Let’s begin with Godwin and get it out of the way.
Imagine for a moment that Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister for the Third Reich, was an amicable fellow (which he was not), smiled often (which he didn’t), and decided to go on a goodwill tour of the West, with the cutest cheerleaders from the Hitler Youth in tow.
Imagine further that the Western media, knowing the scale of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, focused all its coverage on how cute the kids were and how well put-together Goebbels was—such a dashing fellow with his bespoke Hugo Boss suits, Italian shoes, and perfectly coiffed hair. Never mind his regime’s death camps, or its military ambitions, or its summary executions.
Sadly, over the past few days, this contrafactual seems far less far-fetched as Western media took on the role of Leni Riefenstahl—glamorizing and spreading propaganda for the murderous rogue regime of North Korea, all the while trivializing its human rights abuses.
North Korea sent Kim Yo-jong, sister of Kim Jong-un and the nation’s director of “Propaganda and Agitation,” on a “charm offensive” to South Korea over the weekend. With cheerleaders and pop-stars in tow, her mission was to help rehabilitate North Korea’s image and shift focus away from the regime’s human rights abuses and away from the fact that the Hermit Kingdom, essentially, is a giant prison. The Western media was all too happy to report on Kim’s sense of style, her shoes, her hair, and lack of makeup—to the exclusion of the moaning, emaciated elephant in the room.
Malicious, Lazy, or Both?
There could be many reasons for this embarrassing spectacle—ranging from outright complicity, to political malice, to plain old laziness. Most likely it’s that pre-existing biases and journalistic laziness are creating a witch’s brew that threatens to glamorize evil.
Western journalists are so blinded by disdain for the Trump Administration that any chance to embarrass the president and hurt his agenda is seen as a welcome opportunity. Reporting on the superficial North Korean overtures as though they were genuine while noting Mike Pence’s reluctance to engage those attempts is creating a moral equivalency between a vice president they don’t like with a murderess. Yes, this may hurt Trump politically, but at the cost of “normalizing” (to use a popular term these days) one of the most repressive regimes on the planet.
The desire to hurt Trump mixes easily with an increasingly lazy cadre of journalists, whose tendency to treat politics as an extension of the celebrity gossip pages plays up the superficial—shoes, smiles, memes, and cheerleaders—at the expense of the important—concentration camps, starvation, and summary executions. The media seems to apply TMZ journalistic standards to the coverage of politics, a trend that is increasingly tragic and dangerous.
I get it. I really do. It’s low hanging fruit, an easy story—the Greta Garbo of evil dictatorships finally goes out in public, takes off her sunglasses and lets you photograph her. But we’re not discussing a reclusive entertainment figure here. Kim Yo-jong helps oversee the mechanisms by which millions are enslaved, starved, and murdered. This conflation of the political with the theatrical, where coverage of the political is merely an extension of entertainment, is no joke. It has dangerous long-term and overarching consequences for how people view political dialogue and politicians. But, in the immediate case, it also turns the American “fourth estate” into an extension of Pyongyang’s propaganda machine.
“We’re Excited, So You Must Be, Too . . .”
In covering the actions of a propaganda minister the way they would Kim Kardashian’s glute implants, the media misses an important opportunity to bring into focus the immense suffering this woman oversees and, as a result, they become complicit in her crimes.
The press knowingly trivializes world events for clicks, selling headlines that ultimately serve to obscure and draw attention away from the institutionalized suffering caused by this woman and the regime she helps run. In turning naked North Korean propaganda into entertainment fluff pieces, the U.S. media debases itself as it denigrates the suffering of untold millions by taking the light off North Korean human rights abuses in favor of stories about cute cheerleaders, clothing, and shoes.
They’re doing exactly what the North Korean propaganda minister wants.
It’s one thing to report on North Korea’s attempt to charm the world through the media. It’s another thing to fall for it and lead with stories that North Korea is “stealing the show” at the Winter Olympics. By fawning over the North Korean “Army of Beauties” and their leader, the American media essentially became captain of the cheerleading squad.
The media seems to have missed the fact that the bulk of those that the North Koreans seem to be charming are the reporters themselves, who are driving most of the story and, in turn, are helping sell the idea of a genial North Korea accepted by everyone. CNN writes: “In Pyeongchang, her presence is a major story line for reporters and the buzz on the street, with some in South Korea curious and accepting, while others are skeptical, if not downright cynical.”
Being the ambivalent “buzz on the street” is hardly “winning the charm offensive.” What the media seem unable or unwilling to grasp is that they—not the populace at large—are the target of the North Korean the “charm offensive.” To then turn around and try to convince all of us that North Korea is actually charming anyone other than the reporters themselves, despite evidence to the contrary, moves the press dangerously close to Walter Duranty territory.
She’s Not Just a Smile and a Pretty Face
How ironic, that in the midst of the #MeToo movement and the media’s preoccupation with pussy hats and fighting the patriarchy, institutional journalistic sexism plays into this blindness and fawning over a state where, incidentally, rape is so accepted and prevalent, that female soldiers stop getting their periods as a result. Instead of wearing pussy hats, they have to settle for reusing sanitary napkins when they do menstruate.
The media’s focus on Kim Yo-jong’s looks to the exclusion of deep reportage of the real world consequences of her political actions, the power she wields, and the mechanisms of state she oversees in her country is straight up sexism. Women can be tyrants, too! I have yet to see many standalone reports about Mike Pence’s haircut or choice of wardrobe for the day. North Korea’s propaganda ministry, run by the woman who, as far as the Western media is concerned, is only worth noticing for her looks and smile, is all too happy to capitalize on this.
It’s amazing to see the American press fall so easily for such brazen manipulation. Such is the media’s malice toward Trump. How else to explain it? Trump is a “madman” who would risk the lives of millions to stoke his own ego—or so the narrative goes. Compared to that, who wouldn’t fall for a pretty face? Not the public. But the press has happily stepped up to play the role of head cheerleader for North Korea’s diplomatic efforts. Useful idiots come in many shapes and sizes, but they never seem to go away.