Photo: Son Seok-hee in JTBC Newsroom. Credit: JTBC.
On October 13, cable news channel JTBC announced that its former president and main news anchor Son Seok-hee 손석희 had departed the station following the conclusion of his ten year contract. Son broadcast the last episode of his program, JTBC Newsroom JTBC 뉴스룸, on January 2, 2020, and has since been working as a roving international correspondent for the station. Son leaves as South Korea’s most trusted journalist according to an annual poll conducted by SisaIN 시사인 magazine, a title he has held for 17 consecutive years, ever since SisaIN first began running the poll in 2006.
Son, 67, began his journalism career as an anchor for MBC News in 1984, and became the anchor for the station’s flagship nightly news program, MBC Newsdesk MBC 뉴스데스크, in 1987. Son was the face of the news during what was arguably the most dynamic period in modern South Korean history, including the fall of the Chun Doo-hwan 전두환 dictatorship, the transition to democracy and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Son gained further renown in 1992 when he was arrested for leading the MBC journalists’ union in protesting the Roh Tae-woo 노태우 administration’s attempt to silence critical coverage in the run-up to the 1992 presidential election.
Son Seok-hee’s 2013 announcement that he would join JTBC as president caused a sensation. At the time, JTBC was a new venture from the unabashedly conservative JoongAng Ilbo 중앙일보, South Korea’s second-largest newspaper - an unlikely pairing that led some to ask whether Son was selling out his liberal bona fides. Son quickly put an end to suspicions by taking the lead in reporting on the South Korean spy agency’s intervention in the 2012 presidential election, which he followed up with his coverage of the Sewol Ferry disaster 세월호 사건 in 2014 and the impeachment of Park Geun-hye 박근혜 in 2016-17. Under Son’s leadership, JTBC went from a fledgling cable news channel to the most-trusted media outlet (a title it recently lost to MBC News).
Son recalls his JTBC days as “an unprecedented experiment in which the main anchor had the authority to edit news, hire and fire journalists, and set the budget.” At an hour and 40 minutes, JTBC Newsroom was by far the longest nightly news show in South Korean broadcasting history. Son’s extended analyses of news topics and lengthy interviews with cultural figures were a revolutionary break from the droning recitation of headlines then standard for South Korean TV news. Despite the unprecedented length of the program, Son recalls always being so constrained for time that Newsroom did not bother covering the weather.
Son says he will take a hiatus from work, though he has not yet decided whether he will retire for good. He did not hold back from criticizing Yoon Suk-yeol 윤석열 administration’s attempt to control the media: “Everyone expected this. They are obviously trying to terraform the media landscape to their advantage. . . . But it’s not as if journalists haven’t seen this before. We have all learned from experience that the press can never be totally tamed.”