Critics pan media’s positive coverage of North Korea at Olympics

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American news outlets faced backlash for unflinchingly borrowing comparisons from South Korean media between Kim Yo Jong and Ivanka Trump. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

News outlets have come under fire for their coverage of North Korea at the Winter Olympics, with critics chiding reporters for describing the oppressive Kim Jong Un government in uncritical and “fawning” terms.

CNN faced an avalanche of criticism over the weekend for a story that said Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North’s leader and a figurehead of the country’s delegation in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was “stealing the show at the Winter Olympics.”

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“That kind of credulous tone for someone who’s not just a sister but an official from the world’s perhaps most brutal, repressive regime is just embarrassing,” Howard Kurtz, a Fox News media analyst, said on Monday. “And CNN was not alone in that.”

The piece was one of several news stories on the North Korean delegation to arouse anger in readers and commentators, with many pointing out the glowing descriptions of a government that has inflamed global tensions by threatening nuclear war and been condemned by international watchdogs for human rights violations.

The New York Times, The Washington Post and ABC News, among others, have faced backlash for articles that borrowed comparisons of Kim Yo Jong and Ivanka Trump from South Korean media, and for using cheery descriptions of North Korean spectators’ “synchronized chants” at sporting eventss.

“Kim Jong-un’s Sister Turns On the Charm, Taking Pence’s Spotlight,” read a headline in the Times.

At ABC News: “North Korea’s 200-plus cheerleaders command spotlight at 2018 Winter Olympics with synchronized chants.”

Representatives for CNN, the Times, the Post and ABC News did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In their attempts to cover the dynamic diplomatic web at the global event, critics say, news organizations stumbled with romanticized headlines and social media posts that failed to confront the realities on the ground in North Korea.

“U.S. media outlets have really embarrassed themselves with their coverage of #NorthKorea at #WinterOlympics,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted on Saturday in response to the ABC News article.

“To give a headline like that without any criticism is the danger here,” Joe Concha, a media columnist and reporter for The Hill, said about CNN’s coverage during an appearance on Fox News. Concha added that outlets were “glamorizing” North Korea’s moves without putting them in context.

Fox News anchor Sandra Smith remarked on Monday that outlets appeared to be “dazzled by the smiling face of a brutal regime.” The network devoted numerous segments on its morning broadcast to backlash over Olympics coverage.

Some conservative media figures connected the toned-down descriptions of North Korea with efforts to compare Kim’s leadership with that of President Donald Trump.

“There are some in the media so consumed with their rage against President Trump and his administration, they’re willing to not only whitewash the brutality of the North Korean government but promote the idea that it is somehow better than our own,” wrote commentator Bethany Mandel. In a New York Post opinion piece, Mandel lamented the “perverse fawning” by outlets over Kim’s sister.

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo took the criticisms head on, arguing that the upheaval over Olympics coverage was more likely rooted in the president’s frequent verbal attacks on the news media.

“You don’t think having a President who lies about what is ‘fake’ and actively maligns the free press out of convenience is a bigger reason for animosity toward us than how some decide to cover this bs?” Cuomo tweeted in response to criticism of the network’s coverage.

Others cast the media’s focus on favorable aspects of the North Korean delegation as something to be expected, given the positive nature of the international event.

“It’s kind of predictable,” Judith Miller, a former New York Times journalist, said Monday on Fox News. “If you just go beyond those headlines, you get some fantastic reporting about what a monstrous regime this is.”

Miller argued that most outlets provided adequate context in their stories, even if it did not make its way into their headlines.

But that defense was disputed by Kurtz.

“As you know,” he said, “it’s the headline, it’s the lead that go viral, that get the most attention, that set the tone.”

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