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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Korean TV Show Reports, and the Network Cancels It - New York Times

A Korean TV Show Reports, and the Network Cancels It - New York TimesDecember 21, 2005
A Korean TV Show Reports, and the Network Cancels It
By JAMES BROOKE

SEOUL, South Korea, Dec. 17 - Last June, Hwang Woo Suk, South Korea's celebrated stem cell scientist, was named Supreme Scientist of the nation. Korean Air gave him first-class air tickets for a decade.

Then a member of Dr. Hwang's laboratory team secretly posted a denunciation of his work on a confidential Internet bulletin board maintained by "PD Notebook," South Korea's leading investigative news show. According to the tipster, Dr. Hwang faked some of the human stem cell cloning data that had been published days earlier in Science, the Washington-based monthly.

Fast-forward six months. In recent days, two "PD Notebook" programs on Dr. Hwang's lapses have pried open the lid of a laboratory where the news often seemed to be too good to be true. Last week, in a rolling series of press conferences here and in the United States, Dr. Hwang and two former collaborators confirmed some of the allegations originally e-mailed by the whistle-blower to the Internet bulletin board.

So, Choi Seung Ho, the "PD Notebook" executive producer who unraveled Korea's cloning scandal, must be the toast of Seoul.

Well, not exactly. On Saturday afternoon, he sat unsmiling in his newsroom, dressed in black and blue, dragging occasionally on a menthol cigarette. Protesters had picketed his network, MBC. Death threats and photos of family members of his reporting team had been posted on the Internet. All 12 advertisers had fled the program. After 15 successful years of "PD Notebook," MBC has pulled the plug.

"The show is suspended; we are waiting for the final decision by the executives," Mr. Choi said. Referring to the public backlash, he said: "Of course we anticipated this to some extent, but it was so much stronger than we expected. It made us realize once again how important this individual was for Korea."

Mr. Choi is in the journalistic doghouse partly for tearing down a national icon, a charismatic, handsome scientist who was the modern, successful face that South Koreans yearned to show the world.

But it is also partly because he allowed South Korea's ultracompetitive journalism world to spur him to use techniques that tarnished his work.

In one crucial interview, a former co-worker of Dr. Hwang, now working at the University of Pittsburgh, is led to believe that his former boss is about to be arrested for fraud.

When the worker, Kim Seon Jong, starts to talk about faking photographs for the Science article, he can be seen nervously asking if the interview was being filmed. No answer comes from the story's producer, who is holding a bag with a hidden camera. Instead, the producer hints that if he cooperates with MBC, he will be protected from arrest. To this date, no one has been arrested in the case.

"That must be a flagrant violation of journalism guidelines," said Shin Hak Lim, chairman of the National Union of Media Workers, a trade organization. He noted that MBC apologized because of the public outcry, and docked Mr. Choi and the story's producer, Han Hak Soo, one month's pay.

The Korean Broadcasting Commission, a government agency, reviewed the tapes and a spokesman told the press that the commission "has judged that it is highly likely that the program violated regulations on fairness, objectivity, human rights violations and statistics and public surveys under the broadcast law."

As protesters picketed MBC, even South Korea's president, Roh Moo Hyun, commented in a statement on his Web site: "I also feel MBC's program was annoying. But after I saw MBC's program battered en masse, I felt heavy-hearted."

The journalistic jury is still out in South Korea, a nation of news devotees that has ridden an emotional roller coaster over escalating accusations and denials swirling around Dr. Hwang.

"Many people now understand why MBC produced those programs," said Lee Hyun Jae, a 24-year-old business administration student at Seoul National University, where Dr. Hwang did his work. "They have uncovered many areas we would like not to believe. If Dr. Hwang had had more research in a couple of months, with better results, people might never have known about the problems. MBC has done their job. But people will never forgive them for that."

Others said that the network should have been prepared for the reaction.

"It is admirable that they were investigating this man, when everyone else was idolizing him," Jang Se Ju, a 25-year-old agricultural science student at the university, said. "Why did they take on an issue they could not handle at the end of the day?"

Her lunch partner, Kim Yang Hee, a 26-year-old education student, said she feared the volatility of public opinion.

"When Dr. Hwang was made into a religious icon that was idolized, I was afraid we were unable to criticize him," she said. "Before, we were idolizing him. Now I fear that there will be an atmosphere of making him responsible for all the failures."

Noting the "strong criticism of reporting techniques of 'PD Notebook,' " she said: "I thought it was strange to see it suddenly disappear after they had all these achievements over many years. I thought it was not a rational decision - an emotional decision."

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