Monday, January 11, 2010

Media Shifts Make Japan A Harder Read

A note on sources of information...

I was watching the news on the resignation of Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa on Thursday night, flipping in between the various terrestrial channels. As I flipped back and forth, I was struck by how similar the reports were on the Fuji TV and Nippon TV networks. The two newscasts were nearly identical, except for the clothing and the sets. The editorial stance, the rumors, even the vocabulary were indistinguishable. If not for the bug in the corner of my television’s screen, I would not have been able to tell which network broadcast was which.

This is a new development. Until the election of August last year Fuji TV, which is a part of the Fuji Sankei Group, and Nippon TV, which is owned by the Yomiuri Shimbun, offered the news in distinct flavors. Fuji Sankei Group news, which includes the reporting in the Sankei Shimbun newspaper, offered conservative iconoclasm with a bias toward free markets and a gnawing worry about the growing power of China. As such, Fuji Sankei news reporting found itself frequently at odds with Liberal Democratic Party government decisions. Yomiuri-flavored news, however, was strictly conformist conservatism, in near complete agreement with the course of action of the current administration, save during the years when Koizumi Jun’ichiro was prime minister.

Since the ouster of the LDP from power, however, the two formerly separate identities have grown closer to one another. Tobias Harris has already documented the glee at the Sankei Shimbun when the editors realized that the LDP's election loss made the paper a candidate to be the voice of the opposition. The Yomiuri Shimbun, bereft of the government it had seen itself as serving, has seemingly reversed a previous caution about printing every rumor, plausible or otherwise, it has in the company inbox.

The consequences of this shift toward a unitary conservative reportorial voice are appearing in the non-Japanese press. The Economist’s article this week on the Fujii resignation and Blaine Harden’s Washington Post account of the purported emergence of Ozawa Ichiro from the shadows both show a lack of skepticism toward story elements being trumpeted by the emerging unified Fuji Sankei/Yomiuri opposition news. The explanation that Fujii quit because he had lost a policy battle with Ozawa, rather than one with his own frail constitution, and that he was terrified of being called to testify in the Diet about a financial scandal involving Ozawa, are reported as fact. That Fujii had sworn that he was giving up politics last summer, only to be begged by Hatoyama to run again via a campaigning-free position on DPJ proportional list, is ignored.

Harden is at least aware of the possibility that he may be passing on a skewed version of events, although he buries this admission down in the eleventh paragraph:
But Japan's two most influential newspapers -- which are not friendly with the new government -- have detected a new form of two-headed rule. The Yomiuri newspaper calls it "dual-governance." The Asahi suggests "there is another prime minister outside the cabinet."
The Asahi Shimbun's position in the new order is an ambiguous one. It is frequently characterized as being a center-left publication. In truth, it is aspires to being a non-partisan publication, modeling itself seemingly on The New York Times. Along with its affiliated but independent TV Asahi network, it has tried to maintain a near Olympian position, criticizing the current government for failing to live up to what most ordinary persons would consider impossible standards of achievement. In terms of its purported politicial bias, the Asahi should be gentle on the new government, having waged a long, bitter war against LDP rule. It has, however, been sharply critical.

In trying so hard to remain above political partisanship, however, the Asahi editors have had trouble avoiding the trap of false equivalence. Given the length of tenure of the new government, it is impossible that every DPJ foible is equal to the multitudinous sins of the LDP. However, by failing to take the extra step of saying “we remain suspicious of the current crop of leaders but they at least better than continued rule by their predecessors” the aggressively skeptical reporting of the Asahi has worked hand-in-glove with its now strictly partisan reporting of the paper's conservative competitors.

The strong anti-DPJ government stance of the working-class oriented Mainichi Shimbun is inscrutable, at least from a readership standpoint. The owners seem convinced that the antagonistic segment of the media market can support three players. Unfortunately, Yomiuri and Sankei are set to dominate this segment. An aggressive anti-government, anti-Ozawa line only threatens the Mainichi group with ever greater marginalization. That the Mainichi Shimbun still maintains a translation department, a peculiar luxury for a downscale news organization, has been granting the Mainichi's aggressive reporting and its editorials international stature out of proportion to the organization’s status in the domestic media market.

The shift in news reporting has not gone universally against the government. While The Asahi Shimbun and TV Asahi have struggled to find an admirable independent stance, the national newscaster NHK has surged forward and become the government's most supportive news conduit. This shift is not out of sycophancy to the new power in the capital, however. NHK lived in terror of government retaliation during the LDP years. As a consequence its reporters and editors did their very best to avoid offending the government. Freed by the election from a fear of retaliation from the LDP, NHK news has responded by working with the government to rapidly dismantle the intellectual edifice that kept the LDP in power and NHK cowed. NHK and its legions of talented reporters are now free to report what they know – and they know plenty.

Given the power of NHK’s 7 pm and 9 pm newscasts to determine the national conversation on the news, the relative durability of the Hatoyama Cabinet’s popularity becomes less perplexing. Someone just reading the translated reports from the major newspapers would come away with a vision of the popular mood in Japan as being fixedly anti-Ozawa and anti-Hatoyama and rueing the results of the August election. The truth is that despite serious ongoing investigations of financial fraud in the political offices both the prime minister and the secretary-general of the DPJ, the government and the party still enjoy a large measure of public support.

In an ideal world, foreign reporters with long memories would notice the rapid shifting about in the Japanese media and adjust their sourcing accordingly. However, with most non-Japanese media organizations cutting back staff or pulling out of Japan entirely, the world is relying more and more on unfiltered retransmission what Japanese media outlets are producing. Rather than giving a clearer view of what is going on in Japan, this direct transmission has instead reflected the prejudices and weaknesses of the original outlets, resulting in the broad dissemination of reporting which is potentially more harsh and negative than the on-the-ground reality would require.

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