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Number 1 Shimbun

World Class Waste of Time and Money?

No1-2018-07 04

World Class Waste of Time and Money?
by Donald Kirk

The “Singapore Summit” on June 12 may have been the most over-hyped event that I have ever made a pretense, at least, of “covering.” In post-summit analysis, journalism scholars should do a count of how many times the adjective “historic” showed up in stories before, during and/or after the event. Judging from the blitzkrieg of media coverage, the tete-a-tete between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was about the most important happening in modern Korean history since the Korean War. Excitement in the run-up to the summit was infectious. For many of us the critical issue was getting accreditation for a media center in Singapore that some said would accommodate 5,000 or so correspondents from around the world.

A day or two before the deadline for applying for accreditation, CBS Radio, for which I’ve been filing intermittently from Korea for years, wrote the needed letter. Not only that, but CBS mentioned my name in the sixth paragraph of a press release, the subject line of which was “JEFF GLOR WILL LEAD CBS NEWS’ COVERAGE OF THE U.S.-NORTH KOREA SUMMIT FROM SINGAPORE.” Here’s what the release had to say about CBS’s stellar radio team: “On CBS News Radio, Glor will co-anchor CBS NEWS ON THE HOUR WITH JEFF GLOR (5:00 PM, ET) on Monday. CBS News Radio will have also special coverage from Steven Portnoy and Don Kirk in Singapore; Lucy Craft in Tokyo; and Jason Strother in Soul (sic).”

This event promised to be big time indeed. After having waited rather nervously for the response from Singapore, the email arrived the day before my departure. “We are pleased to inform you that you are now accredited for the DPRK-USA Singapore Summit,” said the supposedly crucial message. “Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) is setting up an International Media Centre (IMC) for the Summit. Only accredited media personnel will have access to the IMC” – yes, that sentence was underlined, in bold.

Yay! I was in! At Incheon airport in Korea, waiting for the flight to Manila, I discovered a number of colleagues also about to make the trip – a few of the journalistic hordes descending on Singapore. The taxi driver on the way in from Singapore’s Changi airport knew where to take me. The media center, as the accreditation message told me, was in F1 Pit Building, surely one of the most extraordinary places in which to corral the journalistic mob. F1 Pit, for the benefit of those who had no idea what on earth was F1, much less the allusion to “pit,” was a reference to the Formula 1 races held on the track in front of the drab, elongated concrete structure that serves all the needs of anyone and anything having to do with the races, including cars and drivers, officials and journalists. There are even stands on top for spectators.

Huge rooms on the third floor would be equipped “with about 2000 workstations available for use on a first-come-first-served basis,” said the accreditation message. Big screens would show “’live’ footage of the media events,” it promised. “Free high speed wireless Internet access and refreshments will be provided.” Oh, and the IMC would “also house a Broadcast Centre operated by Mediacorp, the Host Broadcaster, including “Live feed distribution system; Live stand-up locations at various locations with connectivity; Media booths (4m by 3m) within the IMC; and Uplink and fibre delivery services.”

There was no doubt about it. The Singapore authorities had it all figured out. Polite men and women, mostly from the communications ministry, were on hand to greet and assist us, give us media cards to drape around our necks and make sure we got every conceivable service the center had to offer. Never mind that the media card they issued me identified me with “Christian Broadcasting System” despite the letter that the manager of CBS Radio in New York had written on my behalf on CBS News letterhead and the application form I had filled out. There is indeed another CBS in Seoul – Christian Broadcasting System – for which some people keep thinking I work. Details, details. Nobody ever squinted at the fine print on my media card during my four days in Singapore.

Once I got the precious credential, however, the challenge was actually to “cover” the summit. The answer was, you don’t really. From the perspective of my room on the 44 th floor of a hotel in the heart of Singapore, I could see F1 Pit, about a 20-minute walk away, and the monumental buildings soaring above what journalists liked to call “the small island city state.” The closest I got to covering anything, really, was a lengthy taxi ride across the bridge over the harbor to Sentosa Island the afternoon before Trump and Kim were to meet. Guards swarming around the entrance to the drive leading to the Capella Hotel, the venue for the summit, not in the least impressed by my “media” badge, waved us away. The Capella, my driver helpfully explained, is well hidden behind trees and shrubbery. I might even like to see it someday. The day before the summit was definitely not the time.

Now let’s see, what else was there for a correspondent to do – aside from watching all the talking heads showing up on BBC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, Channel News Asia and a few others on my hotel TV? OK, boldly I ventured out again, this time to the St. Regis Hotel, where Kim and his entourage were lodged. Camera people were staked out as close as they could get to the lobby, blocked from getting inside. One of the guards made a pro forma effort at keeping me away but didn’t object too much when, pointing in the general direction of a small knot of people inside the lobby, I said I was meeting a friend and slipped inside. Not a total waste of time. Black-suited, grim-faced young men were seen getting on and off the elevators. There was no doubt where their loyalties lay. Every one of them had a North Korean pin on his lapel bearing the image of Kim Jong Un or his father Kim Jong Il or his grandfather, dynasty founder Kim Il Sung. None of them changed expression or said a word when I murmured, “Ahn Yong Haseo,” Korean for “hello.”

I knew Kim was up there, around the twentieth floor. Maybe rehearsing what he would say to Trump the next day. After hanging around in the lobby for an hour or so, I walked up a charming tree-shaded street to the Shangri-La, ten minutes away, where Trump & Co. were booked. Nothing whatsoever was going on there, either. Maybe Trump also was rehearsing his lines. Next stop was back to F1 Pit, but an immense traffic jam was blocking the way. My driver finally figured out what was going on. Kim and his bodyguards were going out for their night on the town, on the way to Marina Bay where the cameras caught him smiling jovially, posing for a few shots – an hour or two that I got to see on TV once the traffic had cleared and I got inside the media center.

Those excursions outside my hotel were not a total waste of time. Next morning, on TV in my room, I saw the running coverage of Trump and Kim getting inside their vehicles, getting out, greeting one another, walking past the alternating US and DPRK flags inside the Capella, sitting down. At least I had gotten a first-hand glimpse of the route to Sentosa Island and thus had a sense of the scene. It was all a show that reached a climax when the two of them signed their “joint statement.” As I surfed the channels, talking heads were everywhere, flown in at the expense of the networks. Universally, they were shocked by the statement – shocked, as was I, by how little it said about anything. Had we all come to Singapore to watch on TV as these two bozos, defined by their distinct hairstyles, “committed to cooperate for the development of new US-DPRK relations and for the promotion of peace, prosperity, and the security of the Korean Peninsula and of the world”?

Not to worry. The reading and listening audience was mesmerized. The superstars flown out by CBS had more than they could handle. My job was to respond to calls from CBS stations asking for my view of the whole thing. Yakking on and on, I was the original “motor mouth,” not really knowing what the hell I was saying as the words rolled off my tongue into my Korean cell phone. Oh, and the day was far from over. The main outlet for my ruminations was the Daily Beast, whose foreign editor, Chris Dickey, a world traveler with years of experience working for Newsweek and writing books, had been taking my stuff since before the Pyeongchang Olympics. He had me filing every day while I was there, providing a much needed platform for whatever I was seeing, hearing, thinking.

The biggest challenge, on that summit day, was to figure out how to do everything at once. Not a member of the White House press corps or one of the privileged reps of the Korean and Singapore media, I missed a first-hand view of Trump in his rambling afternoon press conference but saw it all in the media center along with hundreds of others staring at the TV screens. But how could I file for Dickey while fielding all those calls from radio stations. At one stage, he messaged, “We are sliding from ETA to MIA, would really love to have your file,” to which I responded, in between calls, “writing madly....” It was a long day of TV-watching, yakking on air and, yes, writing and writing. (I was also filing for two or three others.)

Post-summit, the occasion was a tremendous let-down, but the media center was great. I learned how great it was when I discovered what everyone else had known – that the staff had an absolutely marvelous, gourmet-style buffet going every day down on the first floor. Sorry to say, I didn’t know about it until the day after the summit. I am basing my judgment on one terrific lunch, after which I repaired to the third floor, fed a last story to the Beast and retreated to my hotel for one final night. If I didn’t see much of Singapore I at least treated myself to one excursion to the hotel’s seventieth story bar, where a go-go dancer, swathed in tight-fitting swimsuit-like attire, could be seen swaying rhythmically on a stage overhead. The next day I was off, back to Seoul, exchanging war stories with the journalists who hadn’t gone there but had seen the same damn stuff on TV. Well, at least I had had the Singapore dateline. --Bio is on the way....

----photo captions and credit---

1: Ready for action in the press center - with branded summit goodies on full display
2: One reason the US chose Singapore as the summit loc was to impress KJU with the vision of a successful and prosperous Asian city. Singapore delivered. All courtesy Andrew Salmon

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Donald Kirk, a member of the FCCJ in the 1970s and1980s, has been reporting from Asia since the Vietnam War. He's currently based in Seoul and Washington, reporting mainly for CBS Radio, the Daily Beast and Forbes Asia, among others.

Published in: July 2018

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