Japan Media Watch
News media outlet Choose Life Project accused of misrepresenting funding
In recent years, Japan has seen a proliferation of internet channels where journalists and experts discuss the news of the day in an in-depth manner and without the sort of interference they might encounter doing so for commercial media outlets, which often have agenda that makes it difficult to cover stories associated with advertisers or political entities. Web sites like Democracy Times and Videonews.com avoid this dilemma by foregoing advertising in favor of direct donations and subscriptions from viewers.
In 2016, two television news directors who worked for subsidiaries of Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), Hiroshi Saji of newsmagazine Hodo Tokushu, and Takeshi Kudo of nightly news program News23 launched their own internet video channel called Choose Life Project (CLP). The discussions would focus on current affairs, especially with regard to government policy.
After incorporating in July 2020, CLP started a crowdfunding program on the Campfire platform, and in only two days managed to reach its goal of ¥8 million. By the end of the month, it had brought in ¥31 million, an impressive achievement, though donors at the time were not aware that CLP had already started receiving funds from the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP).
Once this money was revealed on January 5, 2022, the CLP came under attack for being less than forthcoming about its source. In particular, internet rightists accused CLP of hypocrisy, since purported left-of-center entities had been coming down hard on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) following reports that it had a stake in an anonymous Twitter account called Dappi, which has been called a source of fake news that regularly targets the LDP's perceived enemies. CLP denied that the CDP was receiving favorable coverage from the site, but that wasn't really the issue, which was that CLP had not disclosed the CDP's contributions. In fact, the original revelation was made in a protest letter by five of CLP's most prominent contributors, including Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki, the inspiration for the titular investigative reporter of Netflix's hit drama series The Journalist, and Asahi Shimbun political reporter Akira Minami.
At a regular CDP press conference on January 12, its secretary-general, Chinami Nishimura, explained the results of the party's investigation into the matter, saying that the decision to fund CLP was made by her predecessor, Tetsuro Fukuyama. According to The Asahi Shimbun's coverage of the press conference, Fukuyama was intrigued by CLP's stance, which was to "challenge a media environment in which fake news was rampant," and in 2020 he gave CLP more than ¥15 million. The money, which was earmarked for "production and operations," was paid through an advertising firm and a web content production company over a period of several months. According to Nishimura, when CLP started crowdfunding activities it was already receiving funds from CDP. She said Fukuyama told her that in no way was the money meant to influence CLP's news reporting; nor did CDP make any demands or suggestions with regard to CLP content. While insisting there was nothing "illegal" about the payments, Nishimura admitted that it was still improper. Nevertheless, no CDP members, including Fukuyama, would be punished, though she did say that party governance would be reviewed.
CDP has been the main critic of LDP's alleged connection to Dappi, but Nishimura said the comparison was not apt, since Dappi's "unethical" comments were intended to mislead public opinion, so if the LDP was funding the site, they had to take responsibility. CDP had no intention of influencing public opinion by supporting CLP. The CDP's position toward Dappi was unchanged. On January 9, CLP announced it would ask outside parties to investigate the money issue and in the meantime suspended operations.
Yoichiro Tateiwa interviewed Saji and Kudo for his fact-checking website, Infact, in early January, and in follow-up correspondence the two directors said they received the CDP money between March and August, while Fukuyama told Tateiwa he paid the money from August to October, which would seem to contradict Nishimura. At the January 12 press conference, she mentioned the same timeline of payments that Saji and Kudo outlined. They told Tateiwa that the money had been transferred through a web content production company they had worked with in the past but whose name they couldn't divulge for privacy reasons. When they first encountered Fukuyama, he was very "positive" about their plan for a new kind of news show. (It should be noted that one of the original missions of CLP was to cover opposition party activities proactively rather than reactively.) When Tateiwa asked if the CDP expected anything in return, the two men said, "No." After the last payment was made they had no more contact with the CDP.
Tateiwa believes the matter isn't closed, despite the fact that CDP has said it is as far as they're concerned. He admits he has a personal stake in the affair since he has supported CLP from its inception as an independent journalist and doesn't seem convinced by the CDP explanation about the payment timeframe. Also, according to the CDP's own political expenditure report, the money first went through the advertising company Hakuhodo before it was transferred to the unnamed production company and then CLP. Why such a complicated process? The CDP described the funds in the report as "publicity planning expenses," which made it sound as if the payment was made to boost CDP's image in some way. It also suggests that the idea for the payment was not Fukuyama's alone, but that of the party. In a report posted on January 21, The Daily Shincho attempted to get to the bottom of this process. Apparently, the person who acted as the link between Fukuyama and CLP was the head of the web production company, who took a middleman's cut from each funding installment to CLP, a process Shincho called "detour financing," which could be illegal. A source within the CDP told Shincho it was the idea of the party's administrative chief, Masato Akimoto, whose background is in a labor union and citizen activism. He's helped former activists set up their own companies, which CDP then taps for outsourcing.
The CLP scandal seems to have sprung from the founders' inexperience. Saji and Kudo admit they didn't expect to collect that much money through donations, thinking that the public wouldn't be so supportive of their endeavor. As they explained to Tateiwa, when they started production in earnest they discovered that making programs cost a lot more than they had anticipated. Their previous work in news production was as employees. Everything was paid for, so when they launched the website, they had to learn how to finance it. Had they known they could raise ¥31 million so easily, they wouldn't have taken the CDP money.
The most successful model for this kind of alternative media is probably ProPublica in the U.S., a non-profit website that has won Pulitzer Prizes while mastering the art of solicitation, mostly from individuals. They accept advertising but not sponsors. There are other examples even closer to home. Veteran freelance journalist and FCCJ member Tetsuo Jimbo, who runs Videonews.com, told The Asahi Shimbun that he thought it was "too easy" for CLP to access political money. Such a project is difficult financially. He started Videonews.com in 1999 and it took him more than ten years for it to become a stable enterprise.
In a January 23 column for The Tokyo Shimbun, Kobe College Honorary Professor Tatsuru Uchida compared CLP's situation with that of another media outlet taking money from a political party. In December, The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper in terms of circulation, concluded an agreement with the prefectural government of Osaka to provide public relations services. Since Osaka Prefecture is dominated by the political party Ishin no Kai, it means that the Yomiuri is basically Ishin's contracted publicity company. There are differences: The Yomiuri is huge, CLP small; the Yomiuri is open about its relationship with Osaka, CLP secretive about the CDP money. But in one sense, says Uchida, the situations are alike. The Yomiuri is essentially telling its readers and subscribers that it can't operate a newspaper only with their support. How do readers feel about that? The same goes for CLP. How did the people who donated money to the project, not to mention those who became monthly subscribers, feel when they found out that it had already received money from a political party? Uchida says CLP should have trusted the public before it agreed to accept CDP's help. Like Tateiwa, he himself has supported CLP from the beginning, believing that the journalists involved truly wanted to cover important stories the mainstream media shied away from. Now, it's difficult to determine what their real intention was.
PDF of Tokyo Shimbun column available on request
Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for The Number One Shimbun.