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Sunday, April 20, 2003

MEDIA MIX

Looting the media for the best frontline news


Every Japanese TV network has female anchors, but Nippon TV seems to use more women in their news shows than any other. It was also the only commercial Japanese network to have a female "embed" reporting from Iraq. Since there weren't too many embedded women reporters in the first place, she naturally attracted attention in Japan: a 40-year-old woman who speaks perfect English because she grew up in Europe. It was her idea to be an embed and she reportedly had to beg Nippon TV to get her the assignment.

Her reports contained an added layer of unease in the eyes of Japanese viewers, who were very curious to know how this woman went about her daily routine in a very dangerous environment surrounded by mostly male soldiers. For many viewers, the reports themselves were less significant than her situation. When she appeared on TV dressed in her fatigues and sporting a helmet, everyone wondered about her rather than the soldiers she was covering.

It's difficult to say whether or not Nippon TV sought this kind of reaction, but it's easy to believe they encouraged it. They used another female reporter in Iraq who was not an embed, Mika Yamamoto of Japan Press. According to Nippon TV's Web site, she is there to provide "a female perspective" on the war, whatever that means. Yamamoto was in Baghdad at the Palestine Hotel with a male colleague when the hotel was hit by U.S. tank fire April 8. During that attack, two cameramen were killed, and Nippon TV caught part of the tragedy on videotape. The tape shows a bloodied photographer prone on the floor, with journalists trying to help him and, above it all, Yamamoto screaming hysterically in Japanese and broken English. It's impossible to tell what's going on, but it's easy to understand why Yamamoto was so upset. Even after the photographer was taken away, the camera stayed fixed on Yamamoto for several minutes as she sobbed uncontrollably. This drama was too good to waste. I saw it twice in succession on Nippon TV's evening news show before I changed the channel.

I've heard that for years non-Japanese viewers have lobbied NHK to broadcast foreign documentaries in bilingual format. NHK now does that on their satellite channels, but on the two terrestrial channels they only show foreign documentaries dubbed into Japanese. The exception is the nightly news show, which includes English translation on the audio subchannel.

When U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair held a press conference in Belfast on April 8 to discuss, among other things, the fall of Baghdad, NHK covered it live, and the timing happened to coincide with NHK's evening news report.

As they always do when they broadcast an important speech by a foreign head of state, NHK used simultaneous interpreters to convey the remarks in Japanese. However, since the evening news broadcast, which the press conference was pre-empting, is already presented on two audio channels, it meant that viewers had a choice of listening to either Japanese or English. The easiest thing to do would have been to simply patch the satellite audio from the press conference directly into the sub-channel, but instead NHK used the English interpreters who were already on hand for the evening broadcast. In other words, on the English sub-channel you heard simultaneous English interpretation of the Japanese simultaneous interpretation of two men speaking in English. The effect was, to say the least, bizarre, though, granted, sometimes the U.S. president needs all the help he can get.

Since pundits can be boring, TV producers often give show-biz talent the opportunity to air their opinions on current events.

Last week, on TBS's weekend morning talk show "Sunday Japan," celebrities discussed the war in Iraq. American talent Dave Spector was of the opinion that the Japanese media emphasizes angles that put the United States in a bad light, while gallivanting fashion-disaster Terry Ito commented that the cheering masses in the streets of Baghdad were being stage-managed by U.S. Special Forces. At one point, when the discussion moved to the looting that was taking place in Baghdad, former "sexy idol" Ai Iijima asked no one in particular, "Did we loot?"; "we" meaning Japanese people right after the end of World War II. At least Iijima knows what she doesn't know. The same can't be said of Dewi Sukarno, who supports the U.S. invasion, but felt that the Bush administration "didn't sufficiently publicize how bad Saddam Hussein was." This comment was met with a baffled silence. Then somebody mentioned that the United States was instrumental in making Hussein the dictator of Iraq. "Wait," said another participant, a former porn director. "Wasn't Sukarno a dictator?" Madame Dewi at first nodded, and then caught herself. "But he didn't kill anyone," she said, defending her late husband. Silence again. "Anyway, he wasn't a dictator. He was a leader."

Now that the combat portion of the war seems to be over, the Japanese media's attention has reverted back to North Korea, but with a new, fresh angle.

Last Wednesday, on Fuji TV's morning wide show, "Toku Da Ne," a reporter pointed out another reason the United States might be tempted to invade: "They have 3,000 statues of Kim Jong Il and his father just waiting to be pulled down."



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