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Number 1 Shimbun

Faking ourselves to death

09-1

The author of a new book says the quality of reporting in Japan under the Abe government is in dangerous decline.


By David McNeill

Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect in January 2017 set the discordant tone for the two years to follow. The hour-long encounter with a sullen media corps was seasoned with Trump’s now familiar insults and sleights of hand. 

A stack of folders on a nearby podium was “proof” that he had divested his business interests to ensure no conflict of interest. Claims that Russia had helped send Trump to the White House, or had compromising information on his exotic sexual peccadillos, were a “pile of garbage.” Obamacare was a “complete and total disaster.” CNN reporter Jim Acosta was told to be quiet when he tried to ask a question. “You are fake news,” said Trump, eyeing him with contempt.

It was entertaining stuff. Many voters, after all, had dispatched Trump to Washington in anticipation of these bad-tempered showdowns with the “libtard” media. For Japan-watchers, however, the event was thin gruel. Apart from a single non-sequitur at the end, when Japan was cited – along with Russia, China and Mexico – as countries that had “taken total advantage” economically of America, there was no mention of its closest Pacific ally. 

So when Yoichiro Tateiwa watched the Japanese media’s take the following day, he was astonished to see banner headlines about a looming trade war. “They read: ‘Trump criticized Japan for trade issues,’” Tateiwa says. “But I wondered: Did he even mention Japan? I had to go back and check the record.”

Tateiwa is a former NHK staff reporter who left the broadcaster in 2016 to take up a fellowship at the American University in Washington. He has just written a book, Toranpu Houdou no Feiku to Fakkuto (Fact and Fakery in Media Coverage of Trump, Kamogawa Shuppan, 2019) that draws on his comparative knowledge of media systems in both countries. He believes the Japanese reporters took their cue not from the actual press conference, but from Yoshihide Suga, the government’s chief cabinet secretary. “The political reporters asked Suga what the Japanese stance was and Suga said: ‘This trade issue is serious and we have to discuss it,’” says Tateiwa. In other words, Suga single-handedly spun the story that Trump’s election meant trouble for Japan.

 

09-2


THAT’S WORRYING ENOUGH, BUT it indicates a bigger problem, says Tateiwa: stories in the Japanese media often do not name their sources. Or source, since many important stories are propped up by a single anonymous voice in the government. That’s a recipe for manipulation, he warns.

American political journalism has hardly covered itself in glory either, given how it was hoodwinked over calamitous wars in the Middle East. Tateiwa agrees, but says journalists there have become more careful. As evidence, he cites the Washington Post’s scoop on alleged Russian meddling in Trump’s election and the role of Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor. “The newspaper confirmed with nine former government officials who had access to the records of conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador (in 2016),” he says. “The Japanese media doesn’t do that.”

Elite spin is most evident in the media’s coverage of North Korea, says Tateiwa. When Kim Jong Un agreed to meet Trump in Singapore last June, Japanese officials fretted that prematurely rewarding Kim for coming to the negotiating table could leave the North’s missiles pointed at Japan. And would the quixotic Trump grill Kim about Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s, a particular priority for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? Someone in the Abe government decided that journalists needed a carrot, says Tateiwa. Up popped a story on Fuji TV claiming without evidence that far from being diplomatically shoved aside, Japan had in fact facilitated the Trump-Kim meeting. “I was like, really?” says Tateiwa, laughing. 

After Singapore, a nervous looking Abe spoke briefly to the local press, warning that the abductions would have to be solved by Japan alone, seemingly confirming that the issue was a very low priority for Trump. The next day, almost the entire Japanese media ran the story that Trump had in fact discussed the abduction issue with Kim, who had ‘responded positively.’ The sources for this claim were anonymous. “Given what Abe said the night before, I really doubt that conversation took place,” says Tateiwa.


“SOMEONE WAS MANIPULATING THE media,” he continues. “I suspect it was one person who was the source on North Korea – and they don’t name him. He tells reporters: ‘I can tell you what Trump really said to Abe – that the abduction issue is very important and he is open to dialogue.’ We know it is a lie but . . . .”

“The stories are attributed to a ‘source close to the Japan-US relationship’ or ‘someone in the US government,’ Tateiwa says. “You cannot just say ‘someone in the American government – there is no ‘American government!’ It should be ‘someone related to the White House’, or ‘someone in the State Department.’ 

Tateiwa says even the “liberal” Japanese media swallow the most unlikely stories when it comes to Pyongyang. He cites one Asahi TV report in 2017 claiming that the American military was preparing for a conventional attack because the North “would not retaliate.” 

“I was stunned because what the secretary of defense [James Mattis] said was completely different,” he says. The conventional wisdom on all sides was that any attempt to dislodge the Kim regime by force risked setting off a ruinous conventional war that would destroy Seoul, about 40km south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. “Now Japanese TV was saying that the US forces had entirely changed their stance by preparing for a pinpoint attack,” says Tateiwa. “Nobody in America ran that, so it was clearly coming from a Japanese source. Again, somebody in the government was tipping the media. And the way the Japanese media uses sources it could almost be anyone.”


AS EVGENY MOROZOV, AUTHOR of Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, has pointed out, there’s nothing new about exaggerated or fabricated news. False stories helped goad America into war with Spain in 1898; faked reports of Iraqi troops yanking babies from incubators in Kuwait in 1990 and the infamous “weapons of mass destruction” provided the rationale for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But fake news has recently been turbo-charged by at least three factors: the Internet and the digital monopolies that dominate it, the erosion of journalistic resources and standards, and a mass cynicism about public institutions, including the media. The timing was perfect for the rise of an unscrupulous political huckster. 

At least, according to Tateiwa, most journalists in the United States are onto Trump. “Here, nobody knows who is spreading the fake news,” he says. “And what is worse is that the reporters here believe they are doing a good job. But they are being manipulated and used. There is far less transparency in this country, so I think the situation here is more serious.”

Reporters are part of the deception, he says. Abe, for example, “is rarely caught saying anything stupid” because the questions are sent to him before each encounter with the media. “The reporters like that too: sending the question in advance means they can prepare their stories before the press conference even starts. That’s what they call good journalism.”

Tateiwa’s solutions are as straightforward as they are difficult to achieve. He says reporters must be trained to fact check and seek out multiple sources. He has founded an NPO called FactCheck Initiative Japan for this purpose, and is writing a new book on the subject. He also wants more US-style journalism courses taught in Japan. “I’m not saying that American journalism is good – they’ve failed a thousand times. But they do investigative journalism there and they have to use sources in a more precise way – they have to keep digging for their stories, otherwise people say it is fake news.” 

The alternative is that Japanese newspapers and TV keep being used by the government. “So long as they keep doing what they are doing, any type of politician can manipulate the press.” ❶


David McNeill writes for the Irish Times and the Economist and teaches media and politics at Hosei University.
Yoichiro Tateiwa at the Club in 2018

Published in: June 2019

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