BY GLEN FRIEDEN
UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told the UN Security Council on March 8 that “all options are on the table” regarding North Korea. Between then and April 27, NPR.org published 60 stories on US/North Korea relations. Here’s a representative exchange (Morning Edition, 4/20/17):
David Greene, host: A pretty ominous-sounding warning from North Korea this morning…. So what could North Korea actually do to threaten us?… I asked NPR national security editor Phil Ewing about the actual danger at this point from North Korea.
Phil Ewing: So the danger is we know the North Koreans have ballistic missiles…. And we know they have nuclear weapons. They’ve detonated a number of bombs below ground in the past few years. The issue is, will they be able to build a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on top of one of those missiles to be able to threaten their neighbors—South Korea or Japan—or potentially even one day hit the United States?
We don’t know if they’re there yet or not. The Pentagon says it has to assume they’re building toward that capability. And that’s why the generals and admirals, especially in the Pacific, pay so much attention to this danger.
North Korea’s dictatorial government uses the threat of war as a propaganda tool against its own population—fostering loyalty to itself and its military establishment. As NPR’s own reporting (3/23/16) put it, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un “needs to establish his own legitimacy, and that means standing up to enemies.” According to Brookings’ Sheena Greitens, interviewed in that piece: “North Korea might use a range of strategies…but we should remember that they’re all aimed at the same underlying, fundamental objective: ensuring Kim’s political survival.”
If North Korea’s warlike propaganda is so transparent, what should we think of the US media? Of course, professional journalists claim to pursue the truth, and report it in nobody’s interest but the public’s. But what if even a “serious” outlet like National Public Radio launches a flurry of fear-mongering at a word from the Pentagon? A survey of its coverage since March 8 suggests that NPR has promoted the perspective of the US government at the expense of public understanding of US/North Korean relations. The construction of foreign “threats” benefits both a national government hungry for legitimacy—and news organizations hungry for an audience.
Exaggerating the Threat
On April 24, NPR’s All Things Considered aired a segment titled “As Tensions Rise, Experts Question Threat Level Posed by North Korea.” Three experts were interviewed, all delivering a message similar to the comment of Matthew Fuhrmann of Texas A&M:
I think a lot of the danger comes from things that the United States might do, not things that North Korea might do…. What concerns me is the possibility that decision makers in the United States or elsewhere don’t understand that.
One wishes that NPR reporters and their expert guests had gotten the memo much earlier. Since March, North Korea has been featured as an “urgent threat” (4/13/17), “a direct threat” and “growing threat” (guest expert Joel Wit, 4/17/17), a “real threat” (guest expert David Sanger, 3/29/17), “one big threat facing the US right now” (4/20/17), and a country that “has emerged as such a threat” (4/7/17). We have repeatedly been invited to imagine North Korea hitting the US mainland with a nuclear bomb (3/29/17, 4/2/17, 4/6/17, 4/14/17, 4/17/17, 4/20/17, 4/17/17).
How likely is such a scenario? We contacted Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago and author of several books on Korea, who stated simply: “North Korea would never launch an ICBM against the US unless a general war was on; they know they would be erased if they did so.” By the time NPR’s April 24 segment aired, walking back the immediacy of the threat, NPR staff and experts had conjured the nightmare scenario at least six times. The least likely of the many possible tragic outcomes has become the most likely to be remembered and feared by NPR listeners.
In a Facebook Live interview (4/18/17), NPR national security editor Phil Ewing described US anxiety over Kim Jong Un’s birthday—when North Korea was expected to test a weapon: “People thought that he might attack…the United States.” Which people imagined such an improbable course of events? Ewing cited no source. Is his role to pass on the information he has turned up as a journalist—or is it to pass on a sense of fear, and an image of North Korea as aggressor?
Bruce Cumings, again:
North Korean military capabilities are constantly hyped across our media, without ever mentioning US nuclear blackmail of North Korea going back to 1951. NPR is less culpable in its scare stories than CNN, but they don’t shy away from hyping the “North Korean threat.”
NPR‘s reporting feeds into a national confusion about US/North Korea relations, exaggerating the risk that North Korea poses to US Americans, and obscuring the real sources of that risk.
Do NPR listeners need this kind of education? Is the American public lacking in imagination when it comes to hypothetical foreign attacks? National polling suggests not: 86 percent of likely US voters “view North Korea as a serious national security threat to the United States” (Rasmussen poll, 4/19/17). When Pew (4/5/17) polled about how to respond to Korean nukes, it found
61 percent of Americans prefer increasing the already severe sanctions that are in place. Only 28 percent say they want to deal with the nuclear issue by engaging more and deepening ties with the country.
Deferring to the Pentagon
NPR‘s coverage typically promotes a sense of murkiness about North Korea/US relations—we can sense the drama and importance, but it is often difficult to tell what is happening on the ground and why it is supposed to be so momentous. Impersonal phrases obscure who is acting, and often obscure NPR’s sources for their assertions. “Concerns” frequently “mount.”—or simply “there is concern.” One headline (4/14/17) read: “Rising Tensions Raise Questions About North Korea’s Military Capability.” Alternatively, tensions also “ratchet up” (4/25/17).
Steve Inskeep, host: How tense is the situation here?
Bob Schmitz, host: Oh, it’s tenser than it’s been in years.
—Morning Edition (4/14/17)
For whom are things so tense? “Everyone in the region” was “feeling more tense than usual,” one piece (4/14/17) unhelpfully explained, adding: “Many people in the region are pretty worried.” Yet NPR (4/23/17) clarified that South Koreans are not particularly worried, quoting Korean author Suki Kim saying “North Korea is kind of old news” in the South. Still, in the 60 stories surveyed, NPR hosts and guests used the words “tense” or “tension” 46 times, as well as “concern” (as in worry) 19 times, and “worry” or “worrisome” 12 times, along with a variety of similar terms.
Vague but agitating language allows NPR reporters to keep drama in their headlines, even when the subject of the story is something that didn’t happen—say, a nuclear test that there was “wide speculation” North Korea would carry out (The Two-Way, 4/24/17).
Murky language also leaves room for spin: US government and military officials emerge as protagonists, and nobody explains why they’re the good guys. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is a “strongman” (4/11/17, 4/17/17) and “irrational” (3/29/17, 4/23/17). North Korea’s actions, words or simply its existence are classified as threats in almost every article reviewed—close to 100 times in only 60 articles. But when US officials discuss attacking North Korea, they are never “threatening.” A typical example features both countries outlining potential military responses if “provoked”—but only one is a threat (Morning Edition, 4/25/17):
And then yesterday, North Korea threatened to sink a US Navy strike group if provoked. The United States now is turning things up a notch. For their part, on the Today show yesterday, the UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, talked about the conditions under which the US might consider striking North Korea.
The only time an NPR host described the US as threatening, his own guest set him straight (Morning Edition, 4/17/17):
David Greene: So is the vice president threatening war here?
Joel Wit, US/Korea Institute: Well, I think what the vice president is doing is exactly what he said, which is showing resolve in the face of a growing North Korean nuclear threat.
Instead of being “irrational” or “threatening,” US officials merit serious, masculine adjectives: When Vice President Mike Pence delivers “frank remarks” on North Korea, he is “showing resolve” and being “very straight” or “tough” (e.g., 3/18/17); the administration’s position on North Korea is “hard-line.”
The unpopular vice president, as he threatens to lead the most powerful military in the world into a conflict that would lead to an estimated million deaths, is a potential hero (Morning Edition, 4/14/17):
And if Americans are nervous that these tensions, you know, are there and want someone to step in, get some commitments from allies, somehow calm this down, Pence could be the guy. This is a big moment for him.
From The Two-Way (4/17/17):
Pence, whose father is a Korean War veteran, earlier visited the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas, where he could see North Korean soldiers across the divide.
The latter move is a perennial photo-op for US administrations, as Cumings described recently in an interview on a WNYC podcast (4/19/17). NPR chooses to include it naturally in the narrative, as if the carefully crafted government storyline was, in fact, the story.
It’s unlikely that NPR reporters and editors want to come off as Pentagon mouthpieces, let alone as representatives of the Trump administration—of whom NPR is generally highly critical. NPR‘s North Korea coverage doesn’t give Trump a free pass—several stories point out that his aggressiveness and “unpredictability” could be making the situation worse. But coverage doesn’t challenge the tropes that help foster a compliant and supportive civilian population in wartime: the atmosphere of excitement and fear; heroic figures appearing amid the fog of war; the republication and amplification of official government statements; the dehumanization of the enemy.
Part of the problem is NPR‘s consistent reliance on Pentagon and official sources: 40 out of 60 stories reviewed cited official governmental sources. For 14 of them, the US government was the only source. Many experts consulted are former government officials, or have close ties to government.
NPR reporters are doubtless frustrated by the seeming necessity of taking so many cues from the Pentagon: in his interview with another NPR reporter about Trump’s armada lie, national security editor Phil Ewing was asked: “In your mind, there’s nothing the media can really do besides trusting what the Pentagon says,” and he responded: “That’s the discipline.” And though such reliance may be frustrating to NPR reporters, it’s downright harmful to the public that trusts them.
The most salient point is that Americans (and NPR) never want to examine what their US Air Force did to North Korea in three years of bombing—essentially erasing 16 cities with nary a building standing in 1953, use of oceans of napalm, etc. Every North Korean is well aware of this.
— Bruce Cumings
Through all the twists and turns of the narrative—the hypothetical attacks; the missile tests and military exercises that did or did not happen; the threats and responses—NPR has covered every inch of the present North Korea/US conflict, all while observing a remarkable silence about where the conflict comes from.
Among all the stories posted to NPR.org, including all those from their flagship news programs, none mention US involvement in the Korean War as context for the current situation. The only such discussion we could locate through NPR.org was an interview with Cumings on the PRI/WNYC podcast The Takeaway (4/18/17).
Here’s some of the story that NPR has left out: In 1951, General Douglas MacArthur, after being relieved of command in North Korea, testified to Congress:
The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited.
Quoting this passage, historian Bob Neer in Napalm: An American Biography went on:
War leveled at least half of 18 of the North’s 22 major cities. Pyongyang, a city of half a million people before 1950, was said to have had only two buildings left intact.
Fast forward to 2017, where you can hear Steve Inskeep, host of NPR‘s Morning Edition (4/17/17), ruminating:
Inskeep: I just went back and counted. President Trump is the 13th American president to be dealing with this North Korean regime, the 13th….
David Greene: That’s amazing.
Inskeep: …president in a row, a reminder of what a giant order that is to solve this problem. Up to now, for president after president, this has been a problem to manage, not solve.
Within the span of those 13 presidencies, under Harry Truman, a US bombing campaign killed perhaps 20 percent of the North Korean population—a massacre and a war crime that should not be referred to as “management.”
NPR‘s coverage also obscures the US’s recent role in the conflict. As noted above, tensions simply rise or “ratchet up” impersonally in NPR‘s coverage. US ships leaving and entering the region are frequently described as “conducting exercises“—and here is NPR’s most thorough description of what they do (The Two-Way, 4/14/17):
The latest launch comes as South Korea and the US wrap up their annual spring joint military exercises on the peninsula, which North Korea objects to because it views the drills as preparation for war. The US has consistently said the war games are defensive.
For contrast, see Christine Hong’s commentary on Democracy Now! (4/17/17):
Obama’s policy toward North Korea was, in point of fact, one of warfare….
The Obama administration [made] the militarization of the larger Asia-Pacific region one of its topmost foreign policy objectives. And under the Obama strategic pivot to the Asia/Pacific region, the US concentrated its naval forces to a tune of 60 percent…in the Pacific region….
The United States performs the largest war games in the world with its South Korean ally twice annually. And in the course of performing these military exercises, it actually rehearses a number of things. It rehearses the decapitation of the North Korean leadership, the invasion and occupation of North Korea, and it also performs a nuclear first strike against North Korea with dummy munitions.
Why is NPR’s audience shielded from seeing what their own military does, and how it is perceived?
Most significantly missing from NPR’s narrative are the lives of those who would be the primary victims of any military conflict: North Korean people. Steve Inskeep (4/9/17) summed up the consequences of war :
And if you did start attacking North Korea, there’s a sense that they would start using those missiles. Twenty-five million people [the population of Seoul, South Korea] are at risk, as well as 33,000 US troops. It would be horrific.
NPR reporters and their guests spoke often of the potential human cost of war; they mentioned the South Koreans and US Americans that might die in 11 out of the 60 articles surveyed. At each opportunity, however, they stopped short of mentioning the North Korean people who would die: They mention “casualties on both sides” only once (Weekend Edition, 3/18/17).
To an outside observer, it’s obvious that North Korean media and government statements are not tools to inform, but to shore up political strength. In the United States, news outlets like NPR claim to be independent—and to inform, as much as possible, from an objective point of view. But the propaganda functions of news reporting are all the more effective for being subtle enough to go unnoticed by most listeners. NPR’s coverage of US/North Korea relations, while less sensationalist than that of many other media outlets, presents a skewed picture of the conflict, one which exaggerates the danger to the United States, mystifies the actions of US officials and the military, and erases North Korean victims of the conflict, both past and potential.