Saturday, November 15, 2008

Anger at foreign coverage of Korea in 1988

I came across a New York Times article titled, "U.S. Olympic Reporting Hits a Raw Korean Nerve" from September 28, 1988:
Charges that American television coverage is unfairly focusing on this nation's dark side during the Olympics are prompting a spasm of anti-Americanism here. The public outcry prompted NBC to ... warn its staff not to display their peacock logos in public.

The uproar began after American television audiences watched a Korean crowd explode Thursday night after a referee's decision to penalize a Korean boxer. Enraged Korean boxing officials punched the referee, some threw chairs into the ring, and a disconsolate boxer staged an hour long sit-in to protest the decision.
Remind anyone of the comment - "We will use all measures necessary to rectify the misjudgment" - made by the leader of the South Korean olympic team during the 'Ohno' brouhaha at the 2002 Olympics?
Koreans' shame at the incident has turned to rage at NBC and other foreign news organizations' coverage both of the boxing imbroglio and of South Korea itself. Ever sensitive to their international image, South Koreans are particuarly angry about any coverage they deem negative because they see the Olympics more as a potential public relations bonanza than a sports event.

South Korean ruling party officials and Park Seh Jik, president of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee, issued denunciations of NBC for devoting too much time to the ringside violence. South Korean politicians are also complaining that NBC's non-sports coverage focused on such topics as sweatshops, prostitution or foreign adoption of Korean children. NBC officials reply that they were simply reporting a shocking Olympic incident and trying to present a balanced portrait of today's South Korea. [...]

Koreans can watch NBC coverage live on the American military station here, although many of those questioned said their reaction was based on South Korean news reports and hearsay.[...]
South Korean newspapers have run dozens of highly emotional articles warning that distorted reports are fueling anti-American sentiment. Today at Yonsei University, students protested American news coverage. [...]

''This is a bad omen for future Korean-American relations,'' the Dong-A Ilbo, a leading daily, said on Monday. ''The American press has to know that this kind of distorted reporting is hurting the dignity of Korean people who have been preparing for the Olympics for seven years and is fanning anti-American sentiment.''
Yes, it's the distorted reporting of the U.S. media that's the problem. That's why so many people were angry.
''I heard that NBC repeated the boxing scene for an hour,'' Chung [Kang Hong, who runs a law office here], said. ''It was news, but it was not something to be picked over like that. A lot of Koreans consider Americans as the elder brother. An elder brother should try to cover the mistakes of the younger brother.''
Much as a school principal should try to cover up the (repeated) mistakes of students.
Public anger at misbehavior by American servicemen and athletes is merging with resentment about the boxing incident to form a potent mix. Before the Olympics began, two teen-age children of Americans stationed here beat a pregnant Korean, an incident that prompted widespread outrage. This week, four American servicemen beat a Korean taxi driver and refused to pay their fare.

If anything, the Olympics have hurt the image of Americans in Korea even more. [ㅡ[Many Koreans were] offended when American athletes marching into the stadium broke ranks and held up signs for the television cameras. Koreans were horrified when two American swimmers were reported to have stolen a statue from a Seoul hotel. And many felt insulted when the swimmer Matt Biondi refused a glass of water for fear of becoming ill and when the runner Carl Lewis shoved Korean security guards at Kimpo Airport.
It's a good thing they didn't know about this; but then, seeing as it was the British team, and not American, I suppose no one would have cared.
In newspaper articles, letters to the editor and telephone calls, South Koreans have complained that NBC devoted too much time to the boxing fracas and too little to the American swimmers' theft. NBC officials reply that the network interrupted a live broadcast to announce the news of the swimmers' arrest and that NBC devoted even more time to an American boxer who failed to show up for his bout on time. They say they repeated the boxing brawl because it was nearly unprecedented for the Olympics.
Ah, NBC. You Americans and your love of "facts" and "logic," which you always think will triumph over inflammatory, emotionally satisfying tabloid journalism.
''It was news and we covered it as news; it wasn't viewed as a condemnation of the Korean people,'' said Terry Ewert, coordinating producer for the Olympics for NBC Sports. ''But they're very sensitive about their country. You say anything wrong about Korean society and it's like taking a swipe at their whole culture.''
That observation is nothing new, of course, but that attitude was likely exacerbated by viewing the "Olympics more as a potential public relations bonanza than a sports event" - as well as the heightened nationalism of the time. Commenting on a post about the 2002 World Cup by the Metropolitician, Seouldout left this comment:
The Koreans were really whipped up for this event, and went to great lengths to set the "correct opinion". (I remember Koreans dressed to impress in hanbok with sashes that read: Korea is the Grandfather of world culture.) Things went awry. The Americans didn't march orderly in Seoul Olympic Stadium. Foreigners--Americans--wore shorts and took off their shirts. NBC's "We're Bad" t-shirt was reported in the vernacular press as insult to Korea. There was the Korean's boxing-ring protest--televised second by agonizing second--and Biondi's theft of a mask from JJ Mahoney's. The Koreans were really prickly, slights were perceived, and things were blown out of proportion.
As that post by the Metropolitician points out, the heightened nationalism during the 2002 World Cup did lead to numerous acts of violence against foreigners, but the media here was fairly restrained, at least in comparison to coverage in 1988. One wonders how the mood in the media and on the street (with the former most certainly affecting the latter) would have been if the Korean team had not advanced so far in 2002.


King Baeksu said...

From Ian Buruma's "The Missionary and the Libertine":

"NBC was accused by, among others, members of the ruling Democratic Justice Party of being anti-Korean, even of insulting the "Korean identity." One wonders whether NBC's Bryant Gumbel even knows what the Korean identity is, let alone desires to insult it."

Stephen said...


Along these lines you might be interested in following up on P.J. O'Rourke's notorious Rolling Stone article of the same era. I seem to recall that it was post-'87 election/pre-Olympics, but it really stirred up a lot of negative reaction, including among the Korean-American community. It was indeed a pretty offensive (if well-written) piece, but part of the problem was that people weren't aware that the whole key to P.J. O'Rourke's shtick *is* being offensive.....Hope you're well....

matt said...

Thanks for pointing that out - I hadn't realized Buruma had written about the Seoul Olympics. It's on my to read list.

Thanks for reminding me about O'Rourke's article. It popped into my head a few months ago but slipped my mind. I just found it here. The description of the battle at Guro Gu-cheong is really well done. The endless kimchi jokes are pretty grating, though.

King Baeksu said...

Matt, I don't have access to the book at the moment, but I recall Buruma's main impression of South Korea back in '88 was how profoundly "old-fashioned" it was (or seemed).

I kind of liked Korea when it was more obviously old-fashioned, as opposed to nowadays when everyone assumes it's quite hip and trendy, when in fact it's still far more old-fashioned than most people here seem to realize.

Anonymous said...

NBC's coverage was excellent and fair. It certainly was entertaining but disturbing at the same time -- why not show those idiotic Koreans who threw chilish temper tantrums which included physical violence by non-boxers in the boxing ring? Although many Koreans saw the NBC coverage as "excessive and negative" it may have resulted in this(Roy Jones Jr. video by History Channel who mentions the so-called "wronged" media coverage 1988 Seoul Olympics)...