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Sunday, Nov. 14, 2004

MEDIA MIX

NIIGATA QUAKE COVERAGE

LDP crew want credit where credit isn't due


It's easy to believe that once a person becomes a politician, he tends to lose touch with everyday reality as it's lived by the majority of citizens since he's usually too busy looking after his own interests. Nevertheless, a recent remark by Tsutomu Takebe, the secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, was so glaring in its cluelessness that it deserves special attention.

On Nov. 2, Takebe complained that television news reports of the Niigata earthquake didn't show victims expressing their appreciation to LDP officials when they visited the area. Obviously, Takebe considered the visit little more than a failed photo op.

The central government, of course, dispatched rescue teams and the Self-Defense Forces, and plans to pass a supplementary budget for reconstruction efforts in the future, but it hasn't done much to alleviate problems that the quake victims are suffering right now. Some will argue that this isn't the central government's responsibility, and the LDP, Takebe in particular, is always talking about "moral hazards," which in this case means people expecting too much from their government. The fact is, Japanese people never expect help from the government.

The media therefore can't be blamed for not showing something that doesn't exist. It has been intense in its coverage of rescue efforts -- the thousands of volunteers who went to the stricken area to help, and donations from famous people and nonfamous people. Maybe this is what riled Takebe: Everyone else gets a boost from TV, so why don't we?

But isn't it part of the government's job to be the object of complaints from people who need an outlet for their disappointment? Naturally, when the Emperor and Empress visited the victims the cameras only showed grateful evacuees and reporters only interviewed people who were clearly impressed by the royal visit. One can safely assume there were evacuees who weren't impressed (after all, the Emperor can't help them practically), but the media has an obligation not to assail the aura of the Imperial couple with negative vibes.

The government has no such aura, and what the media did was construed by Takebe as provocative because they encouraged people to complain. Except for the extensive coverage of 2-year-old Yuta Minagawa's miracle survival and rescue, the press has mostly been proactive in its coverage. The reporters' mantra -- "What do you need or want most?" -- became monotonous but it kept viewers' attention on the things that mattered.

NHK, in fact, devoted 24 hours, from the evening of Nov. 6 to the evening of Nov. 7, to live coverage of earthquake survivors on its General TV channel, allowing them to communicate with their fellow Japanese citizens.

Part of the purpose of the telethon was to raise money, but NHK didn't solicit donations itself. It simply provided information on how to make contributions through the post office. What NHK did solicit was comments from both victims of the quake and viewers. These were either read on air every hour or so, or reproduced as text on a crawl at the bottom of the screen.

The comments from viewers were called oen (support) messages, and were mostly variations on a "hang-in-there" theme, while the comments from victims bore down on the mantra: What we want and need. Some evacuees were thinking in the present tense -- better toilet facilities, hot food, partitions. Most, however, answered in the future tense. They wanted to "return to regular life," and whatever help they were to receive should be channeled into making that a reality. These requests mostly came through interviews with reporters, but new technology proved its usefulness. Quake victims with moving-image features on their cell phones sent live visual feeds of themselves straight to NHK. The highly individual nature of this kind of communication made for interesting viewing. One man was blunt. "Frankly, what I need is money," he said, his face filling the screen. "And I think the government should help."

One could hardly call this a dialogue, but the purpose of the telethon, which also took in the many typhoon-related disasters that occurred this year, was to create a community of assistance and support that, in fact, had nothing to do with the government. Insurance was discussed. Problems related to the large number of elderly victims were analyzed. People who survived the Great Hanshin Earthquake offered advice. But no one on the NHK side said anything about whether or not the central government was or should be helping more.

Anyone making donations was urged to do so only through official channels, since scam artists were already fleecing well-meaning people by pretending to be charities. It's a rule of thumb that applies to any kind of charitable contribution: Make sure the donation is as direct as possible.

By that token, it may be better if the authorities aren't involved, since, in accordance with the "ants-to-sugar" theory, any time the central government is put in charge of collecting or disbursing money, you get a stampede of "interested parties" who will find a way to get their cut.

The LDP takes the view that it's more appropriate for the citizens to help the victims of the Niigata earthquake through their own altruistic impulses than it is for the government to provide direct assistance. The central government once got very angry when local authorities in Tottori gave cash grants to disaster victims -- the moral hazard thing again. Nevertheless, LDP members want to be seen showing up at evacuation centers and saying "gambatte." And that's their right. Just don't expect people to be grateful.



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