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CNN’s Olympic Controversy Highlights a Failure in Journalism

When the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics started on Feb. 9, there was some expectation that the next move of rogue state North Korea would be to sabotage the games or infuriate the United States. To the surprise of many of the visitors and foreign officials attending the games, North Korea’s approach to the Olympics is more diplomatic than in previous years. Instead of threatening to nuke South Korea, Kim Jong Un sent his sister Kim Yo Jong, who is, according to the U.S. Department of Treasure, the vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department. The three-day visit of a member of the brutal Kim Dynasty made some attendees uneasy; despite this, Kim and her committee were welcomed by South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in.

This was an event that might signify the warming of relations between both Koreas and some glimpse of regional stability, but it received backlash from American social media and mixed coverage from media outlets. Among the media publications that praised Kim’s presence in the games was CNN, which was met with some egregious criticism from the media.
The article, “Kim Jong Un’s sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics,” portrayed Kim as a normal human being during her visit to South Korea. In opening sentence of CNN’s article, diplomacy was compared to an Olympic sport in which “Kim Jong Un’s younger sister would be favored to win gold.”

The humanization of Kim turns into a dangerous point of inflexion when the CNN journalists describe her smiling and acting polite and even warm to her South Korean hosts, thus causing an uproar in the American journalistic and political realms.

The detractors of CNN’s approach to Kim’s visit are varied and by no means negligible. A speechwriter for Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Blake Seitz, compared CNN’s article with Walter Duranty’s journalism, which denied the existence of the Soviet famine during the 1930s. Correspondingly, Garry Kasparov tweeted “Someone tell CNN that their site has been hacked by the North Korean propaganda ministry.”

Yet, the publication that made the most scornful comments about “Kim Jong Un’s sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics” was Buzzfeed in the listicle “PSA: Kim Jong Un’s Sister Is Not Your New Fave Shade Queen. She’s A Garbage Monster” by Julia Reinstein and David Mack.
The listicle in question was disjointed and insubstantial. It started with some caustic tweets about the prospect of Kim defecting in the South, accompanied by a short phrases reminiscent of high schoolers and not paid reporters.

The last part of the tweets focuses on criticizing The Washington Post and CNN with the more serious phrases “Even CNN wrote that the North Korean dictator’s sister was ‘stealing the show’ at the Olympics,” “And the Washington Post had a tweet calling her the captivating ‘Ivanka Trump of North Korea.’” For it is the structure of the first half of the article, there is not much text or analysis that introduces the idea that Kim is a “garbage monster,” and if there is some indication of that, then it is credited to the authors of the aforementioned tweets.

The second and more thorough part of the article seems to commit a post hoc or false cause fallacy by mentioning her position in the North Korean government, her family and nationality.

Kim’s job as vice director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department might have made her appearance expected from her as Kim Jong Un’s sister. And due to the lack of information on Kim, her willingness to work in that position is unknown. Even if she wanted to change the North Korean system or resist compliance, she and her family would have been executed, in a similar way the dissident Kim Jong Nam was allegedly assassinated by Kim Jong Un.

Similar to the previous point, Kim must have followed the orders and directions of her brother to remain alive. In many dictatorships, people do not join the government or military out of conviction — they join to survive. Kim was born in a one of the few privileged households in North Korea, and leaving that position is absurd if she and her family does not have a desire to be exiled.

Lastly, using Kim’s nationality to support the “garbage monster” claim is ludicrous. Of the 23 million people that inhabit North Korea, only a small percentage has not suffered the famines, represion, fear, and forced labor that plague the lives of common North Koreans. Therefore claiming that someone is mischievous because of their country of origin is discriminatory, since most North Koreans are prohibited from leaving their country.

Buzzfeed’s reaction to CNN’s article is worrisome not only from a reader’s perspective, but also from a journalistic one. It is apparent that the future of journalism is digressing toward insubstantial articles that do not seem to be cohesive and are more of a clickbait to indolent readers. Fortunately for journalism, there are reporters and publications that work arduously to produce quality articles. From a journalistic perspective, a publication or a reporter cannot make claims about individuals without having the appropriate and valid information. In this case, not much is known about Kim and labeling her as “garbage monster” is unprofessional and unethical.

Sebastian Suarez is a fourth-year political science major. He can be reached at ssuarez1@uci.edu.