Posted by: Lauren--NY | August 19, 2009

Notes on a Scandal

“Euna and I are two of the lucky ones whose story of captivity resulted in a happy ending. But there are so many journalists imprisoned around the world whose fate is still undecided. It is my sincere hope that the energy ignited around bringing us home will be harnessed into raising awareness around these fellow journalists and their struggle for freedom.” ~Laura Ling

UPDATE: Laura Ling and Euna Lee released a statement on September 1st, 2009 about their capture that was published both on CurrentTv’s website and as an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times: “When we set out, we had no intention of leaving China, but when our guide beckoned for us to follow him beyond the middle of the river, we did, eventually arriving at the riverbank on the North Korean side […] We were firmly back inside China when the soldiers apprehended us. Producer Mitch Koss and our guide were both able to outrun the border guards. We were not. We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers. They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained.”

I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out what to write in response to the return of Laura Ling and Euna Lee to their homes and families. All of us watching and waiting with bated breath, sending and re-sending Twitter messages, signing petitions, refreshing news feeds…we all waited for that moment when they descended from the plane, and Euna swept little Hana into her arms and Laura ran into the arms of her husband. I can’t tell you the relief and joy I felt, as I’m sure you all felt, watching that reunion of friends and family, and watching the restrained pride on the faces of President Clinton and Mr. Gore. It’s damn nice to see the good guys win.

I was less patient than I should have been. I was less patient with the media, the extraordinary American press of which Laura and Euna are both members, than I should have been. Weeks went by when Lisa Ling and her family attended candlelight vigils and we heard nothing, nothing from the press and nothing from Washington. There seemed to be a particular gag order that was afflicting CurrentTV, the San Francisco-based independent media company for which Laura and Euna work, and for which they were on assignment in China when they were taken. A lot of us got very angry very quickly, and with the blessing of hindsight that is 20/20, I realize now that I should have known that there was more going on behind the scenes, that sometimes international relations require calculation and calm, and that our waiting would pay off.

There’s an incredible irony in the fact that such great silence was necessary to prevent two of our press agents from being silenced permanently. It’s that necessity that made me hesitant to write this, and makes me wonder just how strategic we need to be in the days ahead…because “the girls,” as they were so lovingly (and strategically—it wasn’t lost on me that Lisa Ling and others who spoke on their behalf did their best to make them seem vulnerable and harmless) called during their time away from us, are home now, but the tenuous relationship with North Korea remains. America and her allies still have journalists doing work in South Korea and in China, and if we aren’t careful, there might be a next time—and we might not be so lucky next time.

The media’s reporting of their return remained cautious and strategic, even after the girls were in the air, even after they were home. Dan Abrams, Chief Legal Analyst for NBC News, tweeted his frustration with this: “The media reporting on the ‘pardon’ of Ling and Lee without more context implies there was a legitimate ‘conviction.’” I understood him, because it infuriated me as well, and for someone who has devoted one’s life to law and the integrity of the justice system, it must be devastating when things like this happen. That said, I wonder where our responsibilities really lie when it comes to freedom of the press v. control of the message in situations like this one, where complete truth-telling could be a serious bungle. There are situations where despite their reputation for being callous and hungry for any scoop, the media will withhold information upon request of the authorities, to avoid interfering with the investigation or to protect those involved, or even to protect our national security when it comes to details about military strategy and training methods. When it comes to dealing with a country like North Korea, a country that has a bitter hatred for the concept of a free press, and a country with which we have no diplomatic relations, how careful do we need to be? If in times of war or other turmoil, the law falls silent, should the press follow? Where do we draw the line between being wise, and being like them?

I don’t know the answers to these questions; I just know that I’m less judgmental of the media silence on this case, and other cases of imprisoned journalists, than I was a few short weeks ago, and I know that I worry about even publishing thoughts as seemingly harmless as these.

One thing of which I am sure is that there is great joy in this reunion, and great symbolism. The First Amendment and the people who protect it do not go down without a fight. Laura Ling and Euna Lee are soldiers for that cause; they are members of the United States press corps. I was heartened to see people displaying the yellow ribbon in their honor as they would for a POW, and I cried both for them and for this country when they were brought back to us. This was not a small thing we witnessed. This was a chance for the average American to take a moment and realize that it’s not just those in uniform who put their lives on the line for this country—they’re called the press corps for a reason. Sarah Palin and others would do well to reflect on this before they take another shot at “the media” in the general sense, because while there are rotten apples, I have no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t be able to debate this subject at all were it not for the journalists who do their jobs well. It is their courage and nobility that allows me to write this blog, and allows you to read it. Journalists die every day. Journalists are captured every day. They risk this so that we can critique our government and hold them accountable, so that we can read books, and start blogs, and build libraries, and share information, and go to school, and learn new languages. They do it so we can make art, and sing songs, and love the ones we’re with. They do it so we can create beauty of the highest natural order.

I have such extraordinary gratitude for everyone who worked and wrote and fought and cried for Laura and Euna to come back. It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of the Twitter campaign, and I now have renewed confidence in new media and its daunting power.

And so the story continues. In far-off lands, and in America, where the streets are paved with gold.

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  1. […] here. Follow the #FindLauren hashtag on Twitter for the up-to-the-minute scoop. Truly, watching the social media campaign has been rewarding and inspiring. To find out more about community outreach and ways you can help […]

  2. Both journalists are convicted felons, sentenced to many years for their crimes against North Korea and should be locked up immediately regardless of any pardon because they both violated the Law and were sentenced.

    • I’m sorry you feel that way. Perhaps you should move there.

  3. You liked that link? Here’s another one for you:

    Journalist Tom O’Neill did a similar “North Korean refugees in China” story for the February 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine. He did not cross the China border into North Korea. His article and photos detail much of the same story that Current TV’s crew went to Yanji for a month later. He even interviewed Pastor Chun Ki-won.

    I don’t see anybody on the Internet praising Tom O’Neill as a “soldier” of journalism. I can’t find any discussion of the risks Tom O’Neill took. Is it because he didn’t deem the risk of approaching the actual international boundary as necessary for his assignment? It seems we don’t evaluate risks until something goes terribly wrong.
    The Current TV crew completed all of their interviews in Yanji before their border excursion.
    If Laura, Euna, and Mitch had simply skipped the border crossing caper and went to Dandong on March 17 as originally scheduled in their itinerary, then we wouldn’t be talking about the risks they may have miscalculated.

    • “I don’t see anybody on the Internet praising Tom O’Neill as a “soldier” of journalism. I can’t find any discussion of the risks Tom O’Neill took.”

      That’s a damn shame, because there should be. I can understand having resentment over that; it isn’t fair. I hope it changes.

      “It seems we don’t evaluate risks until something goes terribly wrong.”

      I completely agree with you there. There was a young man by the name of Dan Eldon who was a British freelance journalist in Somalia back in 1992-1993 during the “Black Hawk Down” era. Anderson Cooper was also there as a freelance journalist. It’s incredibly unfortunate that no one knows who Mr. Eldon was, because he not only took those risks, he succumbed to them. He and a few colleagues were torn to shreds by an angry mob in Mogadishu. He was 22. His mother and family have done their best to preserve his legacy, and Mr. Cooper has paid tribute to him on numerous occasions, but on the whole, Westerners don’t even know his name. That needs to change.

      And it probably will, because a major motion picture is set to be made about his life, and Daniel Radcliffe is set to play him. Like it or not, that’s how you reach the American people. I’m not disparaging that in any way because film is a beautiful medium, and I certainly don’t regret having been raised in a culture that embraces it…but the fact remains that it’s not exactly hip to pay tribute to journalists. You’re right; Tom O’Neill deserves more recognition. I don’t know why he doesn’t get it.

      You can choose to swallow what North Korea–and our media–feeds you and dismiss the work that the CurrentTV reporters did as a “border crossing caper” if it makes you feel better, but please don’t be under any delusions that it in any way elevates Mr. O’Neill’s or any other journalists’ work. In fact, it cheapens it. Yes, it’s unfair that Laura Ling and Euna Lee got an extraordinary amount of attention, while most journalists put their lives on the line every day and get very little recognition–if you read what I wrote, that was largely my point. We can stamp our feet over it, or we can do what Ms. Ling suggested and use this to remind people about great, courageous journalists like Tom O’Neill and Dan Eldon, and about how important they are.

      Thank you again for participating and providing links and powerful discussion. I appreciate it very much.

      • Let me correct myself–Mr. Eldon was not freelancing at the time of his death; he was working for Reuters. My apologies.

  4. Are you still wondering how strategic we need to be in the days ahead when blogging about Laura and Euna (don’t forget Mitch Koss!)? We don’t want to upset China or North Korea now, do we? Oh no!
    Well I have news for you; looks like China is already a bit perturbed about Current TV’s caper. They took it out on the North Korean refugees that Laura and Euna interviewed.

    Perhaps it was those 3 journalistic soldiers Laura, Euna, and Mitch Koss who needed to be a little more “strategic” in the first place. What do you think?

    • Thank you for commenting and for providing that link.

      This is the risk that journalists take. If it were a soldier in uniform who was on assignment, it is my experience that Americans would be much slower to judge if there were negative repercussions. As far as whether Ms. Ling, Ms. Lee (who was on her very first overseas assignment) and Mr. Koss should have been more strategic, I will wait for their full testimony on what happened before I make that decision. We still don’t know whether they intended to cross the border, nor whether their “confession” was coerced, as Roxana Saberi’s was in Iran. Is it possible that they made a serious mistake? Absolutely. But considering what they risk for us, I’m not going to be the first one to judge them if that is the case.

      No, we *don’t * want to upset China or North Korea unnecessarily. Underestimating either country is a serious mistake, which is made pretty clear in the article you linked. That doesn’t mean we need to roll around in bed with them (and unfortunately we have made the mistake of doing so with China to an unfortunate degree) but it’s surprising to me that you would have such a visceral reaction when I merely suggested that perhaps in international relations some restraint in necessary, that perhaps voicing one’s interior monologue is *rarely* a good idea in any facet of politics, ever, and that we should perhaps put some calculation and strategy into our dealings with nations like North Korea. The amount of careful planning and extraordinary courage that is necessary for members of the State Department is staggering, and while I reserve my right to criticize my government, when it comes to this kind of highly difficult and highly fragile procedure, I’m rarely quick to assume that I could do it better–and I don’t think it’s so horrible to suggest that with the democratization of the media that we have seen in recent years, that perhaps we all shoulder some responsibility in not screwing up their work.

  5. another thoughtful and insightful blog post, Lauren. i agree with you – at times like this we want to shout out the truth from the rooftops when it just might be better to hold tight and trust the people in positions of power who can and will work toward the solutions. it’s hard to know what to do when there is secrecy involved, and planning behind the scenes going on.

    i also see the truth of how some crews in the media are overly invested in selling their stories, which sadly can make them melodramatic and biased. i am so grateful there are old school reporters left in the world with integrity and their eyes on the important stuff. what would we do without them?

    as far as the laura and euna go, i was over the moon that mr. clinton was able to get them out of there. i love him. (i had the honor to shake his hand while he was president! he was TALL and VERY CHARMING!)

    needless to say, i was in tears watching these to young women reunite with their family members. especially the mommy with her baby girl. (as you know, that hit home!) i can’t help but feel a little angry that she would take such a HUGE risk when she has such a beautiful child at home who faced the real possibility of losing her mommy for many many years (or maybe forever). but that is the life of a serious journalist, i guess. (honestly, i’m still a little mixed up over my feelings about that part…)

    anyway, great job on the article! thanks for sharing it with us! i’ll leave the page open – i’m sure ken will enjoy it just as much as i did. 🙂

    blessings and love to you and yours,

  6. […] This post was Twitted by LiberateLaura […]

  7. As I mentioned to a @HuffPo writer, I believe Twitter is the most powerful activism tool to ever hit the Internet. It’s no accident that the logistics of the movement were Facebooked (e.g. vigils), while the group-think debate was Twittered. Latter is more immediate, focused a tool.

  8. […] Notes on a Scandal « The Grotto Blog […]

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