Anatomy of a Hatchet Job: Regarding Women Cross DMZ in CNN’s Situation Room

A television news program opens with a clip of marching soldiers, an obligatory image when the subject is North Korea.  A voiceover intones: “A bold, ambitious plan apparently sanctioned by Kim Jong Un.  Is he in league with the women’s group to promote peace between North and South Korea?”

The program in question is the April 6th broadcast of CNN’s Situation Room, with Wolf Blitzer and Brian Todd.  The focus, an organization called Women Cross DMZ, and its audacious plan for thirty women peacemakers to walk across the demilitarized zone from North to South Korea in a symbolic gesture for peace.  Symposiums will be held in Pyongyang and Seoul, where the group will engage in dialogue with women on both sides of the Korean border.  Participants, Women Cross DMZ says, will “share our experiences and ideas of mobilizing women to bring an end to violent conflict.”  The walk is timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean Peninsula, and one of its chief aims is to help spark progress towards Korean reunification.

Organized by activist Christine Ahn, the group includes an array of luminaries, including such well-known figures as honorary co-chair Gloria Steinem, and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Maguire.

The Situation Room had a different perception of Women Cross DMZ, however.  In the lead-in to the show, Wolf Blitzer tips his audience as to how he wants them to react, terming Gloria Steinem’s participation “shocking.”  Brian Todd chimes in by calling the walk “just plain strange.”

The opening segment asks if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “in league” with Women Cross DMZ “to promote peace between North and South Korea.”  This statement is “just plain strange,” to borrow Brian Todd’s phrase.  Do the hosts mean to suggest that Women Cross DMZ and Kim Jong Un secretly got together to plan the event?  Are we meant to suppose that promoting peace between North and South Korea is a nefarious act?

Twice it is pointed out that the walk is sanctioned by North Korea.  Certainly it is, and a similar request for permission was sent to South Korea and the UN Command.  One can hardly walk across the border without obtaining permission from the nations involved.  Permission does not mean, as CNN seems to imply, sponsorship.  The UN Command has responded favorably to the request, on the condition that both South and North Korea agree.  At this stage, Women Cross DMZ is awaiting a reply from Seoul.

Two guests are given ample air time to condemn Ahn, accusing her of being “pro-North,” and to talk about North Korea, rather than discuss the walk itself.  This technique, an example of the logical fallacy known as ad hominem, seeks to counter an argument by evading the subject and instead directing a personal attack against the other side.

A clip is shown of Ahn firmly rejecting this attack as “a cold war, McCarthyist mentality, and that kind of framework is what has enabled Korea to remain divided.”  For those of a certain bent, anyone who speaks rationally and analytically about North Korea, rather than being drunk with emotion, is automatically marked as being “pro-North.”  Setting the record straight, Ahn points out, “I am pro-peace, pro-engagement, and I am pro-dialogue.  I am pro-human rights.”

Christine Ahn’s two brief moments were both marred by CNN’s bizarre decision to show her segments in the wrong aspect ratio.  The Skype session was captured in 1.33:1 format, which CNN broadcast in 1.85:1 format, widening the video by a whopping 39 percent.  The result was an image of Ms. Ahn as she might appear in a funhouse mirror.  The subtle effect is to undermine the authority of the speaker, and an inattentive viewer might only register a vague feeling that there is something abnormal about the guest.  Only Ahn was accorded this special treatment.  One can only conclude that either the program’s visual editor is astonishingly incompetent, or this was a deliberate attempt to subvert Ms. Ahn’s message.

Ahn’s interview with CNN took fifteen minutes, but she is only given a single sentence to partially explain what Women Cross DMZ was about: “We wanted to end the state of war on the Korean Peninsula.”  She had much more to say on the topic, but those words ended up on the cutting room floor.  CNN was more interested in the segment where Ahn responds to criticism, keeping the focus of the show on the personal attacks rather than the walk.

How did CNN counter Ahn’s response to critics?  By trotting out human rights accusations, including an uncorroborated story of a baby being killed, which may or may not be true, but is in any case irrelevant to the walk.  Here, CNN employed the logical fallacy known as ignoratio elenchi, in which an argument is presented that, regardless of its merits, does not address the question.

Women Cross DMZ aims to advance the cause of peace and reunification.  Even if one accepts all of the assertions made in the program about human rights, that does not logically lead to the conclusion that one should not work for peace and reunification, and that the division of Korea and militarization of the peninsula are to be preferred.

It has been reported that the killing of the baby took place in 1999 — at a time when Kim Jong Un was 16 years old and in no position to influence the behavior of a guard.  Chosen for its emotive power, the incident is evidently regarded by The Situation Room as an argument for why Women Cross DMZ should not proceed with its planned walk.

A group of Russian women could just as easily use the same reasoning in not meeting American women to exchange ideas about peace because nine prison guards killed inmate Frank Valdes in Florida State Prison that same year.  As sad as both incidents are, they have nothing to do with the need to advance international peace.

No doubt CNN would counter by saying that the baby’s death 16 years ago is indicative of the current situation.  But is it?  Western media are lacking in nuance when it comes to reporting on designated enemy nations, and no attempt is made to analyze current information, put it in its context, or to assess how matters change over time.  This is not to excuse any abuses, but Western moral outrage is highly selective, almost invariably reserved for nations that the United States plans to bomb or invade, or that it wishes it could attack.  Certainly, a group of women planning a visit to U.S. ally Saudi Arabia would not get this kind of treatment, regardless of that nation’s abysmal treatment of women.

Nor would it ever be argued that other women should refrain from dialogue with American women to promote peace because in recent years the United States killed tens of thousands in its invasion and occupation of Iraq, bombed Libya, and tortured prisoners.  This is to say nothing of the 1,100 people killed by police last year, or the Obama Administration’s penchant for launching drone strikes on wedding parties.

If one wants to stop dialogue and the advancement of peace, a justification can be found anywhere.  At any rate, a strong case can be made that the best prospect of improving the human rights situation in North Korea would be the reunification of Korea and a lowering of tensions — as it happens, the very goals of Women Cross DMZ.  In contrast, no amount of media breast-beating and hyperventilating has accomplished anything for prisoners.

In the next segment of the program, CNN accuses North Korea of recruiting women into “joy brigades” to entertain and “give pleasure” to Kim Jong Un and “the ruling elite.”  This story, which has made the rounds of Western media, is based on a single source: a report in Chosun Ilbo, a rightwing South Korean newspaper notorious for printing articles about North Korea that as often as not are later shown to be fabrications.  Perusing the Chosun Ilbo article immediately reveals that it is lacking in evidence.  Four brief sentences refer to Kim Jong Un’s father and his time, vaguely and meaninglessly based on “one source” that remains anonymous.  Otherwise, there is nothing to back up the statements that “authorities are apparently recruiting fresh members” and that Kim Jong Un has “developed a taste for them.”  Chosun Ilbo adds, helpfully, “The new recruits are apparently tall and beautiful.”  One wonders about journalistic standards in the West when such nonsensical, unsourced articles are accepted unquestioningly, and their content regurgitated without investigation or analysis.

The subject is another distraction, aimed at preventing viewers from giving thought to the actual intentions of Women Cross DMZ.  It has nothing to do with the walk.  Brigades of dancing women, no matter how tall and beautiful, and even if not emanating solely from the fevered imagination of a Chosun Ilbo reporter, are no reason to eschew peace and reunification.

It is difficult to avoid concluding that the show was a setup from the start.  Brian Todd contacted a spokesperson for Gloria Steinem via email at 1:34 PM on the day of the broadcast.  Todd redbaited Ahn and suggested that Steinem “may not be fully realizing what she’s getting into.”  He goes on to ask: “If the group is sympathetic with the North Korean regime,” is Steinem “still planning to participate?”  A bit later, Todd suggests that some critics “believe that Ms. Steinem is attaching her name, at least loosely, to a regime” which violates human rights.  This was nothing less than an outrageous bid to blur the distinction between Women Cross DMZ and the government of North Korea.

From his pushy tone, it was clear that Todd hoped to cross the line from news commentator to newsmaker, and drive a wedge between Steinem and Women Cross DMZ and break the group apart.  Steinem responded simply and with honor, surely disappointing Todd: “am proceeding on the advice of women I trust and who know the region — including Christine.”

Half an hour earlier, Todd contacted Ahn, requesting an interview within three hours.  Even if she had no other plans that day, it left little time to prepare.  In both messages, Todd refers to her critics and their charges, and it was clear that he had already conducted interviews with them and that they therefore had not been given the same rush treatment.

To ensure that viewers get the message, Todd closes The Situation Room program by quoting detractors accusing Women Cross DMZ of being “misguided,” “naïve,” and “doing this to embarrass the South Koreans.”  To organize an event of this scope is a daunting endeavor, requiring an enormous amount of work and considerable expense.  That anyone would undertake such a task based on the petty motivation of embarrassing a government simply makes no sense.  It also overlooks the obvious.  One cannot advance the cause of peace without the participation of all parties.  Engagement with women in South Korea is essential to Women Cross DMZ’s mission.

It may be expected that media attacks on Women Cross DMZ will mount as the event draws nearer.  The greater the prospect of success for Women Cross DMZ, the more driven the ideological handmaidens of the warfare state will be to ridicule, demean, and debase the group.  That does not mean we have to be taken in by their misrepresentations.

Women Cross DMZ is clear about its intensions: “The unresolved Korean conflict gives all governments in the region justification to further militarize and prepare for war, depriving funds for schools, hospitals, and the welfare of the people and the environment.  That’s why women are walking for peace, to reunite families, and end the state of war in Korea.”  In a world torn by war and suffering, Women Cross DMZ is engaged in a laudable effort that no media outrage can derail.  One hopes that the walk will be an emerging sprout that will grow in time into a sea of flowers of similar efforts, as people say no to war and militarism and reach out to each other.

To donate to Women Cross DMZ:

Or send a check to: Peace Development Fund, PO Box 40250, San Francisco, CA 94140-0250, Memo: WomenCrossDMZ

Gregory Elich is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and the Advisory Board of the Korea Policy Institute.  He is a columnist for Voice of the People, and one of the co-authors of Killing Democracy: CIA and Pentagon Operations in the Post-Soviet Period, published in the Russian language.