Diving into pool system
We’ve all seen journalists’ stories about getting stories ― tales of facing down danger, of dealing with the bureaucracy, battling censorship, all of that. Foreign correspondents have written numerous books on their adventures in pursuit of news. They have little to say, though, about regurgitating material from ``pool reports” or churning out stuff for the others in the pool.
All of which brings us to the pool system as it exists in Korea, that is, the pool system and its blood brother, the press club system. Korean journalists often band together covering politicians, ministries and agencies, guaranteeing that each of them has more or less what the others have and nobody gets into trouble. The clubs are quite exclusive. No foreign journalists gain admittance.
It’s assumed the foreigners will form their own groups or get special attention from media officials skilled in dealing with the foreign media. The foreign, finance and defense ministries, and the Blue House too, have people who know how to get their stories across to foreigners _ though they’re not always happy with what the pesky foreign journalists write, which brings us to the way foreign journalists organize their own pools.
The Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club sets up pools in a system that’s never been entirely clear to me. That’s because, as an accredited correspondent with quite a long experience here, I’m not eligible for the pool.
The reason seems to be that I can’t ``take turns” covering pool events that are of total non-interest to anyone for whom I might file. In other words, if the prime minister of Liliput or the president of Ruritania is coming to town, and dropping by the Blue House, I’m not going to cover it. Therefore, according to this rule, I can’t get in on the pools that I might want to cover, whether it is the U.S. secretary of defense or the aircraft carrier George Washington.
The problem lies in part with the people who count on the SFCC for pool coverage. When Leon Panetta, the U.S. defense secretary, was here a while ago, the defense ministry gave exactly two spots for Seoul-based correspondents to cover his press conference. Some ministry official told me there wasn’t enough room.
That struck me as odd. When the ministry was in much less grand quarters a few years ago, there were plenty of seats for foreign correspondents, including me, to cover a press conference featuring Donald Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary. A few years before that, I attended a press conference by one of his predecessors, William Cohen, in the same building. The room had seats to spare. After moving into an enormous new edifice, did the ministry actually lose space? Who would believe such an excuse?
Similarly, the last few times the aircraft carrier George Washington was catapulting fighter planes off its deck on war games around the Korean peninsula, the spokespeople at U.S. Forces Korea opened up only a few spots for Seoul-based correspondents –three or so for ``pen” people, meaning those who take notes rather than pictures. The GW is an enormous vessel with huge resources.
There was no reason USFK could not have flown a plane full of 20 or 30 journos or maybe arranged two or three trips, all for less than the cost of an F18 firing its assortment of weapons at imaginary targets. In the old days off Vietnam, I paid at least three visits to U.S. carriers, including the Midway and Enterprise. There was no problem finding space. Last time I was on a U.S. ship, a helicopter carrier in the Mediterranean, the U.S. Navy information officer wanted me to stay aboard to talk to more sailors -- no nonsense about a pool.
Sadly, the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club is partly to blame for this problem. Both the defense ministry and USFK accept the SFCC as the final arbiter on who joins the pool, and the guardians of the SFCC pool, from major news organizations with staff to spare to cover anything, won’t admit individual correspondents.
There is no arguing with them, no questioning, and no room for dissent. The SFCC system has a stranglehold over pool coverage. The people who run the system adamantly refuse to budge from their assumed power over who gets to dive into the pool. That’s a problem I never encountered anywhere else, in war or peace, from Vietnam to the Middle East.
One result of this system is that quite often the same organizations are picked to cover the same events over and over again. Interestingly, the Voice of America, a U.S. government operation that targets select foreign countries, has had a slot on the last two or three lifts to the GW.
One has to wonder what would happen in a real war. Would the doyens of the SFCC still hold the rights to all such coverage? That’s a question as foreign bureaus zealously exclude wayfarers and interlopers from their sacrosanct pool. If the SFCC pool were a business, it would be charged as a monopoly in restraint of trade.
Columnist Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, has been covering war and peace in Asia since 1965. He can be reached at email@example.com.