Ethics questioned of 2 TV journalists for joining election camp

Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Song Young-gil, left, introduces former JTBC anchorman Lee Jeong-heon, center, and former YTN anchorwoman Ann Gwi-ryeong at the party's headquarters in Yeouido, Seoul, Jan. 18. Lee and Ann had been scouted by the party's presidential election camp to support candidate Lee Jae-myung. Korea Times file

By Ko Dong-hwan

Broadcast journalists are up in arms after two of their ex-colleagues joined the election camp of one of the presidential candidates, accusing them of "swapping their vocational conscience for a ticket to the national political inner circle."

The workers' union of The JoongAng and JTBC, an association of JTBC journalists, and the National Union of Media Workers' YTN branch issued statements on Jan. 18 criticizing JTBC anchorman Lee Jeong-heon, YTN anchorwoman Ann Gwi-ryeong and the ruling Democratic Party of Korea's (DPK) election camp that had recruited them.

With the election set for March 9, the camp recruited them as "speakers" to deliver candidate Lee Jae-myung's pledges to the public more effectively and respond to the opposing parties' camps. It is also a strategy of the camp to raise Lee's support rating, which has so far not risen above 40 percent, according to multiple pollsters.

"The ink on Lee Jeong-heon's resignation letter that he submitted last week hasn't even dried," the journalists said, questioning their ethics as journalists. Lee has been one of the network's main anchormen, having hosted a morning news show for four and a half years.

"It makes us sick to watch him take advantage of the 'trust' we have built with our blood and sweat as a ticket to the political inner circle," the journalists said. "From now on, we refuse to address him as our elder."

The rankled journalists condemned their former colleague for having decided to advocate for the credibility of a certain presidential candidate, and thus bring public trust to the candidate. "A true journalist must remain neutral and trustworthy to the public," they said.

"When he gave up on his journalism ethics and conscience to pursue greed and authority, the very 'trust' he mentioned was already demolished," the journalists said, chastising anchorman Lee.

YTN's journalists also criticized Ann for joining Lee's campaign only 10 days after stepping down from her anchorwoman position to "take a break," in her words. They likened her transition to the network's two former senior employees who later became senior presidential secretaries of public affairs in 2010 and 2014.

Lee Jeong-heon, left, and Ann Gwi-ryeong, former journalists for JTBC and YTN, respectively / Screenshots from JTBC, YTN

"Ann snubbed those in our company who have been maintaining their positions tirelessly to deliver fair and reliable news to the public," the YTN journalists said.

The National Union of Media Workers' YTN branch also blamed the DPK camp, saying that the party has gone against its past stance by hiring Lee and Ann.

"The party used to complain out loud that they often were the target of critical news reports, which prevented them from having a level playing field," the YTN journalists said. "But now they have scouted Lee and Ann in a low-key manner, as if nothing they said in the past matters. Is this the politics of fairness and justice?"

The DPK camp's public relations team chief, Kwun Hyuk-ki, said in a press briefing Tuesday that there is nothing wrong with scouting Lee and Ann ― in response to a reporter who pointed out that a predecessor to the party had in 2014 condemned former state broadcaster KBS anchorman Min Kyung-wook for moving to the presidential office as the spokesman for the president's senior secretary of public affairs during the Park Geun-hye administration.

"There have been cases in the Moon Jae-in administration as well as in previous governments where well-trained, talented journalists were invited by the executive branch to discuss statecraft together," Kwun said.

But Kwun rejected concerns that the camp might have breached JTBC's and YTN's neutrality in news reporting by hiring Lee and Ann. "We never pressured those news outlets," he said. "Besides, Lee and Ann had already stepped down as journalists (before joining our camp)."

Starting as a reporter for state broadcaster MBC's Gwangju branch in 1994 and later working for The JoongAng as a Tokyo correspondent and JTBC as a city desk reporter, Lee has become the chief of the media center for the DPK's central election monitoring committee. Ann first worked for Gwangju broadcaster KBC and moved to YTN in 2019, where she grew influential as the co-host of the evening news show. She is now working directly under Lee as vice-chief.

Upon being scouted by the DPK camp, Lee, in his 50s, said that he will use the refined and mannered wording in written reports and speeches that had earned him public trust during his tenure at JTBC to inform the public about Lee Jae-myung's candidacy.

Ann, in her 30s, said that she had quit YTN impulsively out of frustration due to her unstable status as an irregular contract employee. She said the election camp then contacted her with an offer to join. She said that she hoped to improve irregular contract employees' working conditions and innovate the country's journalism industry by working for the election camp.

Ko Dong-hwan

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