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Sunday, Nov. 24, 2002

MEDIA MIX

Blinded by dogma, or just poor journalism


One would have thought the media learned something from the Kim Hye Gyong debacle.

As explained in this space two weeks ago, the interview with the North Korean daughter of Japanese abductee Megumi Yokota earned Fuji TV, Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun universal condemnation for the way they handled it. But on Nov. 15, the magazine Shukan Kinyobi published an exclusive interview with the husband and daughters of returned abductee Hitomi Soga that attracted even more rotten eggs.

Most of the criticism has been the same: The magazine allowed itself to be exploited by North Korean propagandists and needlessly upset people involved, in this case Soga herself. Even Tetsuya Chikushi, one of Kinyobi's founding editors, complained about the interview during his nightly editorial spot on TBS "News 23."

Kinyobi is arguably the most left-leaning magazine in Japan. It carries no advertising and adheres to an editorial agenda that is religiously antiestablishment. Much of its reporting is based on the premise that Japan's advance into Asia prior to World War II was an invasion. It has published invaluable articles on sex slaves, product safety and government corruption.

But Kinyobi's leftism is dogmatic. American tarento Dave Spector summed it up on Fuji TV's morning "wide show" when he said he used to read Kinyobi regularly, but got tired of its "perverseness." He pointed out that the magazine is rabidly anti-American, and even longtime readers find that the litany of familiar themes has become tiresome.

On the subject of the abductees, Kinyobi's stance is predictable. The Japanese government has no right to keep them here against their will, and it is immoral for the Foreign Ministry to use them as a negotiating card.

The chief editor said that the magazine was given an opportunity to interview Soga's husband, Charles Jenkins, a U.S. Army deserter, and their daughters, Mika and Belinda, in Pyongyang, and they felt that it was their "journalistic responsibility" to carry it out. But as media pundits have pointed out, the interview as published is not journalism; or, if it is, it's very sloppy journalism. People who defend the magazine say that if you read between the lines you can obtain a great deal of valuable information about the abduction issue. That's true to a point, but it doesn't make up for the fact that the interviewers didn't ask any interesting questions.

Last summer, Kinyobi was planning a series of articles that would address President George W. Bush's comment that North Korea belonged to an "axis of evil." They asked North Korean officials in August if they could gather information about atrocities committed by U.S. troops during the Korean War. They received permission and remained in Pyongyang from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12. Two days before they left, they were offered the interview with Jenkins and the two daughters. The editors say that they were able to talk freely with the three.

The most prominent thing about the interview is its overall depressing tone. Because Hitomi Soga is discussed in the past tense, if a reader didn't know her story, it would be easy to get the impression that she is dead. At one point, the older daughter, Mika, says, "I loved my mother, but now she's gone. I finally understand how important she was to me." Obviously, the three want to convey their fear that they may never see Soga again.

The Kinyobi interviewers, in fact, reinforce this tone by asking the two girls for "memories" of their mother. Interestingly, this is the same question the Fuji TV people asked Kim Hye Gyong, but that made more sense because Kim hadn't seen her mother since she was 5 years old when Yokota reportedly died. In any case, it elicits the only inadvertent howler in the article. Mika says she remembers that her mother often sang a North Korean song titled "There is Nothing in the World We Envy."

There are many signs of preinterview coaching, and it's particularly frustrating that the interviewers didn't pick up on them. Mika says that her mother talked about "her father and sister" and even her "high-school teacher." Didn't the reporters find it strange that Soga didn't talk about her mother? The mother was allegedly kidnapped along with her, but Soga has said she believed her mother returned to Japan. She never did. Mika's selective memory is more likely explained by North Korea's monitoring of Japanese news programs, which have extensively covered Soga's tearful reunions with her father, her sister and, yes, her high-school teacher.

At no point do Jenkins and his daughters ask about Soga's well-being, and Kinyobi doesn't offer any reassurances when Mika worries about her mother's health. The reporters don't say anything about her Japan homecoming. They don't ask Mika and Belinda whether they could believe their mother might want to live there permanently. "She belongs here," Mika insists, unprompted. Kinyobi does ask Jenkins about his reaction to the news that his wife had been abducted, but they don't follow up when he answers, "I didn't believe it."

Kinyobi's professionalism was challenged by the three interviewees' repeated statements that the Japanese officials who met the abductees at Pyongyang Airport gave them personal assurances that Soga would return in 10 days. Commentators have rightly complained that Kinyobi did not try to corroborate these claims with the Foreign Ministry.

In fact, the only hard question that stands out is when Kinyobi asks Jenkins if he's tried to telephone his wife in Japan, surely understanding how that would be impossible. Jenkins calls their bluff by asking for her phone number. Why didn't they call his?



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