Who Is Mitchell Koss and Why Isn’t He Talking?

June 11, 2009


I was changing a leaky shower head in an upstairs bathroom when I first heard the news. Two Asian American women on assignment for the cable channel Current TV were arrested by North Korean soldiers near North Korea’s border with China. Early on, CNN’s senior international correspondent John Vause, quoting South Korean sources, reported Euna Lee, 36, and Laura Ling, 32, had been on North Korean soil and were seen running back toward China when apprehended.

The third member of Current TV’s Vanguard team, “cameraman Mitch Koss,” and a guide of Korean-Chinese ancestry somehow eluded capture. Reportedly, Koss was questioned by Chinese authorities and released. He booked it out of the PRC, hightailed it back to the US of A, and then he dropped off the face of the Earth.

Lee and Ling were sentenced to 12 years “reform through labor” this week by North Korea’s Central Court for “grave crimes against the Korean nation.” And Mitchell Koss has sentenced himself to silence.

Three months have passed without so much as a Twitter from the elusive Mr. Koss. Meanwhile, the lazy dog media have veered away from a search for the facts and seem content to wallow in the lame sentimentality of weeping siblings and naive pleas for their release. Poker metaphors are everywhere. And the one person who could tell us flat out what really happened at the Tumen River March 17 isn’t saying squat.

And Hillary Rodham Clinton’s State Department? They’re currently on location filming a remake of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

This is beginning to sound like the set-up to a bad Ludlum novel or, maybe, a remake of  Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Who is Mitchell Koss and why isn’t he talking?

Mitch Koss Ani Close Up

Mitchell Koss is no mere “cameraman.” He’s a wily veteran newsman, a pro’s pro, who has reported from every hot spot on the globe for the past 30 years. War zones where Koss has dodged bullets to get a story include the first Gulf War in Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, Colombia, Kashmir and Sri Lanka. How about the genocidal killing fields of Bosnia, Kampuchea, Kosovo, and Abkhazia, you ask? Koss has been there, done that.

Mitchell Herman Koss, 56, hails from Detroit, holds a degree in political science from the University of Michigan and has a long list of impressive TV credits to go along with a grip of bylines in the nation’s top newspapers. He’s married to author Amy Goldman Koss and the couple have a son and a daughter. Koss and his wife live on a quiet street in the hills above Glendale, Calif., a suburb north of Los Angeles. Koss has written that there’s a Cold War-era fallout shelter under his backyard.

In his heyday, Koss was a dynamic news producer for ABC News, CNN and PBS, keeping programs such as NOVA and The MacNeil/Lehrer Report on the cutting edge of television. But about the time he started getting those AARP membership forms in his mail, Koss found himself exiled to youth-oriented networks like MTV, Channel One and Current TV—the Kiddie Corps of the news biz.

Nevertheless, Koss still commanded an almost surreal level of access from usually secretive government agencies such as the State Dept., Dept. of Defense, DEA and ATF. And when the shit hit the fan along the China-North Korea frontier, Mitchell Koss was the big enchilada at Al Gore and Joel Hyatt’s Current TV Vanguard Journalism unit. He called the shots.

Who is Mitchell Koss and why isn’t he talking?

A graying Koss has shepherded the careers of numerous baby journos, including a brash 25-year-old gay reporter named Anderson Cooper and an even younger Lisa Ling, who joined Channel One as a reporter at the age of 15 and traveled the world with Koss serving as her Betacam-toting Svengali. And there have been others: all young, attractive and aggressive would-be reporters whom Koss likes to refer to as his “revolutionary punks.”

Here’s what Koss had to say about Cooper and the elder Ling sister in the 2005 book Power Mentoring, by Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy:

“Anderson wasn’t looking for someone to teach him. He was looking for someone to help him figure out what no one else knew, namely a new approach to television journalism. Anderson was a terrific punk and phenomenally brave and very confident in being different. And the high quality of his innovations made it easier to recognize another revolutionary punk, Lisa Ling.

“Lisa’s ambitions further raised the level of risk in being associated with her because not only did she want to be a serious foreign correspondent at an extremely young age, she was interested in covering abstract issues… in the developing world.

“So she was not only risking her life in far off lands, she was risking being in way over her head.”

Who is Mitchell Koss and why isn’t he talking?

Here’s something that hasn’t been reported.

Herman Koss, an educator and pacifist, died of pancreatic cancer on March 2 at the age of 87. He was Mitch Koss’ dad. The funeral service was held Friday, March 13. It was already Saturday morning in China.

Allowing for connecting flights, layovers and the 15 hours it takes to reach China by air, Koss would have been lucky to be on the ground in Beijing by Sunday evening. From there it’s about 1,000 miles to the border city of Yanji, China—a trip that would take up another full day.

It appears that Koss planned to drive Euna Lee and Laura Ling along the entire length of the 880-mile-long North Korea-China border from Yanji to Dandong. He had made the 36-hour drive before… as a younger man.

But things got FUBAR at the Tumen, and revolutionary punks Euna and Laura, dressed up to look like North Korean refugees, were gone.

Okay, boys and girls, let’s take the wayback machine to Aug. 24, 2003, so we can read an Op-Ed piece Mr. Koss penned for the L.A. Times.

Reading like an intelligence agency think tank position paper, Koss’ cocksure essay was titled: Refugees Could Undo Kim. In it he opines that news coverage of refugees fleeing North Korea for safe haven in China combined with congressional legislation granting them political asylum in the U.S. would trigger the downfall of Kim Jong-il.

Koss saw this mano-a-mano relationship between American government and American journalism as “a nonmilitary weapon for regime change.”

Who is Mitchell Koss and why isn’t he talking?

Koss’ visual style is clearly more cinema verité than CBS News. Along with the obligatory gunfire, bomb blasts, drug labs and poisonous reptiles, there are homages to poverty, squalor, hunger and human suffering. Koss’ stuff is always raw and compelling. Here’s footage of Current TV correspondent Tracey Chang and Koss in Sri Lanka.

But the hallmark of Mitch Koss’ signature 10-minute-or-less packages are the establishing shots and voice-overs by a young, vulnerable, non-pro-looking reporter—a revolutionary punk. Many times, Koss seems to put them in harm’s way just for the heck of it on stories that had been covered before by others.

Yes, the story of North Korean refugees fleeing  Kim Jong-il’s Evil Hermit Kingdom for safe haven in China has been covered countless times by the BBC, National Geographic, Frontline, Christine Christiane Amanpour, numerous independent filmmakers and even Koss’ own staff at Channel One. It’s a rehash—old news—kept alive mainly by Korean and Korean American evangelical Christians who beckon North Koreans to defect with promises of cash and eternal life.

Backstory: The main goal of Vanguard’s mission to North Korea in March may not have been to expose the plight of refugees but to pump life into a flagging $100 million Current TV IPO filed in January 2008. The inconvenient truth about Current TV, however, was plain as day in the company’s SEC filing: it had done nothing but hemorrhage money since day one. Wall Street laughed.

It had been a winner in the past, and under pressure from Current TV brass to hit a home run to rescue the badly timed IPO, the North Korean refugee story could be edited into a winner again. After all, that’s why Koss’ Vanguard Journalism team was formed in the first place: to hit the long ball. With second-generation revolutionary punk Laura Ling telling the refugees’ story in HD video, the Current TV brand would be burned into the frontal lobe of every 18-to-34-year-old in America.


But it didn’t work out. While Euna Lee and Laura Ling were being interrogated in Pyongyang, Current TV, without any mention of the two jailed reporters, quietly canceled its IPO on April 10, 2009.

♠ ♣ ♥ ♦

So, who is Mitchell Koss?

Mitchell Koss was a pioneering television journalist—the original “revolutionary punk”—whose career as a producer ended in the early morning hours of March 17, 2009 on the banks of the frozen Tumen River on the border between North Korea and China.

Why isn’t he talking?

Mitchell Koss isn’t talking because he knows that nothing he says will free Euna Lee and Laura Ling.

Mitchell Koss isn’t talking because he’s hip enough to know that when nuclear powers square off everything’s through the looking glass, nations begin speaking in tongues and the truth isn’t worth a plug nickel.

Mitchell Koss isn’t talking because he’s overcome by grief over the loss of his colleagues Euna Lee and Laura Ling.


10 Responses to “Who Is Mitchell Koss and Why Isn’t He Talking?”

  1. […] some issues have bubbled to the surface. A Los Angeles-area blogger named Babamoto has taken two in-depth looks at Mitchell Koss, the Current TV producer and cameraman who managed to flee back to […]

  2. spelunker702 Says:

    It’s interesting to see a Chinese news report saying that the idea to go to the Tumen River border area came from the same guy who told the Current TV crew to stay away from the boundary.
    Reverend Chun Ki-won reveals his suggestion in an interview published in Chinese.

    By the way, this is a world exclusive post that I am contributing to EPICANTHUS today.

    Here it is:


    Reverend Chun Ki-won, who was responsible for organizing the itinerary, asserted: “On March 17 around 3 a.m. the 3 journalists and their local guide said they wanted to continue interviews. Around 6 a.m. I had my last telephone conversation with the girls, they had already completed the interviews, so I suggested they go to the Tumen River border area. However I reminded them that this area is very dangerous so they should not take action until after consulting with me. Yet afterward they did not consult with me and we lost touch. It wasn’t until the afternoon of March 19 when China’s border patrol announced the detainment of two men that I knew something wrong happened.”

  3. bartscrivner Says:

    I doubt that Koss alone could have persuaded both women to go. I think he and Ling make the choice, and possibly even before they left the US. She’s ambitious, and why not? But as they entered China with falsified visa applications, which isn’t SOP for most journalists, I wonder how much their bosses at Current knew and signed off on.
    I don’t think Koss is Svengali to Ling’s Trilby by any means. Current and Vanguard do more “toe-touch” journalism, meaning there’s usually a stand-up of the reporter confiding breathlessly to camera “Look at me–I’m in INSERT PLACE-NAME HERE”. And despite all Current’s PR machinations, Ling’s no Amanpour.

  4. spelunker702 Says:

    Do you want to know the only possible reason Mitch Koss is keeping his mouth shut? Here’s the most plausible theory, in my opinion: The idea to go to the Tumen River and cross the border was exclusively his alone. Maybe the local communist guide capitalized on Mitch’s idea and scored a big bounty, but if it was Mitch’s idea to take his crew there in the first place then wouldn’t he be too overcome by embarrassment to reveal the truth after returning to California? If it was indeed Mitch’s idea to go to the Tumen River border area, then I believe that would explain his extreme reluctance to face the nation that still waits for those 2 female colleagues he left behind on the battlefield.


  5. djevoke Says:

    So, where is he? I understand that he’s trying to keep his own a$$ clean and that he barely escaped probably due to a deal of some sort (I’m speculating). How did they get captured and the two men escaped? How did the two women get sentenced to 12 years?

  6. turnedmeintoanewt Says:

    It’s not brain surgery, he’s probably shutting up so whatever he might say doesn’t get them into any deeper hot water. He’s also probably working on that advice from the State Department.

    What you call a ‘surreal’ level of access to organizations like the State Dept, ATF, etc isn’t that big a deal. The Pentagon itself probably has 200 or more reporters that its media liaison staff know by their first names. There’s information on hundreds of missions, foreign affairs issues, drug busts etc. that are open to media inquiries.

    There’s enough drama in the tale of these two reporters without creating more empty-headed scenarios.

  7. bartscrivner Says:

    Here’s Alpert today: http://www.dctvny.org/ABOUT/staff.html

  8. douglaseisenstark Says:

    He reminds me of Jon Alpert who may be a decade older and was doing this sort of thing with portable video cameras. Jon worked out of NYC with his wife and young interns and often went to hotspots where he (in)famously inserted his questions into the reports.

  9. liberatelaura Says:

    Some other questions besides your central one:

    – If Ling and Lee were effectively disguised as North Korean refugees, what tipped off the NK guards as to their identity?

    – If their guide did not lead them into a trap, did they run into one or more NK spies pretending to be refugee helpers?

    – And was Mitch Koss able to evade capture because he was not with Ling-Lee at the time but rather waiting across the bridge crossing with the guide-driver?

  10. bartscrivner Says:

    If anything, I think Koss is more idealist than shareholder. The Ling sisters are cute, ambitious “girls” who want to win at everything, and poor Euna Lee was stuck in the sidecar.

    Considering that the 18-25 year old crowd prides itself on not reading printed news or watching stuffy networks, we shouldn’t be too surprised that cartoon news, in easy to digest formats, are Current’s stock in trade.

    Good job!

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