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M. Breen: Address to World Summit 2020

Address to World Summit 2020, Seoul, Korea, February 3-8, 2020


To be effective, a media association with global reach needs to identify its values, set its objectives, and organize its projects and activities for the purpose of addressing issues that are real and not imagined, that are associated with and relevant to its membership, and that are global in nature.

I would add another caveat. We should not seek to address issues that are being addressed by other media associations with global reach, unless they are doing so poorly. There are associations like the International News Media Association (INMA), for the business folk running media, and associations like the International Association of Journalists (IAJ), for reporters.

There is also the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), which some of you may know. It is US-based and has some heavyweights on its board. It was set up 35 years ago to promote the free press globally. Its blurbs say, “We empower journalists.” It says it helps them “produce news reports that lead to better government, exposing corruption and abuse, combating disinformation and ensuring that the truth prevails.”

This last one is interesting. You can see that underlying it is the notion of media as a watchdog of government.

I would recommend that IMAP consider this ICFJ as a brother, while the others may be cousins. I say “brother” because I think the membership may be similar. I recommend a focus on editors. They commission opinion columns. They choose the news they consider fit to print. They assign reporters and edit their copy. These folk are the masters of the media universe. They can change the world.

But while ICFJ, with its editorial leadership and membership, is the brother in the family who thinks that government is to be watched closely and pounced on, I would suggest that IMAP look at the world more broadly, more ambitiously and with a more generous spirit. I would stretch the vision out. Not just exposing the government, not just making the government better, but rather making the world a better place.

How about a global media association that encourages media in this direction? That provides a platform, and events and training, inspires them with awards, produces a new newsletter of its own highlighting the best, all in the interest of making the world a better place? An association that calls on its members to, yes, watch government and global institutions and business with a critical eye, but also helps them better understand what officials, businesspeople and politicians actually do and struggle with, and comes up with ideas and has the debates about what should be done—all in the interest of making the world a better place?

You may argue that this is what the media do. But let me give an example of how it could do it better along the lines I am suggesting.

Example: Can media pursue conflict resolution with North Korea?

Seeing as we are in Korea, let's talk about the North Korean issue.

The two Koreas were established in 1948 as rivals. The rivalry turned quickly into a hot war. Since that ended in 1953, we have had the Cold War. The problem on the Korean Peninsula now, in a nutshell, is that North Korea has lost but can't accept the result.

Worse than that, it is developing nuclear weapons. Either out of fear as the losers, for their security. Or, possibly, because they still see a way in which they can win this game.

For the first 40 years, we contained. But for the last 25 years, South Korea and the US have tried enticing them, threatening them, tried to talk to them. But there's been no change. President Clinton late in his term signed an agreement to stop the nuclear weapons; President Bush ripped it up, because he found the North Koreans cheating; President Obama turned doing nothing into an active policy which he called “strategic patience”; and President Trump has done the New York thing of scaring the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to death with threats and then becoming his best friend—all in the hope of change. Nothing has worked.

In this situation, the media need not stand by passively, simply reporting on what the governments of North Korea, the US, South Korea and others do. What we are dealing with here is a failure of imagination on the part of diplomacy and a need for disruptive thinking. What are media good for, if not for that? Media can come up with ideas. Media can host the debate. Again, you may say they do this. But I don't think they do. Because the media are driven by the watchdog mentality, they tend to do so from the point of view of catching the US and the South Korean presidents out. It's not out of any interest in seeing the problem solved.

What to do with North Korea?

Is there anything else that can be done? I think there is. First, we need to understand why the North Koreans— short of a coup d’état—will not change. By their own way of thinking, if they are weaker than South Korea, less accepted by all Koreans, less accepted by the world, they have lost. And in this hierarchical culture, were they to unify, the North Koreans would not be embraced as brothers and sisters. They would form a new class to be abused. They know this.

South Korea needs to stop fantasizing about unification and recognize exactly why it is the last thing that North Korea would ever want. It needs instead to iron out the kinks in its democracy.

Consider this: Every ex-president in South Korea who is still alive has been in jail. The most recent president still is. Of the five who have died, one died in exile, one was assassinated, one committed suicide, and the other two saw their children go to jail. Why is this? A vengeful political culture. We have a leftist in the Blue House now. Conservatives are planning his impeachment. One former government official even told me he should be executed as a traitor.

What does this mean for North Korean leaders after unification? It means that after the fireworks party, the prosecutors will move in. Given this, to the North Koreans, the niceness that the South Koreans present is fake. South Koreans are polite only because they fear the North. So the North's best option with these people is to remain difficult and dangerous.

There's something else. South Korea is constitutionally committed to unification with North Korea. According to its Constitution, North Korea belongs to us here. Legally, North Koreans are South Korean citizens. North Korea is similarly committed to unification. So do not be deluded into thinking about unification romantically. The unification posture of both Koreas is a land grab and a people grab. That's why it's not going to happen. I tell you, these countries won't unify until they share values. And even then, a democratic North Korea would not want to unify for as long as the culture remains unchanged. Why put your hand up to commit your people to second-class citizenship?

So, given all this—and I haven’t mentioned that younger South Koreans don't care about unification—how about giving up on unification? How about, in the interests of peace, changing that part of the constitution and letting future generations decide on whether the two countries will join up or remain separate? Or how about at least discussing it? I tell you, this is the first time it's been mentioned.

As for the United States, what we need here is vision. As I said, the objective of the United States is a nuclear-free North Korea. That's all that successive governments in Washington have cared about. How about media explore the idea of a broader vision, a more visionary vision, a context within which the nuclear issue will be solved? How about a vision of a democratic, free-market Northeast Asia?

Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are already in. So is Mongolia, I think. China has a market-based system but is illiberal, and, as I said, North Korea is a Nazi-like state. How about we articulate a vision of this region as eventually being democratic and free market? The beauty of such an umbrella concept is that it will help us see opportunities to nudge the region in this desired direction. For example, it will help us see the advantage of signing a Korean War peace treaty now rather than holding off and keeping it as leverage, a bargaining chip to trade in the nuclear weapons issue. It will help us see the advantage of having a US Embassy in Pyongyang and North Korean students in Western universities. If we can't drag them out of the cold, how about nudging them out with all kinds of deals and associations and involvement?

My point is that the ideas and debates can come from media and media can be encouraged along this path by the media association.

The IMAP vision

As I said, I think it is important to craft the vision carefully.

A media association should not see itself as a church or a political movement. If the vision is global, I would also caution against bringing domestic fights to a global endeavor. The association must resist the temptation to be an American conservative media association, especially given that most American media are liberal. It needs to be a broad church if it is to succeed.

What are the media for? In other words, what do our proposed members all do in their separate way? People exist in the world as individuals, and we exist as well in groups. We make decisions regarding our life as individuals and in groups, represented by individuals. To know the world, know ourselves and make decisions and live well, we need information and we need to understand it and see its relevance. That is where the media come in.

In my opinion, the vision of the media association should be to something like “For a well-informed world.” Its mission statement should capture the idea of its job as working toward a world in which people get the information they need in a way that is not destructive. And so on. And its role is to serve its members—individual reporters and other media workers and media themselves—in the pursuit of their own goals.

What is newsworthiness?

I also think there needs to be some educational or training function. One area to explore, for example, is the fundamental idea of what is news. I can't really articulate it, but I have a gut feeling that what we knew until a decade or so ago in the Western world as regular journalism has failed because its audience has not stood by it. And this has something to do with the nature of journalism itself. It is the unusual, the out-of-the-normal, that makes something newsworthy. This can be either good or bad. But with serious journalists, the bad is what makes news. And with tabloid journalism it is the titillating that makes news. I think we missed something in the middle there.

Communications people in the IMAP

Finally, a word about involvement of communications—public relations—in the association. That would certainly help with the business issue. But I have to say, with my media hat on, I would need to think this through. The professions of journalism and communications are mutually antagonistic. Where they meet in the middle, there is a natural tension, and many on both sides interpret this as meaning the other side is bad—that reporters are power abusers and frivolous and that communications people are unethical and manipulative.

I would like to think that both sides could learn to respect one another more. And they could learn from one another. When I moved from journalism into communications, I was astonished at how much is kept from reporters by government and business. There will always be a natural tension between the two sides. If the walls were to come down somewhat, reporters would learn more and consumers of news would be better served. At the same time, communications people would learn more about journalism. In 20 years in public relations, I have never heard communications people talking about the ethics of their business. Many in fact—and certainly their political and corporate bosses—see their work as manipulating an ornery press that exists because, I suppose, there should be a free press.



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