Analysis: Waiting for Ling and Lee

What lessons can we learn—both diplomatic and journalistic—from Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee about their five months in North Korean captivity? We’re still waiting.

It’s been almost two weeks since Current TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee returned to the U.S. after nearly five months in North Korean captivity, and the question on many media watchers’ minds is: When will the two sit down for their first TV interview and with whom?

To be sure, there’s plenty of parlor-game preoccupation with this latest “get” in the TV news business. But the eagerness to hear from Ling and Lee speaks to the lingering questions surrounding their imprisonment and eventual release thanks to a deal brokered by former President Bill Clinton—as well as what the episode tells us about the business of reporting on the ground in hostile parts of the world.

Speculation about who will land the first sit-down has focused primarily on Today’s Meredith Vieira and Oprah Winfrey. Ling’s sister, Lisa, is not only a correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show, but she has maintained a relationship with Vieira from their days together at ABC’s The View. (Lisa Ling is also a correspondent for CNN and has discussed her sister’s ordeal on the cable news channel.)

Curiosity about their first media appearance only intensified last week when Ling and Lee posted a brief “thank you” video Aug. 12 on the Current TV Website. Beyond the tantalizing detail that the journalists apparently were able to receive letters and cards from supporters, the two-minute video offered few clues about the circumstances surrounding their capture, what their incarceration was like or the status of the story they were reporting for Current, about North Korean defectors escaping over the border with China.

“I don’t think anyone one of us can understand what it would be like to be held captive by the North Koreans,” says Matthew Hiltzik, president and CEO of communications firm Hiltzik Strategies. “We have to be careful not to be rushing them to tell their story.”

Certainly, there are official debriefings to endure, and as the women made clear in their brief press conference upon arriving in the States, their priority is spending time with the families they haven’t seen for nearly half of a year. But in today’s warp-speed media cycle, their silence feels like an eternity.

Meanwhile, the vacuum has been filled with recriminations about the foreign policy fallout from the episode, largely focusing on the role of former President Bill Clinton and whatever concessions may have been granted, however symbolic, to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il to secure the journalists’ release. Former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called Clinton’s trip “poorly thought-out gesture politics,” while Slate’s Christopher Hitchens fumed that after “a huge investment of time and energy and prestige and forced politeness, we can now claim to have reduced the North Korean prison population by exactly two.”

While we may never know the full extent of those negotiations, Ling herself may be able to shed some light on the diplomatic efforts that brought Clinton in the first place. According to Bob Dietz, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ling apparently convinced the North Koreans to let her help broker a deal.

Dietz says Lisa Ling told him her sister “was pressing so hard, that she was telling the North Koreans, ‘Let me make these phone calls, let me bring this pressure in, let me try and drive this.’ And that they were, in fact, allowed this contact—letters and phone calls—because Laura pushed so hard, she was sort of saying, ‘Help me advocate for getting us out of here.’”

Lisa Ling appeared to say as much when she told CNN that her sister had “won a lot of her captors over” and “developed a strange sort of kinship” with the guards assigned to watch over her and Lee.

A representative for Lisa Ling did not return a phone call or e-mail for comment.

Indeed, the diplomatic drama, and the framing of the episode as a story of two hostages rescued by the intervention of a political rock star, has all but obscured the journalistic dimension of Ling and Lee’s ordeal.

When the two were captured last March by a military patrol along the North Korean border, their plight—along with that of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who was charged and sentenced for espionage by the Iranian government before being released in May—exemplified the risks increasingly assumed by freelance journalists as news organizations cut back on international reporting.

Still unclear about Ling and Lee’s experience is what precautions they undertook before traveling to the region or what role Current TV played in negotiating their release beyond the back-channel efforts of the network’s co-founder, former Vice President Al Gore, that helped set the stage for Clinton’s mission. A spokesman for Current TV, which has been tight-lipped throughout, provided no comment beyond saying, “we’re all just overjoyed for [Ling and Lee’s] return.”

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, says the lack of attention to such matters may be due to the journalists’ affiliation.

“If these had been New York Times reporters or Associated Press reporters or ABC News reporters, as opposed to people working for a pretty obscure cable operation, that might have re-centered the coverage more on the journalistic issues,” he says.

But Jurkowitz adds that whatever details we may learn from Laura Ling and Euna Lee, their experience has made clear enough what’s at stake for the news business.

“We have seen the specter of journalists in trouble all over the world,” he says. “Whatever actually happened there, the real lesson is: This is increasingly a world in which the status of journalists as neutral observers, as non-combatants, has been greatly diminished. And I think that’s an eminently dangerous thing.”