There is an old saying in the U.S.: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” This means that one cannot break even in a fight against the press, which can write endlessly on the matter.
When I was a House representative, I thought being friendly with reporters would result in favorable articles written about me. However, that was not the case. It was quite often that I was hit from behind by the reporters who smiled and seemed nice to my face.
There were several times that they inserted their opinions in their articles instead of reporting directly based on what I said, which sometimes took the articles in an entirely new direction. A quote without context can be unfairly damaging.
Once, I donated $100 to an organization that helped poor students and said, “If I were rich, I would like to donate $1,000 instead of $100.” A newspaper reported the next day that Congressman Kim said that he would like to donate $1,000 to charity organizations. The article reported that I would donate $1,000 without quoting the whole sentence that contained the part, “if I were rich.” After that news article, unsurprisingly, several charity organizations asked me to donate $1,000.
So, I called the reporter who wrote the misleading article to correct it. The next day, the newspaper had an article which said that I denied that I had ever said such a thing. I began to realize that the more I fought, the deeper I would get into trouble. I even began to wonder whether maybe it was my fault. Maybe I didn’t make myself clear.
I think it’s often the case that public servants cannot win against the press. So many politicians sue the press for libel and other reasons, but they never win. It is because freedom of the press is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
The plaintiff must show evidence that a reporter was intentionally trying to hurt the person through his words. It is very difficult to prove that a reporter wrote an article to hurt someone intentionally.
My Republican colleagues told me that most of the major press in the U.S. has an anti-Republican bias. They often advised me to practice caution with some members of the press. They even named a few. They said that from the perspectives of the liberal media, the Republican Party represents the rich classes, big corporations and whites, and always seeks only their own interests.
Since the word “liberal” came up, I would like to say a few things about the liberal and the conservative. After several discussions with college students in Korea, I was surprised by the fact that many young Koreans have anti-U.S. and pro-North Korea tendencies and that these people were called “liberal.”
They called “conservative idiots” those who attached importance to Korea-U.S. relations, warned against the policy to give unconditional aid to the North and pointed out the severe oppression of human rights in North Korea.
They attacked me by accusing me of being a typical pro-U.S. conservative who could see only one thing. I asked them if they rejected the democratic system of South Korea where the people elect a president every five years and instead preferred the North Korean system that allows the inheritance of power from a father to son, then to his grandson.
The Watergate scandal that caused then-President Richard Nixon to resign changed the way reporters work. The reporters revealed this scandal by rummaging in trash cans to surprise the world. They won the Pulitzer Prize. After this, many American as well as Korean reporters adopted the style of an investigator who searches trash cans, instead of the previous style of merely reporting facts. The press leaned to sensationalism that attracts more readers.
When I became the first Korean-American ever elected to the House of Representatives, the interest of the media was concentrated on me. The press treated me like a hero, a symbol of the American dream almost every day. I realized much later that this was not all good. Other senior colleagues told me that after making someone a hero, articles that drag him down would make them more interesting and draw more readers. They advised me to be careful.
I was finally caught in this trap only eight months after my win. Despite my difficult congressional life due to this, I was elected miraculously three times consecutively by a great margin while being investigated by the FBI and this story was printed practically every day. Considering this, I think I am tough, and I am proud of it.
Recently, I have had more contact with the Korean press and more chances to meet Korean reporters. They seem to have a little more thoughtful approach. They do not report my sometimes blunt expressions if I ask them not to. I often found they changed my expressions to convey the meaning better than the original in their articles, even when I was not able to express it properly in Korean.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).