). The Australian’s Media Blog has been particularly critical. On the other hand, the AP has been responsive to other bloggers, such as the German blogger Ronda Hauben, who is every bit as much a nobody as I am. Unlike me, however, Ms. Hauben is not critical of the AP.
NK News: You talk about those other journalists, but I put it to you that if offered what AP was offered, most of them would jump at the chance – regardless of your criticism. Aren’t their criticisms being motivated by ulterior motives?
Josh Stanton: No, I don’t agree, and I would ask what is your evidence to support that speculation?
NK News: I have no more evidence to support that then you have to assume that they’re doing this for reasons to do with media transparency and credibility.
Josh Stanton: I’ve laid out the facts that support my inferences, so people can judge for themselves. There are good reasons to be critical of the AP, and a number of highly respected journalists share some of my reasons for being critical. Skepticism certainly is a virtue in journalism, as well as for its consumers.
NK News: What’s the end goal of your AP watch?
Josh Stanton: First, I’d like to see the MOUs. I think the readers deserve to know the full extent of the AP’s relationship with the North Korean government. I think the AP owes its readers an apology for putting on a propaganda exhibition for the North Koreans in New York. Have a look at the content and judge for yourself, here and here. That second link is from North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun, so whatever the AP may say about that exhibition, the North Koreans certainly made propaganda use of it. That’s a huge compromise of the AP’s objectivity, and it looks like a conflict of interest to me. I want the AP to be open about the restrictions on its reporting. I want the AP to tell us when the things it is showing us are not representative of the country as a whole. I want the AP to put those things in the context of what NGOs and scholarly organizations
have said about conditions in North Korea overall. I don’t want the AP to pull punches, and I don’t want the AP to give us propaganda.
Be sure to check “The Perils Of Reporting in North Korea: A Conservative Jihadi VS The Associated Press” for another view on this issue.
Picture credit: Flickr Creative Commons