The July 9th musings of a U.S. scholar, Dr. Han S. Park – after the latest of nearly four dozen visits to North Korea – lead to an incorrectly optimistic headline in the July 12th editions of the New York Daily News as well as a misleading syndicated piece originating in today’s @Sacbee_news. An uncorroborated July 13th missive by a South Korean cable TV channel has half the world authoritatively now assuming that Kim Jong-il is dying of pancreatic cancer.
These are but the latest examples of how the run-and-gun nature of today’s wired media world, when combined with the public’s renewed appetite for news about the world’s most secretive regime, can lead to reporting that fails to adhere to even something as basic as the three-source rule. Laura Ling and Euna Lee may go to Pyongsong Prison; no, wait, it actually might be another relatively mild labor camp near Pyongyang in Sariwon; oops, hold that thought, the pair are at a medical facility in the for-show capitol; darn, per the aforementioned Park (who has yet to reveal the names-nature of the “officials” he spoke to in North Korea), it is in fact a comfortable guest villa, probably the same one that the two American journalists have been in all along. (Even all that fearful coverage of a possible July 4th North Korea missile launch towards Hawaii was based on a single, unnamed source article in a Japanese newspaper.)
As someone who has been closely monitoring the ebb and flow of Ling–Lee information and tweeting the most relevant and interesting new developments, I can honestly say that the media coverage has been no worse for the factual wear than that of Michael Jackson’s death or the Air France tragedy over the Atlantic Ocean. These are the times we live in; 24-hour cable news channels, blogs that are ten time zones ahead and the smorgasbord known as the Internet all feverishly stir the topic du hour.
In the case of Ling and Lee, much of the coverage has been necessarily speculative, first because their employer, families and the State Department maintained a complete, strategic silence, and then due to the muddy nature of their cross-border trail. Even when North Korea’s state news agency KCNA released a far more detailed Ling–Lee post-trial explanation in Korean than it did in English, all people in the U.S. got were excerpts from the less expansive and revealing latter report. So, as we wade through yet another critical juncture of the Ling–Lee saga, just remember to take any breathless new report with a grain of Tumen River sand.