The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

droppin' mad english
You may recall OhmyNews, the innovative Korean news website that relies on the average person on the street to provide their news stories. As the operation has hit its fourth anniversary, it's gained legitimacy in Korea as a respected news source, and has now rolled out an English-language version of the site.

Yi Sang Ho's essay celebrating OhmyNews' birthday makes a big deal out of the site's unconventionality, identifying it as the reason for its rapid success:

Saying someone has manners (beoreut itda) or does not have manners (beoreut eopda) relates to the traditional East Asian concept of propriety (ye, li), which stipulates strict hierarchal classifications and was created to support the feudalist government. Of course Confucius also presented us with a concept of reconciliation and unity through music (ak, yue), but all that gets applied today is "strict" propriety.

This kind of propriety is the strictest with people lower on the hierarchy, and behavior that does not meet with those regulations is said to have "no manners." The problem with discussion about manners is that it hinders normal communication between different levels in the hierarchy, and functions to keep people from speaking out. Organizations operate with subordinates maintaining their silence, while their superiors issue orders from above.

This same social structure ended up being applied to the media as well, media that should speak out. Power came to be regarded as identical to one's seniors, and "media that says it like it is" became outlets that lacked manners. In the history of the Korean news media, only sources willing to risk being silenced spoke up to power and authority, and that's why the media started minding its manners.

Ever mindful of its manners, the media unwillingly came to stand on the side of power and authority and speak on its behalf. Speaking for power and authority for so long meant that the media also became part of the powers that be, and now it fabricates its own argument for maintaining that power. Forget about speaking out – the media was no longer even able to say what it had to...

I hope OhmyNews remains a medium that has no manners. It needs to be more than a news outlet that just says what it says and then forgets about it. It has to be a source that actively speaks up, all the time, about everything.

What I said before about why OhmyNews resonates in Korea still applies, and Yi's comments reinforce that. Despite what most people probably think, I don't think American, or most Western, media behaves the same way, and so I question if OhmyNews' model would even be necessary here. A bedrock of American political culture is a free, and even adversarial, press; accomodation in the media is generally sniffed out right away.

UPDATE: It looks like the English language edition is just the tip of the iceberg. Poynter's Steve Outing reports that OhmyNews is angling to spread its citizen-journalist model throughout the globe. It's ambitious, and a good test as to whether something that's worked so well in Korea's political culture will gain favor in other countries.