NY Times Asia Pacific May 28, 2009
In Reporting a Scandal, the Media Are Accused of Just Listening
TOKYO | When Tokyo prosecutors arrested an aide to a prominent opposition
political leader in March, they touched off a damaging scandal just as
the entrenched Liberal Democratic Party seemed to face defeat in coming
elections. Many Japanese cried foul, but you would not know that from the
coverage by Japanfs big newspapers and television networks.
Instead, they mostly reported at face value a stream of anonymous allegations,
some of them thinly veiled leaks from within the investigation, of illegal
campaign donations from a construction company to the opposition leader,
Ichiro Ozawa. This month, after weeks of such negative publicity, Mr. Ozawa
resigned as head of the opposition Democratic Party.
The resignation, too, provoked a rare outpouring of criticism aimed at
the powerful prosecutors by Japanese across the political spectrum, and
even from some former prosecutors, who seldom criticize their own in public.
The complaints range from accusations of political meddling to concerns
that the prosecutors may have simply been insensitive to the arrestfs timing.
But just as alarming, say scholars and former prosecutors, has been the
failure of the news media to press the prosecutors for answers, particularly
at a crucial moment in Japanfs democracy, when the nation may be on the
verge of replacing a half-century of Liberal Democratic rule with more
competitive two-party politics.
gThe mass media are failing to tell the people what is at stake,h said
Terumasa Nakanishi, a conservative scholar who teaches international politics
at Kyoto University. gJapan could be about to lose its best chance to change
governments and break its political paralysis, and the people donft even
The arrest seemed to confirm fears among voters that Mr. Ozawa, a veteran
political boss, was no cleaner than the Liberal Democrats he was seeking
to replace. It also seemed to at least temporarily derail the opposition
Democrats ahead of the elections, which must be called by early September.
The partyfs lead in opinion polls was eroded, though its ratings rebounded
slightly after the selection this month of a new leader, Yukio Hatoyama,
a Stanford-educated engineer.
Japanese journalists acknowledge that their coverage so far has been harsh
on Mr. Ozawa and generally positive toward the investigation, though newspapers
have run opinion pieces criticizing the prosecutors. But they bridle at
the suggestion that they are just following the prosecutorsf lead, or just
repeating information leaked to them.
gThe Asahi Shimbun has never run an article based solely on a leak from
prosecutors,h the newspaper, one of Japanfs biggest dailies, said in a
written reply to questions from The New York Times.
Still, journalists admit that their coverage could raise questions about
the Japanese news mediafs independence, and not for the first time. Big
news organizations here have long been accused of being too cozy with centers
Indeed, scholars say coverage of the Ozawa affair echoes the positive coverage
given to earlier arrests of others who dared to challenge the establishment,
like the iconoclastic Internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie.
gThe news media should be watchdogs on authority,h said Yasuhiko Tajima,
a journalism professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, gbut they act more
like authorityfs guard dogs.h
While news media in the United States and elsewhere face similar criticisms
of being too close to government, the problem is more entrenched here.
Cozy ties with government agencies are institutionalized in Japanfs so-called
press clubs, cartel-like arrangements that give exclusive access to members,
usually large domestic news outlets.
Critics have long said this system leads to bland reporting that adheres
to the official line. Journalists say they maintain their independence
despite the press clubs. But they also say government officials sometimes
try to force them to toe the line with threats of losing access to information.
Last month, the Tokyo Shimbun, a smaller daily known for coverage that
is often feistier than that in Japanfs large national newspapers, was banned
from talking with Tokyo prosecutors for three weeks after printing an investigative
story about a governing-party lawmaker who had received donations from
the same company linked to Mr. Ozawa.
The newspaper said it was punished simply for reporting something the prosecutors
did not want made public. gCrossing the prosecutors is one of the last
media taboos,h said Haruyoshi Seguchi, the paperfs chief reporter in the
Tokyo prosecutorsf press club.
The news mediafs failure to act as a check has allowed prosecutors to act
freely without explaining themselves to the public, said Nobuto Hosaka,
a member of Parliament for the opposition Social Democratic Party, who
has written extensively about the investigation on his blog.
He said he believed Mr. Ozawa was singled out because of the Democratic
Partyfs campaign pledges to curtail Japanfs powerful bureaucrats, including
the prosecutors. (The Tokyo prosecutors office turned down an interview
request for this story because The Times is not in its press club.)
Japanese journalists defended their focus on the allegations against Mr.
Ozawa, arguing that the public needed to know about a man who at the time
was likely to become Japanfs next prime minister. They also say they have
written more about Mr. Ozawa because of a pack-like charge among reporters
to get scoops on those who are the focus of an investigation.
gTherefs a competitive rush to write as much as we can about a scandal,h
said Takashi Ichida, who covers the Tokyo prosecutors office for the Asahi
Shimbun. But that does not explain why in this case so few Japanese reporters
delved deeply into allegations that the company also sent money to Liberal
The answer, as most Japanese reporters will acknowledge, is that following
the prosecutorsf lead was easier than risking their wrath by doing original
The news media can seem so unrelentingly supportive in their reporting
on investigations like that into Mr. Ozawa that even some former prosecutors,
who once benefited from such favorable coverage, have begun criticizing
gIt felt great when I was a prosecutor,h said Norio Munakata, a retired,
36-year veteran Tokyo prosecutor. gBut now as a private citizen, I have
to say that I feel cheated.h
Reference: Japanese translation