North Korean Tragedy Demonstrates the Media’s Inability to Properly Inform
(By Ray D.)
Hear no evil-see no evil. Without dramatic pictures of the thousands of dead and wounded from yesterday's train catastrophe in North Korea, the entire event comes across in the Western media as a collection of sterile numbers, blurry satellite images and outdated file photos. The world will never see the charred corpses, the demolished buildings, the burning wrecks left over from the blast, because the media will never have a real opportunity to show them to us despite the enormous extent of the explosions and loss of life. The magnitude of the North Korean government’s incompetence and inability to handle the situation will also never be known. Yet one thing is clear, many have died and will die because of it.
It was no coincidence that the North Korean government immediately cut communications with the entire area surrounding the disaster zone and, for over a day, refused to acknowledge that anything had even happened. In a cynical way, Kim Jong Il's regime knows that if no one sees pictures of the suffering and the human tragedy, that the outrage and the questions will soon fade away. The event will soon be relegated to the history books: Asterisk…worst train disaster in recorded memory. In short, the North Korean government knows that the principle of asymmetric journalism is working to its advantage.
And can we blame them? It was much the same a few months ago when the Western media reported on the existence of satellite images showing North Korean prison camps with over a hundred thousand political prisoners...over one hundred thousand prisoners that no one in the Western media could hear, talk to, see or film, except perhaps from outer space. The fate of these faceless thousands was noted with a heavy sigh of guilt by European politicians, and then promptly forgotten.
Past dictators were only too well aware of the same phenomenon, Stalin once said: "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." All the more true if the death of the one man is witnessed by millions on the nightly news and the death (and oppression) of millions are concealed by secretive, totalitarian regimes. This is the very essence of asymmetric journalism.
Most Americans old enough to remember will never forget the images of the lone Vietnamese monk setting himself on fire in protest and burning to death in Saigon, but the millions who fell victim to Communist genocide in Vietnam and Cambodia after the US withdrew in the mid-1970s, and the terrifying way in which they were murdered, will simply never leave the same lasting impression on our collective Western memories.
In Iraq, it was much the same for the Western media and its audience before Saddam fell. We couldn’t see the mass horror of hundreds of thousands being raped, tortured, murdered and hurled into mass graves on our television sets…so the general public was not deeply moved by the reality of what was happening in Iraq. Reporters rarely if ever showed us how, under Saddam, a small minority of Sunni Arabs loyal to the Hussein regime, many of them from a town called Falluja, were mightily benefiting from and actively supporting one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships at the expense of the vast majority of their fellow Iraqis. Few Westerners know that Saddam moved (or in the case of Halabja wiped out) entire Kurdish villages, often giving the vacated land to his Sunni Arab supporters.
Today, because Iraq is run by fundamentally democratic forces, virtually every terrorist bombing, every soldier killed in action and every tragedy is accessible to the world media. People can see it all on the nightly news and are moved by it and outraged by it. And since they have few if any visual memories of the horror of Saddam’s reign with which to compare the current situation or with which to place it into its proper historic context, many assume that things in Iraq have gotten worse since the dictator's fall. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.
This is the paradox of our modern media. It informs us, but only when it has the ability to do so. The result is a fundamental imbalance or asymmetry favoring despots who kill silently and stealthily and deny their own negligence when massive tragedies like the one yesterday take place. Unlike democratic governments, they have nothing to fear from a free press confronting them with the mistakes, crimes and horrors of their regimes live on world television. The international media audience, bombarded with ever changing images and information, soon forgets what it cannot see.
Last year, I confronted a German “peace” protester and asked how she could bear to condone Saddam and his regime of murder and oppression. She answered: “Saddam, what has he ever done to anyone?” See no evil, hear no evil…