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How TBS fell out of favor with its sponsor, Seoul City

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Kim Ou-joon has been hosting the daily radio news show
Kim Ou-joon has been hosting the daily radio news show "News Factory" on TBS since 2016. Courtesy of TBS

Public broadcaster loses funding after controversial left-wing journalist rubs city government wrong way

By Ko Dong-hwan

Acerbic liberal journalist Kim Ou-joon, who's been hosting the country's controversial radio news show "News Factory" on TBS for the past six years, now poses the biggest threat to the fate of not just his show but also the company.

The Seoul Metropolitan Council on Nov. 15 passed an ordinance bill to repeal the city government's entire funding on its own subsidiary, tantamount to 70 percent of the broadcaster's entire budget, because of Kim's consistent politically "biased" news reports through the show. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, during the city council's plenary meeting last Friday, clarified that he supports the council's move, which will undoubtedly push the broadcaster to its bankruptcy.

Having risen to stardom among left-wing supporters by leading a band of four hardmouthed social influencers who lampooned former President Lee Myung-bak ― nicknaming him a money-swindling "rat" or "trickster" ― during his presidency and jocularly criticized then-presidential candidate Park Geun-hye on the podcast hit "I'm a Trickster" during 2011-12, Kim extended the show's legacy by hosting "News Factory" in 2016, a year before Park's impeachment.

"News Factory," still filled with Kim's undaunted criticism and straightforward rhetoric reminiscent of his podcast era, is popular among the liberal constituency. With liberal politician Moon Jae-in taking over the presidential office in 2017 and like-minded politician Park Won-soon keeping Seoul's mayoralty post from 2014 until he was found dead in 2020, the show sailed on. Since 2018, it recorded top quarterly ratings among all radio shows in the capital region of Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province for five consecutive years without missing a quarter.

But after conservative Oh took over the city office in 2021, the show began fielding political hardballs. With President Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party being inaugurated last May, the political environment became even harsher for "News Factory" ― although it held its crosshairs on Yoon. It led to the city council's abolishment of city government funding to the station that it has been receiving for more than 30 years. (The network became incorporated in 2020 after being formally called a sub-office of the city government.)

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon speaks during a plenary meeting at the Seoul Metropolitan Council on Nov. 15, where he supported the council's move to cut its funding for TBS in response to allegations of politically biased reporting on
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon speaks during a plenary meeting at the Seoul Metropolitan Council on Nov. 15, where he supported the council's move to cut its funding for TBS in response to allegations of politically biased reporting on "News Factory." Yonhap

"The country's journalism was miserable during the five years under the former Moon Jae-in administration," Oh said during the city council's Friday meeting, hinting at how negatively he viewed the former administration's attitude to the show. "And I think we've given TBS enough time to ponder upon 'News Factory' which has been making biased reports. But it's still not too late for TBS. Employees of the broadcaster should reflect on whether they did their jobs as an unbiased public news outlet."

Kim Jong-soo, the chief of the city government's PR office, agreed with Oh. "The very fact that 'News Factory' has been warned multiple times by the Korea Communication Standards Commission (a private auditing organization of the country's media) for risking its due neutrality as a news outlet proves that the show is clearly biased," Kim told The Korea Times. The commission has so far cautioned the show over 70 times and taken more serious legal measures four times each time Kim was deemed by the watchdog to be making any biased remark.

The bill, unless Oh reconsiders and holds it within 20 days of its passage at the council, becomes effective on January 2024. That means 2023 will be a period for TBS to see whether it finds itself in bankruptcy or discovers leverage to keep operations going.

For now, employees of TBS are ready to stand and fight the city government.

Milly You, a TBS reporter who has been the only regular guest appearing on "News Factory" every day for more than three years to deliver news briefs alongside Kim, said the show isn't biased because it "always" tries to invite conservative politicians to its table to listen to their voices but they habitually decline the show's invitations.

"The city council, without knowing our efforts to listen to both sides of every (political) issue, has decided to stomp on us by cutting our lifeline, a bud that's trying to blossom as a more respected news outlet," You told The Korea Times. "That's why Kim, during the show, has been openly requesting those who kept declining the show's invitations to come and speak for themselves."

Kim Ou-joon, left, and Milly You present a daily news brief at the start of every News Factory episode. Screenshot from YouTube
Kim Ou-joon, left, and Milly You present a daily news brief at the start of every News Factory episode. Screenshot from YouTube

Kim has become one of the most controversial journalists in Korea with his on-air remarks. But as to his show having received particular critical attention from the city council, government and other conservative listeners, You said that's because "News Factory" always "went the extra mile to outpace other local news outlets in reporting truths instead of facts."

"Having the highest ratings means a broader listenership and the contents we handle are somehow distinguished from other news outlets," said You. "That naturally attracts more criticism. If nobody listens, who would give any feedback?"

Two labor unions of TBS on Nov. 15 jointly issued a newsletter proclaiming that they will protest the city council's funding cut. They said the measure "to gag a news outlet by strangling it is crueler than the country's past despots from military regimes." The network last July launched two committees to improve the company's financial independence from the city government and more stringently monitor 'News Factory' that could pose problems. The unions said the council, "in just hours, without even understanding our efforts in improving ourselves, passed the bill."

Lee Jeong-hwan, leader of one of the unions that represent TBS, confessed that the broadcaster for years neglected to address the potential political problems stemming from Kim's remarks ― which is why they have introduced the committees.

"I know it was a belated measure after having witnessed all the criticism for years and not coming up with responsive measures," Lee told The Korea Times. "But we should accept criticism more openly to make our news reports fairer. What we ultimately strive to do is fulfill our duty as a public broadcaster without being affected by political pressure."

According to Lee, TBS needs between 40 billion won ($30 million) and 50 billion won annually for regular operations. Without Seoul's funding, the company can generate an annual net profit of no more than 15 billion won on its own ― not enough to cover wages for all employees that cost over 30 billion, not to mention the costs for content production and rent for its office in western Seoul's Mapo District.
Ko Dong-hwan aoshima11@koreatimes.co.kr


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