John Podhoretz: Reporters Shouldn’t Chase Dangerous Stories

Of all the commentary I’ve seen on the North Korean hostages, I think that this has to be the most execrable.

That said, and now that they are out of jeopardy, Ling and Lee deserve to be held accountable, at least in the realm of public opinion, for the unthinkably bad judgment they displayed in their preposterous, vainglorious, and astoundingly naive venture. Possessing some fantasy about presenting an inside look at North Korea on an justifiably unwatched (because unwatchable) cable channel called Current TV, they thought they could sneak undetected into a Gulag state, film some footage with a DV camera, and then sneak back out to the hosannas of the Peabody Award committee. This is something they chose to do and were given license to attempt by their employers, and for which they paid a horrific, far too horrific, a price.

That is a pretty damning judgment, especially one that’s provided with no evidence whatsoever. Most people would assume that two young women risking their lives to reveal to the world the truths about what I assume are the horrors of day-to-day life in North Korea is something heroic. Reporters all over the world risk their lives day to day to bring us real news stories (and day to day life in North Korea is definitely news.)

Of course, as far as I can tell, Podhoretz has been doing simple punditry his whole life, not any actual reporting, so these might be alien concepts to him. After all, the news shows up on his TV and newspaper every morning like magic! And it’s his job to interpret that news for the benefit of the unwashed masses. Clearly, that’s the more important gig.

So really, this comment isn’t that much of a surprise. Because his livelihood depends on being a partisan hack, he’s incapable of recognizing that somebody who disagrees with him politically could possibly have done something worthy of admiration. It’s a typical inside-the-beltway response which can only view the issues of the day through a horserace mentality. Anything that the other side does well has to be spun as being bad.

(link via Balloon Juice)

FILED UNDER: Media, , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Jim Henley says:

    Current TV is Al Gore’s thing, so anything associated with it is, by definition, wrong. It’s so easy!

  2. You are so right. If this had been a Washington Times reporter or a Fox reporter or a right-wing blogger doing the same thing Podhoretz would have praised it as heroic.

    I’m glad there are still reporters willing to take some risks to get the story. The North Koreans aren’t on Twitter.

  3. kth says:

    Plus the reporters were youngish laydeez, instead of wizened manly men, which proves they were just on a lark and had no idea of what they were getting into.

  4. William d'Inger says:

    I think the old adage applies to this case: “You f*** with the bull, you get the horn.” Heroes are heroes only if they are willing to suffer the consequences. In my opinion, those two women should have spent the next 12 years in prison. Look, it’s like this, if you stick your hand into a fire and it gets burnt, that’s not the fire’s fault.

  5. William:

    Yes! You’re right!

    Which is why we should stop sending ambulances to car accidents. I mean, when people get into a car they know the risks. They know they could run into a semi. Let ’em suffer. After all, when a car smacks an abutment you don’t blame the abutment.

  6. David says:

    Yes, Michael, these girls “accidentally” went to North Korea, filmed things, and were imprisoned. Just like running into a bridge! Good analogy!

    I take it you were responding to William’s line about the fire. Well, in that analogy, he’s not suggesting that someone NOT TREAT their burned hand; merely that it is not the fault of the fire that said burning occurred.

    I think the whole point was that the girls are at least a tad responsible for their own actions, even if the consequences were too severe.

  7. kth says:

    Of course that reasoning would have applied to Daniel Pearl as well: even if we could have gotten him out, whether through a risky raid or a mild bit of cravenness like Clinton just agreed to, we should have rejected the opportunity. Better for Pearl to be decapitated, so that no one forgets who the good guys are.

  8. David:

    Then let’s take it the next step: do we send an ambulance to the scene of a drunk-driver’s accident? After all, the drunk knew he was doing something stupid. Why not let him suffer the consequences?

    How about an attempted suicide? A stroke victim who refused to treat his high blood pressure? Do we only help the people who had no way of knowing they might get in trouble?

  9. Logician says:

    William and David,

    Taking the logic of your position, this means that if someone volunteers to be a solider and are captured by the enemy, we should not bother rescuing them or negotiating their release. After all, they knew the risks when they enlisted, right? For that matter, why bother having medics in the military? When soldiers volunteer, they know there’s a risk of getting shot. So why bother treating them?

  10. William d'Inger says:

    Michael and Logician, your replies are non sequiturs. A driver doesn’t go out seeking an accident, and a soldier doesn’t go out trying to get shot, and a drunk driver probably hasn’t the capacity to realize the stupidity of his/her action. To act deliberately as those women did is a whole different situation.

    Who knows how much harm they did? What did Bill Clinton give away to gain their release? How will that come back to haunt the U.S. in the future? How many innocent Americans will North Korea be temped to kidnap in order to get other presidents to engage their leaders in photo-ops?

  11. Logician says:

    William,

    A driver doesn’t go out seeking an accident, and a soldier doesn’t go out trying to get shot, and a drunk driver probably hasn’t the capacity to realize the stupidity of his/her action.

    So you’re saying that the women in question chose to be arrested and imprisoned?

  12. Steve Plunk says:

    These women are not heroes but they deserved our help in getting released. The truth is somewhere in between the two extremes being presented.

  13. Furhead says:

    What did Bill Clinton give away to gain their release?

    It’s true that we don’t know the full story (yet), so I am withholding judgment on that part.

    But I have to side more with calling the reporters heroes than calling them dumbasses. I think that a good analogy would be a whistleblower. Before there were laws regarding them, they could get fired or worse. But we as a society have decided to protect whistleblowers. Or do you, Mr. d’Inger, think that we shouldn’t do so?

    In this age of news being farmed out to pimply basement dwellers, I tend to applaud the remaining real investigative journalists, as these women were.

  14. Charlotte says:

    I have mixed feelings here.

    I do think that they could be called heroes in a sense because it does take a lot of guts to do what these girls did (the ignorance/idealism of youth).

    Certainly most of the US mainstream media would never think of doing such a thing…which is a shame, because in the past they would have considered it…now it’s beneath them to even research a story.

    But, I can also see the point of “you took the chance, you lost, and now you have to pay the piper.” When you are young, you often make the mistake of thinking that you CAN pay the price.

    I am glad they are safe, but I think there is a lot here that doesn’t meet the eye.

  15. Alex Knapp says:

    But, I can also see the point of “you took the chance, you lost, and now you have to pay the piper.” When you are young, you often make the mistake of thinking that you CAN pay the price.

    So the government of the United States should not act to protect its citizens when their citizens are imprisoned for engaging in humanitarian acts protected by international law?

  16. kth says:

    These women are not heroes but they deserved our help in getting released. The truth is somewhere in between the two extremes being presented.

    In fairness, this seems to be J-Pod’s view. and contrary to the OP this isn’t even nearly the most execrable thing said or written on the topic. I disagree with Podhoretz, but unlike Bolton and many of the usual suspects, he rejects the view that we should have just let the journalists bust rocks in NK for the next 12 years.

  17. John Burgess says:

    I think Podoretz is upset because these women caused a needless complication in US foreign policy. Having been detain, then released through the visit of a high level dignitary–plus whatever else might have been involved beyond the photo–the situation has set a new standard.

    Iran, I’m sure, is looking to see what the N. Koreans ‘got’ for their release. Luckily for Iran, it just happens to have three other young-and-clueless Americans in its custody.

    As NK and Iran have a nuclear issue at odds with the US, I’m also very sure that the Iranians are looking to see what levers there are to be pulled, buttons to be pushed.

    The two women may have had noble intentions, but they were bears of very little brain. One does not need a magnifying glass to read between the line of State Dept’s advisory about travel to NK. It says, pretty damn clearly, that if you get in trouble in NK, you’re on your own, though maybe the Swedes might help.

    Did the women have a right to try to report out of N. Korea? Sure. But it’s the same thing as exercising your right of way at a stoplight when you see an 18-wheeler blasting through the intersection. Right, but really, really dumb.

    About the three in Iranian custody, don’t get me started…

  18. Alex Knapp says:

    John,

    The two women may have had noble intentions, but they were bears of very little brain. One does not need a magnifying glass to read between the line of State Dept’s advisory about travel to NK. It says, pretty damn clearly, that if you get in trouble in NK, you’re on your own, though maybe the Swedes might help.

    Just so I’m clear: your position is that if the state threatens the lives of people who try to report facts about it honestly, it is “stupid” to report those facts.

    Do I have that right?

    Is courage not a virtue in your eyes?

    Take Bill Clinton’s diplomacy out of this. Do you think that western reporters should kowtow to authoritarian governments and not report on the horros of every day life under such regimes because they might go to jail and their governments might not rescue them?

  19. Actually I hope Clinton talked a bit with Kim.

    First thing people need to know is that the last 8 years of policy have failed. NK went from no nukes to nukes. The very definition of a failed policy when your goal is to avoid a nuclear NK.

    The second point is that we have no practical military option. Setting aside the Rube Goldberg nukes, NK has a whole lot of old-fashioned artillery, rocket tubes and soldiers. Some of that artillery can reach Seoul and suburban neighborhoods in Seoul. The South Koreans are not going to sign off on an attack. I think they’d probably not enjoy HE and nerve gas dropping into the equivalent of Bethesda.

    So if we have any faint hope of getting NK to behave, we can only pursue diplomacy.

    We either get them to take the 6 party talks seriously or we wait for them to collapse. It could be a long wait. Either way we want open lines of communication.

  20. Alex Knapp says:

    About the three in Iranian custody, don’t get me started…

    I think that hikers are a different case than the reporters. What they did is probably stupid. The reporters: brave.

  21. David says:

    How about an attempted suicide? A stroke victim who refused to treat his high blood pressure? Do we only help the people who had no way of knowing they might get in trouble?

    Michael, do you honestly expect me to believe these girls “had no way of knowing” that there were potentially dangerous consequences to visiting and filming North Korea?

    And I’d point out that I did NOT say we shouldn’t have intervened; merely that we can’t act like these girls are NOT responsible for the actions that led to their imprisonment. I think Steve P’s comment above is the most correct one.

  22. David:

    Of course they knew it was dangerous. I know it’s dangerous to have this stogie sticking out of my mouth. LIfe is dangerous.

    The point is that they were providing a vital public service: they were trying to bring truth to the people. They were trying to shine a light where thugs want darkness.

    They knew it was dangerous, they did it anyway. They thought it was a good thing to do. Armed courage is not the only useful variety.

  23. Alex Knapp says:

    Michael, do you honestly expect me to believe these girls “had no way of knowing” that there were potentially dangerous consequences to visiting and filming North Korea?

    David,

    NOBODY is making this point.

  24. John Burgess says:

    My intended point was to note that an action, noble as it may seem to the individual, can actually be ignoble when seen on a wider screen.

    What new, exactly, would we have learned from these women’s video effort? Do we actually need to see N. Koreans dead of starvation or in state prisons to understand that N. Korea is a really nasty place?

    The women were feeding their egos, not the greater good. In feeding their egos, they complicated a lot of things that are already too complicated. They caused the US to burn a big chip because they couldn’t look outside the “I’m doing heroic, nay, God’s work!’ and see that if things went awry, there’d be consequences other people would have to pay.

    Considering consequences, and particularly worst-case consequences, should be an element of decision-making, in my book.

    I know… we have bad examples before us. We’ve a Congress that passes laws it hasn’t read and which have unforeseen consequences (mostly because nobody looked or thought very hard). But still, we should behave better than congressmen.

  25. An Interested Party says:

    Considering consequences, and particularly worst-case consequences, should be an element of decision-making, in my book.

    A pity such thinking wasn’t applied to, say, the invasion of Iraq…

  26. John:

    Actually we have not seen tape of starving Koreans, and yes that would be powerful tape. Visuals are powerful. Have you not noticed how stories without video aren’t stories in the news nowadays?

    They were reporters. Trying to report. Doing what they were supposed to be doing. Doing what Thomas Jefferson said was in effect more important than what government does.

    They got in trouble. Their government helped them out. I don’t quite see the problem.

  27. Franklin says:

    Actually we have not seen tape of starving Koreans, and yes that would be powerful tape.

    I think there’s some truth here. At least I’ve only heard stories.

    We declared three nations to be an Axis of Evil, then proceeded to invade one of them with what is now widely known to be poor intelligence. Americans may be a bit dubious about how Evil these countries really are, so some good footage would have been nice.

  28. Drew says:

    I’m just shaking my head.

    Alex goes off on an inane tirade about “partisan hacks.” But I read the Podhoretz citation and I ask, political what? Maybe there is more to his article, but surely, as a matter of intellectual honesty, Alex should have posted those aspects.

    So let’s see what Mr. P said:

    a. “…for the unthinkably bad judgment they displayed in their preposterous, vainglorious, and astoundingly naive venture.”

    I’m sorry, anyone who doesn’t agree with this has just flunked an IQ test a monkey could pass. Let’s personalize this. Alex, I don’t know your personal situation, but if your wife or daughter had proposed such a mission would you say “my hero!” Or would you say, you’re going there over my dead body? Please. Name this activity: JUVENILE RECKLESSNESS.

    b. “…for which they paid a horrific, far too horrific, a price.”

    Doesn’t sound political to me. He’s just acknowledging the obvious: thank God we recovered these idiots from their idiocy.

    Alex, wake up. These people are the brain dead idiots Mr. P says. Thank god someone rescued them from their stupidity.

    And stop trying to make sophomoric political points.

  29. Jesus Christ Fajita, why is this so hard for people to grasp?

    They were reporters. Reporters = good.
    They were looking for the facts. Facts = good.
    They were working to inform us. Informed = good.
    They took risks. Risks = necessary for the job.

    I mean, sweet lord, are you people actually arguing for dicklessly ignorant over courageously informed?

    They got nabbed. We got them out. No, we did not sell your sister to L’il Kim in the process. No one was harmed. In fact, it may prove to be a good thing.

    So how about: be happy! Two Americans facing 12 years of hard labor in a police state are free again.

    Oh, let me simplify that:

    Free = good.

  30. Alex Knapp says:

    John,

    The women were feeding their egos, not the greater good.

    What the hell evidence do you have for that? Reporting on the horrors of authoritarian regimes sure as hell does serve the greater good. Finding the truth is one of the greatest goods of all.

    They caused the US to burn a big chip because they couldn’t look outside the “I’m doing heroic, nay, God’s work!’ and see that if things went awry, there’d be consequences other people would have to pay.

    How do you know that they weren’t prepared to serve their sentence. Do you honestly think that they didn’t know the risk?

    Besides, what the hell “big chip” got burned? KJL got a photo-op? Big freaking deal. It’s not like we agreed to sell North Korea arms and use the proceeds to finance revolutionaries in Latin America or something.

    Considering consequences, and particularly worst-case consequences, should be an element of decision-making, in my book.

    As far as I can tell, the worst-case consequence was that they would serve time in a North Korean prison. Which they seemed quite prepared to do.

    I call that bravery.

    Drew,

    I’m sorry, anyone who doesn’t agree with this has just flunked an IQ test a monkey could pass. Let’s personalize this. Alex, I don’t know your personal situation, but if your wife or daughter had proposed such a mission would you say “my hero!” Or would you say, you’re going there over my dead body? Please. Name this activity: JUVENILE RECKLESSNESS.

    Are you kidding? Trying to show the world the horrors of North Korea in the hopes of opening up the regime a little more? I’d be proud as hell of them. That’s a cause worth risking your life for.

    Alex, wake up. These people are the brain dead idiots Mr. P says. Thank god someone rescued them from their stupidity.

    How is it stupid to report the facts? I’m with Michael.

  31. John Burgess says:

    My evidence? Perhaps that they only entered N. Korea inadvertently?

    Illegally crossing the border of the most totalitarian country in the world, even if by mistake, is not ‘heroic’.

    ‘Epic dumb’ might be more apt, no?

  32. kth says:

    but if your wife or daughter had proposed such a mission would you say “my hero!”

    What does the gender of the two journalists have to do with anything?

  33. Bill says:

    I have to agree with Alex.

    And Mr. Burgess, frankly, this bit gets me a little annoyed:

    What new, exactly, would we have learned from these women’s video effort? Do we actually need to see N. Koreans dead of starvation or in state prisons to understand that N. Korea is a really nasty place?

    I first saw a well-done, risky video expose on North Korea maybe a year-and-a-half ago.

    It opened my eyes to what a terrible place that country is, in a way that hadn’t been brought home by all of the pieces I’d read. And I’m pretty well-read, compared to the average person. So yes, I’m sure their report may very well have served the public good.

    The women were feeding their egos, not the greater good.

    I’m a little biased and experienced in this area, as I’ve repeatedly traveled to a few (stupidly) dangerous places to write about it. My motivations were varied: a little ego, a lot of curiosity and a very genuine wish to serve the public good.

    If you told me I’d done it to merely slake my ego, and we were situated in a bar at the time, I’d probably lay you out, but only after I convinced you to show me the schematics for your fantastical mind-reading technology.

    Instead, since we’re conversing over the internet, I’ll simply say that you’re speaking with assurance about something you can possibly know. (their thoughts)

    Reporters report. Ego plays into it, but that is a distinct issue from whether they should go after risky stories that fulfill the best ideals of the profession.

    It is also telling that some of the commenters refer to them as “girls.”

  34. Bill says:

    “*can’t possibly know”