Posted by debito on May 4th, 2009
Hi Blog. In concert with yesterday’s blog posting on politicians hijacking events for their own ends, here’s Takehiko Kambayashi on how the media lets them hijack their airwaves and printing presses without sufficient critique, letting the incompetent drift to the top. Arudou Debito in Sapporo
Self-censoring media abets incompetent politicians.
By Takehiko Kambayashi 30-Apr-2009
Courtesy of the author.
Media outlets here have been heralding an apparent jump in the approval ratings of Prime Minister Taro Aso’s Cabinet, with a recent poll by major daily The Sankei Shimbun and the Fuji News Network suggesting that 28.2 percent of Japanese approve of the government’s performance, up from 20.8 percent in late March. But what the media doesn’t want to talk about is the 60 percent of those surveyed who still disapprove of the Cabinet.
Aso continues to struggle to win over the rest of the Japanese public because of his lack of leadership and because of his predilection for embarrassing himself. But this begs the question: why was such a weak and controversial politician able to climb to the top of the political heap in the first place?
Putting his foot in his mouth is hardly a recent problem for Aso. As a candidate in the 2001 Liberal Democratic Party presidential elections, for example, he suggested to reporters at the Foreign Correspondent Club in Tokyo that the best country would be one “where the richest Jewish people would want to live.”
He later apologized. But he hardly needed to, because the Japanese media ignored this blatant example of bigotry from the then-economics minister of the world’s second largest economy – a man who went on to serve as the country’s top diplomat under two prime ministers. Fortunately for Aso, the media in Japan censors itself even when politicians err blatantly.
A prime example of this kid-glove approach with Aso came in July 2006, when prominent journalist Ryuichi Teshima, a former Washington bureau chief for state broadcaster NHK, praised Aso for his “steadiness” as foreign minister in a “time of crisis,” following an attempted North Korean missile launch earlier that month.
Nonsense. A string of gaffes convincingly demonstrate Aso’s tin ear for diplomacy and international affairs, not least when dealing with Japan’s supposed allies. For instance, Aso has argued that U.S. diplomats in the Middle East can’t solve the region’s problems because of their “blue eyes and blond hair.” He said the Japanese would be more likely to be trusted because they have “yellow faces.” Yet this stunning display of ignorance elicited barely a murmur from the mainstream Japanese media. And sadly, this is hardly an isolated case. Every news outlet scrambles to follow LDP politicians around, and the LDP in turn loves the attention its lawmakers get. This is especially true during elections for the party leadership, when its candidates often get a free ride in newspapers and on television, with the pervasive coverage serving to boost the LDP’s popularity even though the vast majority of the public do not even have a say in choosing the party’s leader.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a case in point. He took office in 2006 with great fanfare and approval ratings that hovered around 65 percent. But his treatment during the LDP leadership contest was telling. During an “NHK Special” aired before the race, reporter Akiko Iwata bragged about her interview with Abe, saying as she sat on his couch that such media access was almost impossible to get. Yet Iwata, who ostensibly became a journalist because she wanted to work for “social justice,” proceeded to lob softball questions for the entire interview.
Why doesn’t the media do its job? One reason is that it is common knowledge that, in the quirky world of Japanese journalism, when a politician is awarded an influential post, the reporter covering that politician earns a promotion.
Yasushi Kawasaki, himself a former political reporter for NHK, told me that many political reporters become politicians of a sort themselves, seeking to bolster their backroom influence. Major news organizations are “in collusion with those in power.”
Kawasaki is a refreshingly honest voice on the cozy relationship between the Japanese media and politicians. Unfortunately, it is also a very lonely voice.