On the Perils of Journalistic Moonlighting for Academics

The inter-Korean summit which occurred on 27 April 2018 coincided with a rare stretch of open time and full energy for me, so I was able to write three pieces in response. None of these is full of blistering insights per se. However, if by discussing their production in aggregate I can convey something useful about the way the world of journalistic commentary works for academics, then I will have served my task today.

The first piece I produced was for the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall, London, a think tank which was looking to give UK policymakers a few pointers. Among the points I framed in this essay were the following:

  • Don’t make too much of the North Korean pledge of 20 April to turn fully toward economic development
  • Kim Jong-un might actually believe what he has been saying to domestic elite audiences about persevering in the face of external sanctions which may continue for ’10 or 100 years’
  • South Korea has kept former North Korean diplomat-defector Thae Yong-ho under wraps as a concession to Kim Jong-un.

Since RUSI is a classy and forward-looking outfit, they had asked me to prepare something in advance. So this essay was submitted the night before the summit and we did edits in the morning GMT as the event was concluding in Korea with a concert at Panmunjom. I suggested my own title (which I still like), and that title was published without changes.

The “academic complains online about emotional exhaustion or overwork” meme is about the most boring one there is; so I am pleased to convey to the reader that when I got up at 3 a.m. British time to watch the Korean summit coverage in real time, I felt extremely energised and happy to be alive.

About six hours later, I believe around the time the two Korean leaders were giving their joint press conference, I got a text from an editor I have previously worked with at CNN International in London asking me to write a piece. More than this, he shared with me a piece of news which CNN had been under embargo that the two Koreas would shortly be announcing their intention to “end the Korean War.” Exciting!

So I had about a half-hour jump on this particular headline — and, in addition to the pocket money I would net for the essay, the process of writing had led to a marginal but interesting minor reward which would at the very least make for good anecdotal fodder for my Korean War seminar students.

Originally I had wanted to write a piece about what the summit would mean for the North Korean personality cult and the centrality of nuclear weapons to Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy, but this news threw that plan out the window — and, as my editor informed me, CNN was looking for something more geopolitics oriented, and more skeptical.

I hope it will not sound too intentionally naive to state that I truly didn’t fully realise until later, when I read some of the comments on my piece after it was published, how fully fixated the American public is with framing North Korea through the Trump prism now. In effect, if the two Koreas were coming to a new or renewed agreement to lower peninsular temperatures, this is in some way reflective of Trump’s influence — or so goes the thinking in the States. So, if this is the framework, in criticising or adding caveats into the summit process, one is challenging Trump’s alleged greatness and diplomatic acumen.

This is a terribly boring way to look at a country and its foreign policy in a huge region with multiple bilateral and trilateral relations that are fascinating in their own rights (almost as boring as academic fatigue), but I threw in a throwaway line anyway about Trump and Russia and thought that would satisfy the CNN core “Resistance” audience.

The piece I wrote was tasked with discussing challenges to peace efforts ahead, and it covered a number of issues surrounding the just-published Panmunjom Declaration and the regional architecture which might push against that declaration’s fulfillment.

However, the editing process moved quite quickly and in my one chance to read through the edits and signing off on them (on my phone, in the back of a moving bus, etc. etc.) I missed the new inclusion by the editors of a crucial clause, noted in bold below:

There is no doubt that such a meeting gives ground for optimism. But we must not ignore the myriad problems that peace in Korea still needs to navigate — not least that North Korea is still a brutal dictatorship.

My having approved the text, this new sentence fragment allowed CNN editors further up the chain to then pivot and title my piece, well, see for yourself:

If the reader will forgive the personal digression, this reminds me of lessons taken from 2009, back when I was an assistant professor of history building my journalistic ‘writing muscles’ by blogging from my office at Pacific Lutheran University. Having published a grand total of one op-ed in a regional newspaper up until that point, I was writing unpaid weekly columns for, yes, the student newspaper at the college as a means of getting practice. For some reason I got a bee in my bonnet and decided to attack a piece by Edward Wong which had been published in the New York Times. I did so by writing a blog post complaining about his coverage of the Liu Xiaobo Nobel Prize controversy. The essay managed to attract some attention among China hands and Beijing journalists online, but which — probably like a lot of stuff produced by people trying to get some attention and stretch their linguistic chops — was completely forgettable and probably somewhat embarrassing in the end.

What has stuck with me from that piece are two comments I received on the piece from individuals who came to Wong’s defence:

This post is unencumbered by any understanding of what a reporter does or what a news story is, and with a howler in almost every paragraph. Stick to North Korea, pal.

Another colleague of Wong’s from the New York Times noted in a comment on the piece:

No good journalist — assigned to write a 1,200-word story on a Nobel Prize winner — would veer off in some unfocused manner on Merkel, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Diaoyu islands, Douglas MacArthur in 1952, and Lord knows what else.

If you’re writing succinctly for a global audience, you’d probably skip the inside Chinese baseball and quotes from translated Chinese Twitter feeds.

If you disagree with Wong’s article, that’s fine. But I don’t think you quite prove that The NYT is just like The Global Times. Slight difference there.

BTW, all correspondents use fixers / researchers / translators. And this piece was tagged as analysis, not straight news.

Good points: I had no idea how the news business worked. Fortunately here, or somewhere else close in time, I was reminded that journalists do not write their own headlines.

I can see today that it has taken me an additional nine years since my misguided attack on Ed Wong (sorry, Ed) to figure out another two aspects of the news business:

a.) you really need to carefully check all copy which will be presented under your name, especially the stuff you are spitting out quickly and

b.) if you don’t include your own titles, one will be written for you. In other words, a re-written title is still better than one generated ex nihilo from an editor.

Academics by nature have a tendency to veer off and explore any number of vectors of a story that may not be included in the standard news narrative, which is part of what might make their online work worth reading. (For example, I am not aware of other on-the-spot analytical treatments of the 2018 inter-Korean summit which worked in even passing consideration of the Okinawa factor, as my CNN piece did.) But at the end of the day, because you are writing for a mass media outlet, your piece might be turned rather abruptly to make one rather large point, whether you agree with it or not. So it is best to hash it out at the point of production with the editors rather than finally get around to writing semi-apologetic blog posts three weeks after the fact and wonder if your next hypothetical visa to North Korea is, in fact, ever going to be granted.

(Speaking of overdue tasks, there is a footnote somewhere in Brian Myers’ intellectually eclectic book North Korea’s Juche Myth [Pusan: Sthele Press, 2015] that makes a far more compact and yet similar point with reference to the author’s 2006 New York Times op-ed entitled ‘To Beat a Dictator, Ignore Him,’ but, sadly, I only have a copy of Charles Armstrong’s 2013/2017 Tyranny of the Weak and a lot of new scribbles about its quietly dramatic ‘corrections’ to hand and not Myers’ text, so cannot provide the page number.)

As if to underscore the above message on titles, a piece I cobbled together for The National Interest at the end of the summit day performed a similar trick as the CNN piece. But since it was effectively hurled out of a cloud of paper as I rifled out of my office at last, about 15 hours after first waking up to watch the summit, I need not have feigned such shock at the headline it picked up:

Wait, what? Well, this title is fully my fault, as in my sprint to get three pieces of writing done in a single day I informed the editor that she could choose whatever title seemed most appropriate. Big mistake! But having already beat myself up for the CNN title imbroglio, I really ought to be more bothered that I have yet to send TNI an invoice for this bit of analysis. All of this of course points to yet another topic to be explored in a future online Patreon course entitled “Basic Hustle Skills for (insert millenialesque adjectives here: Underpaid / Emotionally Exhausted / Attention-Deficit / Narcissistic / Book-Allergic) Academics with Journalistic Proclivities.”

As ever, the most interesting stuff in the National Interest essay did not make the headline — namely North Korea’s simultaneous attack on Japanese broadcaster NHK and the China role in keeping Kim Jong-un occupied in the days before the summit.

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 12.16.22

Is there a big lesson here? Maybe that writing considered analysis for think tanks (with a stickier editing process, and for free) is better for your reputation than writing more profitable clickbait for less scrupulous media outlets. Or it may more tangentially remind us that abandoning your historical research to go after Donald Trump may be good for your bottom line and speaking calendar but does nothing for the community of scholars who know you are capable of much better work (see Snyder, Timothy). Or maybe not. I remind myself again of the cure for ‘North Korea Commentitis.’ If anyone has an idea for a better title for this piece, please feel free to share.

Image: Liao Bingxiong, ‘Explosion,’ Guangzhou Cartoon Exhibition, December 1979, in Ralph Croizier, ‘The Thorny Flowers of 1979: Political Cartoons and Liberalization in China,’ Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars Vol. 13, No. 3 (July-September 1981), pp. 50-59.

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