The Uninvited Ombudsman

speaks on the North Korea Food Giveaway "story"


July 2, 2005
From: Alan Korwin
To: National News Media

An observation for news-media people in general --

Dear Editor,

Cities nationwide just got short but saturation coverage of the "U.S. gives 50,000 tons of food to N. Korea" story. I got it from six outlets in Phoenix.

Not surprisingly, all the versions were nearly identical. That's because the propagated story was a straight government handout, with no actual reporting involved. There in a nutshell is why we, the people, no longer trust you, the news media, as much as we used to, or would like to.

In my "state" newspaper, The Arizona Republic, the two paragraphs began, "The Bush Administration announced...," and "The White House said...," pretty much like every other version. It was the same where you live, right? Your comrades aren't even pretending to report, or displaying even rudimentary curiosity. It's pure government lapdog, zero public watchdog. You only say you're a watchdog.

Even the most frenzied writer or editor, with no legwork at all, could do some head math and find that though it sounds so magnanimous, it's not. Think -- Americans often eat meals that weigh a pound. If you could just subsist on one pound daily, the hundred million pounds would feed the 22 million communist subjects for 4-1/2 days.

Many Americans would prefer that you ask the hardball questions, like, "Why does the executive branch think it has legitimate power to "donate" so much of our money to, well, anyone?" Aren't you the least bit curious how much money the public treasury loses in the deal? What sort of discount does one get on a million pounds of groceries?

News orgs obviously ripped and ran -- took the handout without thought. It's become your job. What kind of food is it? Fresh produce or rice? Who sold it (and got all the cash)? You don't know (or care, we imagine), because from writer to publisher you seem content as a government tool. It's what you do. You haven't even questioned your source, "the wire." You never do. You believe it's truth. Pravda.

We're wise to you.


The kind of food is important, and meaningful. What's really happened here is that government people made a deal with food people to take my money, and your money, and buy a mountain of food. This way, the food people get a lot of money, and their books look good this month. Most people do not realize that when we "give aid" we are often just pouring money into private hands. Salaries and overheads are covered by money taken personally from me and you under the guise of fair taxation. The government didn't announce that part, doesn't want you thinking about the man behind the curtain. The media is then complicit in the widely propagated announcement. Itsa complex.

We might start believing you again when your stories start looking like the rewrite below. But then we'd be informed, and the public could start owning its government again, instead of the other way around. Most people do want this, but the political left (a euphemism for socialist-style governance) fundamentally opposes such empowerment. The news coverage and slants we get speak for themselves.

"Cambpell's soup concluded a deal today to sell ten million cans of chicken soup to the U.S. Dept. of Magnanimous Giveaways, putting the company's books firmly in the black this quarter, The Arizona Republic has learned. Floundering recently, stock price for the parent food conglomerate jumped six percent on the news. The food, paid for with taxpayer's money, will be given to the communist North Korean ruling clique. Although the White House labeled the giveaway a "humanitarian gesture," it is presumed that strings are attached, and sources close to dictator Kim Jong-il said in 2002 he plans to create a nuclear crisis for leverage with us. At least five other food producers have made similar government deals, to raise the 100 million total pounds promised in this controversial 'donation'." Same word count.

Everyone who has hopes that the news media will straighten up and become a watchdog again, raise your hands. See? Few hands go up. Time to change.


The original, with no byline (presumably because no reporter had a hand in its creation) was attributed simply "Wire Services":U.S. to Give 50,000 Tons of Food Aid to N. Korea (6/23/05)

Washington -- The Bush Administration announced Wednesday that it will donate 50,000 tons of food aid to North Korea, just days after the reclusive state indicated a willingness to return to regional talks over its nuclear program.

The White House said the aid is a humanitarian gesture unrelated to the political climate or to the potential for renewed talks. At the same time, officials declined to comment on revelations Wednesday that the administration received an overture from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in November 2002, in which he said he wanted to resolve a budding nuclear crisis between the two countries.


Alan Korwin, Publisher

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One revealing reply,
from the Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau
(name withheld to avoid embarrassment)

Dear Mr. Korwin,

I usually don't answer e-mails as abusive as yours from readers, and frankly, I can't tell from your note whether you are even a Los Angeles Times reader. We certainly have no control over what the Arizona newspapers choose to print. But your note showed that you are clearly not reading our newspaper, and if you care about the issues, you should.

The story you refer to was indeed a wire report that no hands here in Washington touched. We run such stories because we can't possibly cover every event, everywhere in the world. Instead, we try to pick our battles and do excellent stories like the one below, that really tell it like it is. [Note: A reasonably good 5,000-word feature on life in Korea.)

As a former correspondent in Asia, I can tell you that it takes weeks and thousands of dollars --probably close to $10,000, to produce a story like the one below. I'm sending it to you for free, but perhaps you ought to consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times?

LA Times Washington Bureau

Los Angeles Times
Sunday July 03, 2005
A decade after a massive famine, North Koreans are still struggling. In Chongjin, deprivation spurs change.
Tumen, China -- His day begins at 4:30 a.m. The 64-year-old retired math teacher doesn't own a clock or even a watch, but the internal alarm that has kept him alive while so many of his fellow North Koreans have starved to death tells him he had better get out to pick grass if his family is to survive. <snip>

Dear (Name),

Thank you for your thoughtful and reasoned coments. The article you attached is the kind of well researched and well written piece that gives the writing profession a good name. It is immediately apparent that a good deal of time and money went into its creation. This is good.

It hurt me that you thought my piece to you was "abusive." I reviewed the piece I sent, and while it was typically direct, it is not abusive in any way I can find. I'm sorry if it came across that way to you. I can see where it wrankles, because I pull no punches, but it cuts to the heart of a severe problem that undermines news credibility, and that is typically ignored by otherwise reasonable news people.

The fact that you run good pieces does not excuse, in any measure, running government handouts as news, verbatim, without warnings or thought. Many papers are increasingly compilations of unattributed wire reports, which are virtually uneditted pronouncements from government or interest groups, and this clearly earns a lapdog label. It is bad journalism, unethical, violates the SPJ code, and hurts us all. Readers are increasingly disenchanted, as they should be. We ignore this at our peril.

If you cannot cover an event in detail, this does not provide an excuse or rational for running propaganda, from a bureaucrat, a privately funded "study," or any other source. As you probably are aware, TV broadcasters air a constant stream of video news releases, without warning, waiver or clue, an equally bad practice. It subjects the uninformed news consumer to balderdash, with the news outlet's imprimateur.

You are correct that I do not routinely read the LA Times, but a quick check showed that so-called mainstream papers everywhere ran the White House "news" release in nearly identical fashion. How is that different from what we used to accuse the old Soviet Union papers from doing? I ask rhetorically, because there is no difference, and it should stop.

For the sake of balance, and to help restore credibility that is rapidly eroding, why not consider running my accurate assessment of this debacle, and see if it stirs any emotion in your readers? It is still appended at the end of the message.

The LA Times would be taking a bold step toward truth if it chose to do so.


Alan Korwin.

P.S. Several readers wrote to tell me I was wrong. The food wouldn't support the population for four days, it would feed the communist army for months, since that is where the dictators, free from any local observation, would send it. I wonder if they are correct? What an angle that would make -- U.S. To Feed Communist Army. I'll bet the Bush White House, and our tax-financed corporate food purveyors, would take no comfort from that unintended consequence of their easily swallowed announcement.


Alas, no reply received.
Hey, they're busy.

Related story on Video News Release frauds


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