Guerrilla media: 3WM takes on Korea
Tens of thousands of man-hours are spent annually churning out content for the English-language media market in Korea. We’re talking about thousands of stories a year worth billions of won in daily newspapers, monthly magazines and on radio stations. It’s big business.
It’s just a shame that very little of what’s produced is for the consumption of Korea’s growing foreign population. Blame the money. There’s more won to be had in chasing Korean readers than there is finding foreign ones.
So it might be a good thing the online magazine The Three Wise Monkeys doesn’t sell ad space.
The independent media outlet has earned a pretty big following since its launch on Jan. 28, 2010 — along with their fair share of critics. They’ve broken some pretty good stories: 3WM was first on the scene when a crooked travel agent was busted for ripping off foreigners. A story on men marrying Western women solely for their visas caused a stir, as did the piece “teaching English inside a Korean boy’s prison.” All were either followed up in or picked up by daily newspapers.
But the big one is the Andre Fisher case, which The Three Wise Monkeys have been trying to get to the bottom of for months.
After editor-at-large Liam Scott Soper broke the story, editor-in-chief John M. Rodgers, managing editor Jamie Grimwood and lead translator Dae-hyun Ji’s team have collectively spent hundreds of hours pouring over thousands of translated documents, communicating with USFK JAG lawyers, interviewing family members, and attending trials. Rodgers admitted to losing sleep over the ordeal. And what looked like an open-and-shut case of prosecutorial injustice when 3WM broke the story is now anyone’s guess. Fisher’s innocence or guilt might never be proven in or outside a court of law, but what remains clear is that he was not presumed innocent when he was arrested and he was sent to prison on evidence that would be laughable if a man’s youth hadn’t hung in the balance.
And almost no one would know the name Andre Fisher if not for the exhaustive reporting of 3WM. Fisher was a Private First Class in the U.S. Army when he was convicted on June 10, 2011. The crime: stealing 94,000 won from a taxi driver. The charge: aggravated robbery and damage to public property. The proof: CCTV footage of people wearing hoodies that was taken from behind, testimony from the robbery victim and inconsistences in Fisher’s statements to police. The sentence: 24 months for the robbery and a 1 million won fine for the property damage. Rodgers outlined the lingering problems: “(The police) didn’t do any forensic work; there was a money clip found but never finger printed; the attorney was indifferent and increasingly hostile; very few people ever saw the CCTV footage — and no one knows where it is now — and so much stuff wasn’t translated into English.”
3WM’s investigation brought to light troublesome inconsistencies in the ROK’s legal proceedings and apparent failures of lawyers that U.S. servicemen select from a list provided by the USFK.
The broader picture
So we have a black American soldier accused of stealing a marginal amount of money from a Korean taxi driver. On a peninsula where for many Koreans the evil American soldier is the only American soldier, the Fisher case never really fit into the narrative of the vernacular media.
The Three English daily newspapers — two of which I have worked for — would not touch this story for a couple reasons: They are mostly mirror images of the vernacular press and standing out would ultimately threaten their place in the status quo. These are national newspapers, and let’s face it — the trial of a black American service person will never be national news in Korea unless he is accused of raping or murdering a Korean. But it would also make no sense to take a reporter off a national beat and put them on the Fisher case for months on end. They don’t have the resources or ability to dig deep into their stories.
“Also, it is not good for business to do so,” admitted Soper. “All media at some level has to reckon with itself and wonder if what they are doing is part of the quest of truth and beauty or just pimping for the establishment. I am teaching Dante’s Inferno this semester to my high school students and it is amazing how the circles in the inferno would hold a lot of the media types prancing around in Seoul.”
Rodgers, referring to Korean media, said it does have good points. “It’s not all stale — I get the JoongAng Daily delivered to my front door and sometimes find fresh analytical content there, especially in the op-ed and features section. Nevertheless, it’s much the same as I mentioned before; they are beholden to business and brethren, to the national brand. 3WM is not.”
There are cases where 3WM stories have been picked up by mainstream English and even Korean-language media. After they started publishing e-mails from customers claiming to have been defrauded by Zenith Travel, 3WM broke the story that the Seocho police suspended the agency’s business license on Sept. 26 — effectively shutting it down. In October the agency’s head, Kang Wan-koo, was arrested.
Kang’s scam wasn’t ingenious. He would sell flights to foreign customers and cancel tickets before departure, pocketing the cash. He would not refund the tickets and sometimes did not give any notice at all. No one knows how much money he stole, but at least dozens of people have been scammed, putting the sum in the tens of millions of won. A civil suit has been filed.
The Korea Herald and MBC picked up the story, following in The Three Wise Monkeys’ tracks. The Herald has done a particularly good job staying on top of it. On Jan. 5, John Power and Robert Lee revealed that “Wystan” Kang was operating Travel Expert under the alias “Joseph Kim,” advertising primarily to foreign customers.
3WM then ran two pieces recounting the stories of those scammed with the e-mail Kang sent out, the bogus itinerary documents he issued and the ad he put in daily newspapers, ending with the facebook post of a victim of the scam and the contact information for the Korea Tourism Organization’s Tourism Complaint Center (Kim Hyun-joo: email@example.com, 02-735-0101).
3WM is independent media that is not beholden to advertisers or national agendas. Many pieces are first person and free flowing, according to Rodgers, where the authors get involved in the story. It’s a public forum for stories that get slashed or rejected by the mainstream media along with a diverse array of art, writing and podcasts.
“The broader term is New Journalism — think Wolfe, Capote, Talese and, yes, on the fringes, Thompson with the lizards in the shadows and a bottle of Wild Turkey within reach,” said Rodgers. “3WM does often subscribe to Thompson’s theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours. There are times when a certain submersion in the subject is necessary which brings you beyond the facts and closer to the truth. In the end, the goal remains to provide our readership with a deeper sense of the story that may entail a certain level of subjectivity brought on by the proximity to the subject.”
Said Soper: “We are a weekly updated blogazine with inside-out reportage, interviews, images, videos and everything else we can frame into it that is provocative, smart, entertaining and takes on life here from the Korean Peninsula.”
Who is 3WM?
Besides Soper and Rodgers, the other important gears in this machine are the webmaster, Jason Burnett a.k.a Lee Scott and Jamie Grimwood, the managing editor. Burnett is the techie who implements Web design and the functionality of the site in addition to writing stories and contributing artwork. He’s been in Korea since 2004.
Grimwood is from London, the U.K., and has a background in media and publicity. He’s been here about two years. He is behind securing the necessary press credentials for 3WM and handles much of the business side of the project, while also contributing articles.
There are also a number of student contributors, “and that’s not really something anyone does here. It’s a voice that needs to be heard,” said Rodgers.
Collectively, Soper and Rodgers have been in Korea for nearly two decades, and have established a collection of sources and connections.
Most of their writers are a mash-up of long-time acquaintances, people with developed skills, students, professional writers and “believers in media that is generated from outside the corporate kiosk,” said Soper.
3WM editors interact with those contributors to shape the final draft of the story.
In an interview with Arirang in March, Soper said 3WM aims to cover street level stories that the other English media outlets avoid. Taking a look at their most read stories right now, they seem to be exactly that: The first is about security in the sex industry, the second is a first-person account of a man victimized by years of abuse from his psychotic Korean wife, then you have ATEK: The great white hoax, and the fourth is a submission from the now defunct website textsfromkoreangirls.blogspot.com.
This is different from what is readily available to consumers of English media in Korea, which is part of the reason 3WM has been successful.
“(Our stories) don’t toe the line of appeasement — they deal with controversial, sometimes unsettling and always divisive issues,” said Rodgers. “Furthermore, people have some connection to these themes through the archetypal threads that stretch into people’s psyches. Sex, psychological abuse or disease, the power and potential of a group gone awry and the complex world of communication—we all somehow know these things as humans have since the beginning of time. They cut deep.”
They do cut deep. Sometimes a little too deep.
The April 6 story “A review of the foreigner theater crowd — they can make you (but not me) giggle” rubbed the performers the wrong way. In it, Mizaru went to town on Seoul City Improv and Seoul Players.
An excerpt: “The glaring disappointment here is that anyone who is not completely self-absorbed or utterly self-conscious can see the possibilities for this kind of performance. Like most of the foreigner entertainment over here — musical, spoken word, whatever — if they know that they suck, it would be funny and interesting. Whether its music or comedy if local performers and scenesters took themselves less seriously, there could be a golden halo of Zen wit surrounding everything we did and it would really be amusing. By just breaking the restrictions of time and space of how anyone ends up on a Saturday night in a club in Seoul, Korea is a gas. But instead, as this night shows, the foreigners/performers yoke, part scatology and part neediness just drags it all down.”
Harsh, certainly, but Seoul Players performs in the public sphere, so they are just as much a target for a bad review as any other theater group — especially when a fee is charged for a performance, as was the case for this show.
On the other hand, critics say the review missed the point. One reader wrote in the story’s comment section: “I think the point for everybody is just to get together and have some camaraderie.”
The review is just one example of the controversy 3WM is capable of generating.
The case of PVT Andre Fisher represents a major success for 3WM, but depending on whom you talk to, it also demonstrates one of its biggest missteps. Rodgers admits that the original report in mid-July was “full of holes.” Indeed, it was so one-sided that the editors ultimately chose to completely rework the entire thing.
“It was published as a biased story and it was blatantly obvious,” he said. “So we took a hammering that was, in my opinion, deserved. Our critics loved it because they could refer to it every time we published new stories to clear up the details — which some six months later are still confounding in areas. We admitted our fault and explained that we were looking into it. The trolls and clowns just kept saying we screwed up, all in comments and forums.”
The story generated conflict among the editors, though some still stand by it.
“I don’t see any mistakes — other monkeys will differ and that’s just part of the process,” said editor-at-large Soper. “I found the Andre Fisher story and it struck me with a something is rotten in Denmark force. The two sources I used for the original story were both firmly in the Andre Fisher camp. Problematic perhaps but I look at like if 3WM didn’t break a story like that on the fly and instead waited to get everything verified by different power structures and authorities then the story of Andre Fisher’s arrest and trial might never have gotten done.
“And let’s face it that’s what the powers that be want: For real stories of small individuals to go unnoticed and be forgotten. 3WM doesn’t jive like that.”
Then there was the fiasco with their website being shut down at the end of April because, as they explained it, some people called out in their scathing coverage of ATEK, an organization representing English teachers, were deeply offended.
So when an ex-ATEK official contacted their Web host Bluehost with the complaint, the site was pulled offline. Any offence taken — regardless of merit — was apparently a breach of contract. “If someone disagrees with anything you write, all they have to do is contact Bluehost and the site will be shut down without notice,” explained Rodgers.
Less than 24 hours after 3WM changed the story by altering the offended ex-ATEK official’s name, Bluehost put the site back online. But in less than 72 hours, 3WM had completely transferred the site to Go Daddy in order to head off future disruptions.
The managing editor, Jamie Grimwood, explained the switch, writing that, “Due to the content of recently filed articles and the fall-out of some good old fashioned rigorous debate, we were thrown a curve-ball in discovering that Bluehost did not, in practice, support the basic laws of a free press. Bluehost suggested that thethreewisemonkeys.com switch to a different, ‘more viable’ hosting service due to the idea of freedom of speech being ‘a different matter.’”
What won’t 3WM touch?
The short answer is nothing.
Rodgers: “Our minds and the doors to 3WM are open — we’ll entertain almost anything. We are, however, cognizant of the powers that be on the peninsula.”
Soper: “We won’t pander to the banal.”
Following is the rest of the interview with editor at large Scott Liam Soper and editor-in-chief John M. Rodgers. The opinions expressed in the story and interview do not necessarily represent those of Groove Korea. To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. — Ed.
Seems like Gonzo journalism. Coincidence, planned or am I just wrong?
Soper: I don’t want to sound snide, but I really don’t know what that term means anymore. Independent Media is the better umbrella term. I like long first-person , free flowing pieces where the writer/journalist goes at least part-way undercover and writes the experience as full-blown as possible. I am convinced this is where the best American writing is at.
In an interview with Arirang in March, Liam said 3WM aims to cover street level stories that the other English media outlets won’t cover. Let’s take a quick look at your most read stories right now, and they seem to be exactly that: The first one is about security in the sex industry, the second is a first-person account of a man victimized by years of abuse from his psychotic Korean wife, then you have ATEK: The great white hoax, which we’ll get to later, then you have a submission from the now defunct website textsfromkoreangirls.blogspot.com.
What is it about these stories that make them so appealing to so many people?
Soper: There are two sides to a soul, and if readers can experience the dark or twilight or quirky side to life they are better for it I believe. Also People get tired of running from the truth. It takes a lot of energy to always pretend that things are what in fact they are not. The ATEK expose is an example of that. Ballon heads living in a foreign country pretending they are something they are not. 3WM is happy to take them down.
There are three English-language newspapers, a number of magazines and two radio stations in Seoul. Why do you think their content is “stale” — as Liam described it in March? What kind of limitations do they face they you are not constrained by?
Soper: The content is stale because the makers of the content are flea-bitten and stale. The content is stale because the producers and consumers of the content would rather read a “story” on Facebook instead of reading a story in the New Yorker (for example). I believe the only limitations 3WM has are quality control ones.
In previous interviews, you’ve said that the main motivation isn’t as much what the mainstream media isn’t doing, but what you can do. Can you expand on that?
Soper: My three part (and a fourth to come in some form) piece on the Yoido Full Gospel Church is an example of that. It is all about the work with 3WM. It’s all about not being a somebody but doing something that is interesting and revealing. Which again is why most expat creative/media efforts over here are so bad. People will always pretend they have talent or significance that they don’t. I don’t blame them really — it is a coping mechanism for our “creative” age.
Rodgers: Goethe said, “Of the truly creative no one is ever master; it must be left to go its own way.” I think 3WM has been left to go its own way. Fortunately the ship has weathered the storms that have come along that course with the help of our contributors, readers and the persistence of staff.
3WM’s success seems to indicate that you could make a bit of money if you opened up to advertising. Any plans to the end?
Rodgers: Our managing editor Jamie Grimwood has laid the groundwork for advertising with a lengthy, bulleted business plan along with the necessary legal requirements. So far Scott and I harbor some skepticism about mixing the page and project with extensive ad content. It remains under consideration.
With advertising dollars, wouldn’t 3WM be able to more effectively do what it does? For example, you could put more of your personal resources into your stories, rather outside 3WM making money in other pursuits. You could advertise 3WM in other media or hire people to write, edit or design even more content.
Rodgers: I’d say more “efficiently” is closer to the point. Overall, I’d like to think 3WM is effective in what we’re doing. Efficiency is an issue as I’ve most learned with the PVT Andre Fisher case—translation has taken much time because of the massive amount of Korean documents that were not translated. Translation is laborious and not something many do of their own volition sans compensation. In addition, as Scott said, to get established writers like Donald Kirk and Andrei Lankov, cash helps.
Soper: Hiring people to create some kind of content would quickly bring me to the riverbanks of a flooding depression. “Hey Dude I am going to send you my pics of a beach town in Thailand. Can you run them and pay me 50 bucks?
This is not Paris in the 20’s this is TOEFL time in the giant Asian Megapolis. I have friends who both create and consume media and when they have to consider about all of the people who think they can write or be some kind of artist it always becomes a throw your hands up in the air moment. Having said that, there are a handful of established journalists around the that 3WM would like to get regular contributions from.
It’s not only what topics 3WM covers, but how they’re covered that is part of your identity. Most stories are first person accounts of the issue. Am I right? What does this bring to your story that would not be possible within a more formulaic format of journalism?
Soper: I don’t often read traditional journalism. I read Op-Eds and get my news from C-Span, NPR and the like. Everything I read (outside of fiction and poetry) is long form 1st person in the field sort of stuff. Many readers of 3WM complain about this to me and say why don’t you just print the facts—we can decide for ourselves. Of course they are complaining in code; what they are really saying is, “I am not smart enough to read real writing, and I do feel CNN.GO offers some great tips for travelling. My response to them is, “No Dude! I don’t want to view your pics or read your screen play and you couldn’t pay me enough to do so.”
Great success has come with challenges and missteps. Can you talk about those?
Soper: The usual publishing project fallout. Contributors with more ego than talent. People with a hipster agenda asking why do you do stories that aren’t about my lifestyle? It’s all automatic at this point.
Rodgers: Ditto Scott. We had a guy leave the project after we ran a LGBT piece about the poet Gi Hyeong-do done by our good friend at Seoul National University Gabriel Sylvan (in hindsight, it wasn’t much of a loss).
We’ve also had others blown away by the winds of criticism and the usual hipster, thin-skin, Facebook face lifting—these are people who cringe when something gets dicey. Missteps? Let the readers sort that out if they wish. I’d refer to George Bernard Shaw who said, “You don’t hold your own in the world by standing on guard, but by attacking and getting well hammered yourself.”
There is an inherent risk that comes with first-person and single-source reporting — something that may have been demonstrated in your early reporting on the Andre Fisher prosecution. Can you talk about that and how you took steps to correct those mistakes?
Rodgers: Scott, as I understand, sticks to the Publilius Syrus adage, “While we stop to think, we often miss opportunity.“ Especially when it comes to a story like Fisher’s.
There really wasn’t any way to get it out immediately otherwise: 3WM was on summer vacation; Fisher had been convicted; his appeal was within weeks; no Korean media had anything on it; his local Pennsylvania media said the military, the U.S. embassy and consulate were not providing comment while his parents and a veteran’s advocate claimed he hadn’t been tried fairly.
Our detractors didn’t give a damn about that though; I think they thought, “You needed the whole story.” But that wasn’t possible at that time. Hell, we don’t even have the whole story all these months later and I don’t know if we ever will.
Yet 3WM will continue to search for it. That is the way.