by David French · February 12, 2018
When it comes to whitewashing North Korea, one mainstream-media article is a problem. Two is a travesty. But what about three, then four, then five?
What if some of them adopt a seemingly celebratory tone as they recount alleged diplomatic triumphs over Vice President Mike Pence?
What if others fawn over the propaganda of one of the world’s most brutal regimes?
That was this weekend — article after article, tweet after tweet. By Saturday evening, Federalist contributor James Hasson had catalogued a stunning series of examples:
Here are stories fawning over North Korea at the Olympics from:
-Wall Street Journal
Oh and here are articles from a few weeks ago warning that NK would use the Olympics as a propaganda offensive. Good job, guys. 1/4 pic.twitter.com/pJyk0OyfuW
— James Hasson (@JamesHasson20) February 11, 2018
And the hits kept on coming. On Sunday, the New York Times published a news analysis under the headline, “Kim Jong-Un’s Sister Turns on the Charm, Taking Pence’s Spotlight.” While some of the news articles were more nuanced than the headlines suggested, the positive publicity for North Korea grew so overwhelming that BuzzFeed — yes, BuzzFeed — felt compelled to slam on the brakes. It posted an article calling Kim’s sister a “garbage monster” that began with a simple question: “What the hell is wrong with you people?”
That’s the interesting question, isn’t it? Why would so many major media outlets start writing and tweeting similar positive messages about Kim’s sister, North Korea’s alleged “charm offensive,” its alleged diplomatic coups, and even North Korea’s cheerleaders — as if they’d all received the same set of talking points? There’s no one, single answer. A media fail this large displays all the press’s faults at once — partisanship, ideology, and clickbait culture come together to create a storm of stupidity. Let’s take them in turn.
We can’t pretend for a second that we’d see the same wave of triumphant headlines if Tim Kaine and not Mike Pence were standing, grim-faced, in front of Kim Yo-jong. Instead there’d likely be a bout of moral clarity. “In Icy Stand-off, Kaine Rebukes North Korean Regime.” Even the cheerleaders wouldn’t be spared. “Defectors Detail the Grim Reality Behind the Cheerful Façade.” Reporters are human, and their near-uniform hatred of the Trump administration makes them uniquely vulnerable to false anti-Trump narratives in much the same way that the near-uniform admiration of Obama made them less critical of his blunders and more willing to accept his arguments.
It’s a simple fact that we’ve reached a point where American partisans will applaud when foreign leaders oppose or (allegedly) humiliate their domestic political opponents. And lest we think this is a progressive phenomenon only, consider this — Republican approval for Vladimir Putin almost tripled (from a too-high 12 percent to a disturbing 32 percent) even as the brutal dictator conducted comprehensive intelligence and military operations aimed directly at America’s vital national interests. Partisans hate each other that much.
But partisanship is an incomplete explanation. If the North Korean regime were perceived to be a right-wing horror show, I sincerely doubt you’d see the same, widespread acclaim. There exists a lingering and exceedingly strange willingness of some even in the most elite quarters of the media to whitewash or find the positives in the most brutal of left-wing regimes. Who can forget the New York Times op-ed celebrating the idea that women had “better sex under socialism”? Or who can forget the Times op-ed that declared, “For all its flaws, the Communist revolution taught Chinese women to dream big.” And let’s not get started on Cuba. Did the modern media give any dictator better press than Fidel Castro?
But throw this soft spot for socialism into the dippy utopianism of the “Olympic Movement,” and you’ve upgraded to weapons-grade gullibility. This is the point, every two years, where the “world comes together,” and a collection of young athletes are supposed to show us “what unity looks like.” And world leaders are supposed to go along with the charade. Smile and wave. Charm the media. Gush about the possibilities for mutual understanding and dialogue. Meeting with defectors, like Mike Pence rightly did, harshes the vibe.
Finally, we can’t overlook the role of the hot take. We actually live in a world where “side-eye” is a thing, and the craving for instant content means that we debate endlessly about who “won” encounters that will be forgotten 24 hours from now. Though I use it all the time, I fear the phrase “news cycle” has become inherently deceptive, implying a process that no longer exists. No, we have a news moment followed by snap judgments, and it becomes a true challenge to maintain perspective and keep your eyes focused on longer, more meaningful political, cultural, or strategic trends.
The extraordinarily high stakes of America’s confrontation with North Korea demands the best from the American media.
There is a conversation to be had about whether Pence’s trip to South Korea made an incremental positive or negative difference in American–South Korean relations. But relative to the immense, generations-long challenge of dealing with the North Korean nuclear program and the generations-long challenge of North Korean brutality and aggression, it’s the most minor of conversations. When BuzzFeed is the voice of reason, that’s a sign that prestige media has lost its way.
The extraordinarily high stakes of America’s confrontation with North Korea demands sober judgment and cool-headed analysis. It demands the best from the American media. The Trump administration’s actions towards the Kim regime may well be the most consequential actions the president takes — more important (depending on the outcomes) than judges, taxes, or DACA. Yet how can we have confidence in news judgments and diplomatic analysis when this is what a news weekend can look like?
Thoughtful members of the media lament the decline in public trust. They rightly point to bad-faith partisan attacks as a partial cause. But they can never, ever stop looking in the mirror. If they want to know why countless millions of Americans don’t trust their reporting, these last two days could serve as Exhibit A to the collective American complaint.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.
National Review Online · by David French · February 12, 2018