Wednesday, July 06, 2011

SBS and the USFK curfew in Itaewon

The only time I turn on my TV is in the morning before I go to work, partly because the morning show has a clock in the corner and partly so I can watch the news. I find the SBS morning show, like all morning shows around the world, to be generally sensationalist with the occasional piece of interesting journalism. Last week was an interesting feature on motels that officially do not permit minors but in practice have no way of stopping them (many are automatic).

Today's program, however, was incredibly egregious. The offender was a short story about the lifting of a curfew on American soldiers in the Itaewon neighbourhood of Seoul. I don't follow this closely, but a long-standing curfew on American soldiers in Itaewon was lifted last July.

As a result, crime committed by US soldiers (presumably in Itaewon?) is up 15% since last January when the curfew was still in effect. Of course, it's not clear how that compares to the overall crime rate, or whether that justifies telling adults what they can and can not do in a free country. I accept that asking for thoughtful analysis from the TV news is not a fruitful endeavour. Note that the curfew was instituted after 9/11 under the umbrella of general security paranoia.

This post is not, however, a commentary on the character of American soldiers, the people responsible for keeping this country safe. It is also not a commentary on the right of Koreans to discuss crime or undesirable behaviour by foreign nationals in their country. It is, however, a commentary on how that debate is conducted or, more specifically, how that debate is guided and framed by SBS.

What was offensive about the report, however, were the images that follow:

This is our heroine bravely standing in front of some tall black men, ready at a moment's notice to violate the honour of pure 조선 처녀. I'm sure it's a coincidence that SBS wound up doing a report about crime in front of a group of black men.

Then come the interviews of ordinary people. They asked this woman what she thinks: "it's scary. There are a lot of foreigners."

Then they asked her giggly friend what she thought, while the first woman took pictures of her friend being interviewed, giving us a hint of how seriously they take this issue. She says, "the soldiers can get around at night, so there are more problems with law and order. It's scarier now to come here at night."

Finally, they interview an anonymous employee of a club, who says "Itaewon also has a lot of drugs. I've seen a lot and it's spreading to Korean kids as well."

Now, does this prove that every single Korean is a racist? No. Does this prove that Koreans are a fuzzy-headed lot averse to critical thinking unlike us Westerners who, like Prometheus, gave Koreans the gift of rationality and processed sugar? Absolutely not.

What this does show is the corrosive effect of conventionalism. This is hardly a problem unique to Seoul or Korea. Itaewon's perception preceded it, and SBS just wanted to do a simple, frightening story about large, dark-skinned people. I'm sure that SBS interviewed a few people who didn't give them what they wanted, which was young, thin women saying that Itaewon is "scary". The club employee said "Itaewon also has a lot of drugs", which probably means that another place was mentioned, but it was better to edit that out.

It's also not true that the media is obsessed with foreign crime. While stories about "rising" foreign crime practically write themselves and find a welcoming audience in a rapidly changing society, news about foreign crime is comparatively rare, and news about all crime is sensationalistic. There was a longer story in the same show about purse snatchings and how to prevent them.

That said, it's important, I think, for someone to watch this and say "wow, I can't believe you just said that on TV." The next time SBS would like to film you eating kim chi with chopsticks while wearing a hanbok, remember that they're a bunch of smarmy, ratings-driven assholes to whom the truth is really just incidental.


André said...

Whenever I have to take the car in (it is not my car) I sit in the waiting area and attempt to read while CP24 blares in the background. I'm not sure if I like this kind of misguided journalism more, or less, than learning that Jennifer Anniston's dog died.

Anonymous said...

It looks like the curfew is going to be put back in effect. Probably related to news like this. Unfortunately, when it comes to the military Officers who decide on things like these they're more likely to care about the issue simply being on the news rather than the Soldier's quality of life. In my experience before the curfew was lifted Officers didn't pay it any attention and drank late into the night while regular Soldiers were punished severely for violations.