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Sunday, Oct. 2, 2005

MEDIA MIX

Killing your career in the media to keep your superiors happy


The vocation of journalism in Japan is not exactly the same as it is in the West. The "kisha club" system makes reporters beholden to the bureaucrats and politicians they cover rather than to the public they're supposed to serve, while the Japanese corporate tradition of on-the-job training means that recruits fresh out of university are thrust into news-gathering operations with little or no training. In the West, for better or worse, journalism has become more of a calling than a profession, at least since the Watergate era. In Japan, it is first and foremost a job, meaning that a reporter's main responsibility is not to the truth but to getting the work done.

A good illustration of this point was provided by the Asahi Shimbun in its Sept. 16 edition. The paper used three full pages to explain the results of an in-house investigation into two articles it printed in late August that were based on information a 28-year-old reporter had made up. Three pages is a lot of newsprint to spend on self-correction, but the report revealed a lot of inside information about the news-gathering process at a major Japanese daily.

During the month leading up to the Sept. 11 general election, the media were speculating about which politicians would form alliances. The political news section at Asahi's Tokyo headquarters received word that former Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Shizuka Kamei had met with Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka to discuss creating a new party. On Aug. 18, the section's desk sent an e-mail to the Nagano bureau requesting any information related to the rumored meeting.

The bureau chief forwarded the e-mail to his political reporters, including Taku Nishiyama, who two days later covered a community event that the governor held in the town of Shiojiri. After Nishiyama returned to the office that night, the bureau chief received a call from Tokyo asking if he had found out anything about the Kamei-Tanaka meeting. The chief turned to Nishiyama with the phone in his hand and asked if Tanaka said anything about Kamei to him in Shiojiri, and Nishiyama said that he did. The chief asked Nishiyama to summarize Tanaka's statements in a memo and send it by e-mail to Tokyo. It took the reporter 10 minutes.

The memo became the gist of an article that was published the next day, and a quote attributed to Tanaka in the memo ended up as a headline in another article that appeared on Aug. 22. The following morning, during his daily press conference, Tanaka mentioned that he did not meet Kamei in Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture as the Asahi report stated and, in fact, was never interviewed by Asahi about the matter. Someone was lying, and it turned out to be Nishiyama, who was fired.

The Asahi's investigation committee determined that the main problem was poor communication between headquarters and the bureau. Almost all of the exchanges were done through e-mail, which lessens the urgency of the matters addressed. Moreover, the political news section didn't bother to corroborate the information in the memo with Tanaka's office. They simply called the Nagoya bureau chief, who had yet to read the memo himself, and asked him if it was all right to use it in an article. The chief asked Nishiyama and Nishiyama said "sure."

The memo was too good to pass up. It made it sound as if the reporter had talked to Tanaka after the meeting in Shiojiri, and people who read it and knew the governor's manner recognized his sarcastic tone in the quotes. Nishiyama later told investigators that he had included things in the memo that Tanaka had said at prior press conferences.

However, the reporter hadn't finished digging his hole. It was Nishiyama himself who reported Tanaka's disavowal of the Asahi articles at the press conference. Nishiyama, in fact, called the story in to the bureau chief on his cell phone. The chief asked him to talk to Tanaka to find out what he "really meant." Later that day, Nishiyama told the chief that Tanaka had said to him that the Asahi articles "weren't a big problem."

It was another lie. Nishiyama followed the governor to a training center inspection, but didn't talk to him. Two days later, Tanaka's secretary called Asahi's Nagano bureau to tell them that the governor would ask in writing for a retraction of the articles. This led to another pledge on Nishiyama's part to clear things up. Later that day, Nishiyama finally confessed.

At first the young reporter said he did it for "recognition," but later admitted that his lie was nothing more than a spur-of-the-moment reaction to his chief's question about interviewing Tanaka. He never thought the original request was urgent or important, and in the scheme of things it wasn't (Tanaka and Kamei did meet, but not in Karuizawa). Perhaps he didn't expect headquarters to use the memo, but once he lied, he had to keep lying.

As irresponsible journalism goes, Nishiyama's case is the opposite of that of Jayson Blair, the young New York Times reporter who stole or made up stories to impress his superiors. If anything, Nishiyama's memo was concocted to get his superiors off his back. The investigation found that his previous job performance had been impeccable. All the articles he filed were true, and his colleagues said he was "serious and thorough." However, they also called him " hesitant."

Journalists are expected to go to any lengths to get the story. For whatever reasons -- apathy, shyness, exhaustion -- Nishiyama couldn't go up to Tanaka and ask him the questions he was supposed to ask. And then he couldn't admit to his boss that he hadn't done so. In the simplest terms, Nishiyama was not cut out to be a reporter.



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