Earlier this week news stories about a mysterious North Korean “propaganda” video portraying the decrepit nature of life in the United States surfaced on hundreds of websites worldwide. But something about the video wasn’t right and TK (‘The Korean’) from “Ask a Korean” decided to investigate more – something that journalists are supposedly meant to do for a living…
Unfortunately, a 15 minute verification of the facts by TK revealed once again how fact-checking and editorial rigor just don’t seem to count when it comes to reporting on North Korea. His account of what happened is a must read:
North Korean Propaganda Video Shows that Western Journalists are Morons
Many, many readers sent questions today asking essentially the same question, which nearly caused the Korean to create a brand-new the-Korean’s-head-sized hole on his wall as a result of repeated banging.
For the readers who are seeing this piece for the first time on this blog, the video in question is embedded above.
And here is the original video, without the voiceover:
The Korean will tell you two things about this set of videos:
1. The original video, indeed, is a real propaganda video from North Korea.
2. The voiceover, however, is a joke.
How can the Korean be so sure about these two things? Because it only took very simple steps to verify them. The Korean could figure out that the original video was a real propaganda video, because when he typed into Youtube’s search bar the video’s title in Korean–갈수록 암담해지는 자본주의 사회 현실, which was right there at the beginning of video–the video popped up, showing that it was originally posted by Uriminzokkiri [우리 민족끼리], the official Youtube channel of the North Korean propaganda machine. If you are curious, here is their official website, Twitter account and Flickr account.
(WARNING. If you are reading this from South Korea, do not click on any of those links. In all likelihood, you would not even be able to access it due to South Korea’s own version of the not-so-Great Firewall. But visiting those sites may be a violation of South Korea’s National Security Act. Just this past November, a South Korean man was prosecuted and found guilty of violating the NSA for re-tweeting the tweets from Uriminzokkiri. This is not a joke. Seriously, don’t do it.)
Second, how could the Korean figure out that the voiceover was a joke? Because he went through the arduous process of . . . wait for it . . . watching the two videos in succession and noticing that the “translation” did not match up to the original.
Just in case you missed it, here are the two very simple things that the Korean did to fact-check: (1) Enter the (obviously presented) title into the Youtube search bar; (2) actually watch the two videos and compare the soundtrack. The entire process took no more than 15 minutes, and it would have taken less if the videos were shorter.
Now, let’s look at the media articles that covered these videos. Surely, these luminous media organizations must have employed the most basic fact check methods that only took 15 minutes for a hobbyist blogger to implement, right? Nope–the coverage of this video reads like the greatest hits of journalistic malpractice.
From this point forward, all emphases in the quotes belong to the Korean. Let’s start with the estimable bastion of American conservatism, the National Review:
The video above is reportedly a North Korean propaganda video that portrays life in the United States — a dire existence in which citizens subsist off of snow and the landscape is devoid of trees because the American people have been forced to eat them all.
“This is how Americans live today,” a faceless narrator announces, “drinking coffee made from snow, living in tents and buying guns to kill each other, especially children. Some people complain about the guns.”
A straightforward, descriptive article, which is somewhat better than the atrocities that we will see soon. Regardless, no sign that the reporter asked the most basic questions upon seeing this video, such as: “Is this real?”
Along the same line is the article from Yahoo! News, which gives a generic description of the video, and then cheekily asks at the end of this article: “So, what do you think? Is this propaganda video for real or is it too weird even for the North Korean government?” Here is a tip, journalist for Yahoo! News–do your own goddamn homework and figure it out yourself. It would have taken 15 minutes, tops.
But it gets better. Let’s take a look at the Washington Post, one of the premier newspapers of America that set the gold standard of investigative journalism by exposing the Watergate scandal:
Ironically, the video portrays American life as somewhat like the darkest days of North Korea’s 1990s famine, though with much more violence and drug addiction. . . . Some of the footage might be of the United States, but a lot of it clearly isn’t. The pay phones don’t look very American, and one screenshot I took shows a Dell post in what might be Spanish or Italian. . . .There are a few clues suggesting the original video, if not necessarily the English dub, may be authentic. The narrator is speaking in the theatrically emotional, sing-song Korean often used in state media broadcasts. And the message is consistent with North Korean propaganda . . .
The Washington Post article is infuriating because the reporter attempted to do his homework, but completely missed all the obvious answers. He correctly sees that a lot of the footage clearly is not of the United States, but he does not take the one extra small step to ask himself: “Maybe the footage is not of America because the video is not about America.” (This failure is even more incredible because the reporter did find the correct(-ish) translation of the title, The Dark Reality of Capitalist Societies, without putting two and two together.) He even watched the original video in Korean, but never took the next logical step of actually comparing the audios. Somewhere, Woodward and Bernstein must be weeping.
But the winner of the “We Are Idiots When It Comes to North Korea” trophy goes to Daily Telegraph, which gives us this gem:
But there’s a weird twist. The narrator keeps quoting homeless people saying that the snow is actually rather nice and once or twice our tour guide can be heard saying, “Yum, yum!” My theory is that this video serves a dual purpose: on the one hand bashing America and, on the other hand, softening North Koreans up for a future state-approved cuisine based on snow. If anyone grumbles about eating snowballs and spaghetti, the party can point out that the Americans eat it and they love it. “If it’s good enough for a former Republican candidate from Oregon, it’s surely good enough for you, comrades!”
There’s a slim chance we’re being led down the garden path with this video as its authenticity has not yet been proven. But it certainly matches all the usual standards of North Korean cinema . . .
This article fails at journalism at several levels beyond the Washington Post article. The reporter here notices the obvious sign of a hoax, but instead of raising a reasonable doubt, he doubles-down by giving a ridiculous “theory.” The reporter then notes the “slim chance” of a hoax (again, he could have verified that “slim chance” if he just spent 15 minutes checking,) but gives a hand-wave at that possibility because, hey, North Koreans are stupid and they will believe anything.
The Korean will skip the detailed description of what numerous other media outlets unthinkingly reported on this video, such as the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Caller, the Week, the Blaze and Slate. Special mention goes to Wired.com, which apparently pulled off the article upon realizing the hoax, but not before causing a number of other media (e.g. Slate and Washington Post) to think that the video may be real. (By the way, Wired.com, we can still see your embarrassing error from Google Cache. A tech magazine should probably know that.)
There are so many takeaways here that the Korean can only provide a list of things that rushed through his head, in no particular order:
1. How uninformed could these journalists be about North Korea? If they really wanted to know what North Korea was saying in its propaganda videos, all they had to do was to visit Uriminzokkiri’s Youtube channel. They are all right freakin’ there. Its existence is not a secret. In fact, most South Koreans know its existence, if only because they know that clicking through it could possibly result in jail time. All a Western journalist had to do is to ask someone, anyone from Korea and ask where one could find North Korean propaganda video on the Internet. Yet the original video from Uriminzokkiri’s channel right now has less than 500 views, suggesting that no Western media actually linked to it.
2. How is it possible that the majority of the media outlets that covered this story did not even bother to look up the original version of the video, and simply took the (facially ridiculous) English voiceover?
3. For those few who did manage to find the original version, why would they just run the story without spending at least a little effort to actually compare the English voiceover and the original video?
4. Just how stupid do these journalists think North Koreans are? North Koreans are impoverished and cut off from outside information, but they are not idiots. They know that Americans do not subsist on snow, because no one can. This should have been obvious, but somehow it is not.
5. Why is it that, whenever North Korea is involved, people push the story toward the dumbest angle possible, when all objective indications say otherwise? Remember the ridiculous North Korean unicorn story? In fact, this is not just limited to North Korea–South Korea had its own share of ridiculous non-story reverberating through the Western media, like the breathless coverage in the Nature and Huffington Post about how South Korean science textbooks supposedly dropped the theory of evolution. (They did not.)
6. The lack of Korean language ability on display here is staggering. Again, I was able to find the original version by punching in the title into Youtube search window. The title was right there, at the beginning of the video, in large letters. All one had to do is to type the title in the search window . . . if you know how to type Korean.
On this score, Wired.com does not get off easy. Call this observation stereotyping, but you will never convince me that a tech magazine has no one in its staff and contacts that can understand and type Korean. But the Washington Post is the worst offender here because (1) the Korean knows for a fact that Washington Post has Korean-speaking reporters and staff who could have checked this article; (2) even if a Korean-speaking staff member was not available, the newspaper is based in a city that has hundreds of thousands of Korean speakers in and around it, including renowned experts on North Korea at numerous universities and think-tanks who are just a phone call or an email away, and; (3) the Worldview blog, in which this article appeared, has a separate “North Korea” tab. If the Worldview holds itself out to be specializing in North Korea, how is it possible that nobody who runs that section can speak Korean? Can you imagine this happening with any other country-language pair? If someone told you he was a journalist who specialized in France, but could not speak French, could not find anything on the Internet that is in the French language, did not keep up with notable sources of French news because they are in French, and never checked his stories with his contacts who do know a lot about France and spoke French, wouldn’t you just laugh at everything he says about France?
It is not as if Korea–North or South–is some obscure country, or as if Korean language is spoken by a tiny number of people. There are 75 million Koreans in North and South Korea. (To give another prominent country whose language is rarely spoken outside of its borders, Italy only has 60 million people. Now, ask yourself whether this would happen if the video was in Italian.) There are a million Korean Americans in America, many of whom speak Korean. North Korea is infamous worldwide for being a dangerous rogue state with horrific human rights violations and frequent threats of nuclear warfare. South Korea is a major economic power with world-class companies like Samsung and Hyundai, and also a major source of international pop culture in the form of Korean dramas and Gangnam Style. So how is it that we are encountering this type of story from so many different news outlets, when even the most basic Korean language skill would have prevented this embarrassment?
7. Again, how can so many journalists get this so spectacularly wrong? I just can’t get over this. I can understand that people can get things wrong, but it is the scale that is incredible. It is JUST. SO. MANY. journalists from so many different media outlets (at least 11 so far and counting,) all of whom uniformly failed to do the simplest homework. Under no circumstance should an amateur like the Korean (who works as a corporate attorney for at least 10 hours a day and runs this blog as a hobby) be able to show up this many journalists from this many media outlets–yet that’s exactly what happened.
Finally, here is what the original video actually says. The title of the video is: The Increasingly Bleak Reality of Capitalist Societies. Here is a quick translation of the script (that is not word-for-word):
In capitalist societies of America and Europe, the extreme gap between the rich and the poor, racism, chaos and disorder proliferate, leaving the workers in starvation, poverty, anxiety and fear. Amid snowstorms, the number of homeless people are increasing in the Western countries. Numerous Americans who lost their homes from Hurricane Sandy are still without homes, shivering in the cold for more than three months. Although American government promised to reconstruct the homes before the election, it no longer cares after the election is over. In Wisconsin, although the temperature is below negative 10 Celsius, many homeless people roam the streets, some of whom became homeless recently because they could not afford the soaring rent. America currently has more than 1.5 million homeless children.
The situation is also very grave in Europe, which is also hit by severe cold. In Bucharest, Romania, the homeless people line up early in the morning to receive just a piece of bread from charities. The 5,000 homeless people of Bucharest survive by rummaging through the trash. All of them say that during the socialist times, there was no one who was without a home. More than 300 die from the cold and related illness every winter. The same is true in Budapest, Hungary. The homeless shelters are so full that many have to resort to cardboard boxes and ragged blankets. Although the homeless lie exposed in front of tourists, the government cannot do anything. Hundreds of homeless people roam the public spaces of Budapest. The government built two new shelters in Budapest, but they are not nearly enough to house the rapidly increasing homeless population.
The foreign press say that although Western countries speak of welfare programs and civilization, the wealth gap, inequality and the nation’s apathy toward the social weak are incurable diseases of capitalism.
Then the video transitions into gun violence in America:
Social anxiety and fear are peaking in America as mass murders with guns are occurring rampantly since the new year. [Lists off Sandy Hook, Aurora, shooting in a high school in California, a community college in Missouri, a 15-year-old boy in New Mexico killing his five family members.] Although the criminals are diverse in age, occupation, gender, etc., they are uniformly a product of America’s inequality and other social ills. The American public’s demand of gun control is louder than ever, but the NRA and weapons manufacturers bribe and pressure the key governmental officials from responding to the public demand. After President Obama announced a new gun control law, the protests for and against the new law are sweeping across America. Experts say that even if the guns are controlled, crimes will not stop unless America’s extreme inequality, variety of social ills and the American system itself are changed completely.
A lot of snow-eating here, right? Yum, yum to the morons who believed the ridiculous English voiceover. Now, if you will allow me, the Korean will get back to banging his head against the wall.