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Opinion

The public’s right to neutrality

Aug 17,2018
Kim Je-dong, an entertainer and outspoken supporter of progressive politics, hosts a talk show, “Democracy Up: 2017 Political Festival,” at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul on Nov. 11. KBS recently tapped him to host a new current affairs program. [YONHAP]
Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

A few years ago, when I was the correspondent in Tokyo, a co-worker told me a peculiar story. Someone rang his intercom, and when he checked to see who it was, a man with an armband of the national broadcaster, NHK, appeared on the monitor. At that point, he remembered a piece of advice he received from a friend: don’t pay the NHK licensing fee.

“I don’t eat NHK,” he told the collector in broken Japanese. The man gave up and left. Many Japanese people I knew did not pay the fee of 1,310 yen ($12) per month for various reasons.

NHK does not forcibly collect the fee, perhaps because it is confident about its status as a public broadcaster. I have not seen anyone take issue with the political stance of an NHK news or current affairs program. I’ve never seen someone with a political view hosting an NHK program. The absolute lifeline of public television is neutrality.

In the United States, public broadcasters do not charge fees. They are funded by donations from state governments, viewers and listeners. NPR, which owns more than 1,000 stations across the country, fired Juan Williams in 2010 because of racist remarks he made on another channel, Fox News.

“But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried,” he said. “I get nervous.” Williams was fired because NPR viewed his remarks as “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices.” It was a strict standard.

KBS, a public broadcaster, recently tapped entertainer Kim Je-dong to host a current affairs program. Now, there is no rule that says a comedian-turned-emcee cannot host a current affairs program, but that is a separate issue from his politics, which clearly skew left.

Kim might feel falsely accused, but his past actions are enough to raise doubts about his neutrality. Two years ago, he attended a rally opposing deployment of a U.S. missile shield. “They call me North Korea sympathizer whenever they can, he said, “but I am from North Gyeongsang,” a conservative region.

During last year’s impeachment crisis, he said, “Let’s see who will win,” in reference to protesters and then-President Park Geun-hye. Kim openly says that it is in the spirit of the Constitution to reveal one’s political inclination and speak up with a sense of ownership. He has no intention of giving up his right.

But KBS will lose. It will lose its justification to collect a licensing fee. With commercial broadcasters, viewers can simply choose to not watch things they don’t like. But KBS’ 2,500 won ($2.20) licensing fee is included in Korean utility bills every month. If it shows a political bias, KBS will effectively be stealing taxpayer money from viewers of the opposing side.

It is a matter of common sense. KBS clarified that Kim would be hosting a talk show, not news show, but it is dangerous and arrogant to have someone who supports this administration host such a program. Under past administrations, such decisions did not go well, but KBS is following in those footsteps. It would be more fitting to call KBS a state-run broadcaster.

Let’s go back to the case of NPR. Upon firing Williams, Vivian Schiller, the chief executive, released a statement saying opinions should not come from NPR reporters or news analysts because the story — not their stories — should be reported. I’d like to hear what Kim and KBS have to say about that.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 15, Page 26
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