The controversy surrounding a recent Los Angeles Times article by Korea correspondent Barbara Demick suggests that the practice of journalism in America may be in for a momentous change. Conservative bloggers have pummeled Demick for the article, in which a North Korean official cheerfully defends his government's record, completely unchallenged. She's even been compared to Walter Duranty, the notorious New York Times journalist who filed glowing dispatches about Stalinist Russia during the Great Terror of the 1930's.
Well, it turns out that the story isn't that simple. Apparently, Demick has written at length about the horrors of the North Korean Regime after all. Then there's this article, from this past fall, in which Demick ruminates on the difficulty of reporting on North Korea while being barred from the country. And now, a few months later, we read Demick obediently parroting the North Korean government's propaganda.
I believe what we have here is a classic example of the foreign correspondent's version of a "source greaser". A couple of years ago, when it was revealed that CNN had prettified its coverage of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in return for "access", I pointed out that domestic journalists do this sort of thing all the time, buttering up sources in return for juicy tidbits. It's hardly surprising, then, that reporters traveling abroad pack a similarly lax set of scruples, when it comes to getting information about countries where the flow of information is tightly controlled by the government. I strongly suspect that Barbara Demick is playing this game--filing some obsequious reports about North Korea in the hope of getting a journalist's visa, where (she imagines) she can get the real scoop on the country.
What's interesting about this case is that it demonstrates the way the collapse of the media establishment (of which blogs are only one part) has opened up journalists' practices--including source-greasers--to withering scrutiny. As a result, many standard journalistic practices--source-greasers among them--may now be impossible to get away with.
That's not a bad thing. Source-greasers are part of an inherently dishonest transaction, whose only beneficiaries are the journalist and the source. The source gets both flattering press and the opportunity to mislead the public by feeding the journalist "scoops" of his or her choice, and the journalist gets preferential access to these scoops. The public is the clear loser from this type of transaction, and its abolition can only improve journalism.
In the case of foreign reporting, scrutiny of journalistic practices is particularly difficult, because the audience is inherently less well-informed about the topic, and therefore less able to assess the credibility of the journalists. But if the CNN and LA Times cases are any indication, even foreign correspondents may soon be constrained by media watchdogs to report in something resembling an honest fashion. That would certainly be a tremendous improvement.