At this moment, the media must devote greater attention to crisis-reduction coverage.
In the current political environment, hard news reporters and particularly news commentators face a grave responsibility to pay more attention to how they discuss North Korea. Media can’t control what key players say or do, but they can amplify or diminish certain actions, decisions, statements and events in helpful or unhelpful ways. Unfortunately, much of the media commentary in the US has hyped the North Korean “threat” and made it more difficult to ease tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.
The United States last stumbled into a land war in Asia with a fairly complicit media. However, unlike the Vietnam War era, the American media landscape is now tumultuous, diverse and highly politicized, polarized and partisan. Despite these conditions, the mainstream and right-wing media both must take a few key principles to heart to help avoid a tragic set of errors on the Korean peninsula.
Of particular note, reporters and commentators at this moment have a responsibility to:
- Change the tenor of their headlines to better reflect North Korean statements;
- Explain that the North Korean threat does not include a first strike on the United States; and
- Push back against the “we’ll fight ‘em over there” rhetoric.
The first element is important because North Korea has been building in a number of conditionalities and off-ramps into its statements. Yes, Pyongyang is blustering and dramatic. Yes, Pyongyang should exercise more caution given the military capacities they now wield. But Pyongyang’s statements can be framed in alarming ways or in nuanced ways.
For example, the Newsweek headline “NORTH KOREA THREATENS TO STRIKE U.S. WITH ‘POWERFUL NUCLEAR HAMMER’” may technically be true. But it obscures the fact that this phrase was part of an “if/then” conditional sentence: “Should the U.S. dare to show even the slightest sign of attempt to remove our supreme leadership, we will strike a merciless blow….” The article does deal with the context and background of the current crisis a few paragraphs down, but the headline is what leaves an impression with general readers and the news-obsessed Commander-in-Chief. By conveying the impression that North Korea is poised to conduct a nuclear “Pearl Harbor,” it encourages unwarranted panic among Americans and helps drive combative rhetoric from the White House.
Another problem is the media’s obsession with technical issues. Of course, these details are important, but they are often presented without context, which also adds to the atmosphere of fear. This five-minute ABC News segment, for example, worries about President Trump’s rhetoric, but then mostly dwells on North Korea’s capabilities. ABC’s analyst uses fancy graphics to show what North Korea’s weapons could do and potential US military responses. There is no discussion, however, of what North Korea is trying to do with its weapons. Is Kim waiting to negotiate only after feeling that he has enough military might? Is he hoping to have cover for skirmishes and other kinetic actions across the border with Korea? Does he think he is deterring the US from toppling his regime? Instead, audiences are left with the overwhelming impression that the North’s growing capabilities are simply to start a nuclear war.
This is amped up by the idea that Kim Jong Un is “crazy” and thus presents a unique threat to the United States. But in reality, Kim is not crazy and there are many learned people available to explain this to people like, say, Joe Scarborough, who refers multiple times to Kim as a “madman” in this segment from last month.
The media should instead explain that the United States is not in danger of suffering a nuclear first strike. North Korea will never intentionally start a nuclear exchange with the US since it knows it would suffer obliteration. Moreover, Pyongyang will never have enough nukes to do that. But what it does have now is a tool that can potentially drive a wedge in the US-ROK alliance, a very real strategic goal of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missiles. In that sense, the media’s hyping of the North Korean nuclear threat is exactly what Kim Jong Un wants. That wedge is happening already.
Senator Lindsey Graham’s, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there,” comment is the most egregious expression of the idea that South Korea can be sacrificed in this crisis. When US leaders imply or openly threaten to bring a devastating war to Korea because Pyongyang now may have the potential to hit America with an intercontinental ballistic missile, South Koreans understandably start to view the United States as an unreliable ally and patron. What good is the US nuclear umbrella if it doesn’t stop aggression? What good is the alliance if the mutual prosperity it once supported can be so quickly unraveled?
Several people in South Korea whom I’ve spoken to fret that President Trump is the person pushing the peninsula towards war. (Though according to Gallup, 60 percent of people here think there has been no increase in the chance of war—32 percent think it has become more likely than before.) It is not beyond imagination that South Korean public opinion could rapidly shift against the United States in a way that might permanently damage the US-ROK relationship and, by extension, America’s position in Northeast Asia.
The US media landscape is atomized today like never before, often attracting self-proclaimed “experts” with many opinions but little knowledge or expertise. News writers and producers should actively seek to balance the more heated, panicked rhetoric with more sober voices among its pundits and commentators as well as more experienced policymakers and experts with deeper knowledge of North Korea. Covering North Korea has never been easy to do well, but the stakes are now just too high to go about business as usual.
See Daniel Hallin, The Uncensored War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 7-9.