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Sunday, June 25, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Who needs a trial when the media has hanged, drawn and quartered the accused?


Cynicism comes naturally to members of the tabloid press, who report sensational news in a sensational way and rarely think about what exactly it is they're doing. All they care about is the gory details. However, their coverage of the murder of a 7-year-old boy last month in Akita Prefecture and the subsequent arrest of a suspect has gone beyond cynicism.

Even before the boy's body was found, a large number of reporters set up camp outside the house of a 33-year-old woman who was a neighbor of the boy.

Apparently, they had been tipped off that police were going to interrogate her on the night of May 17 about the boy's disappearance. According to an article in the June 13 Asahi Shimbun, the reporters on hand, who numbered more than 50, already considered this woman the main suspect.

The next day, the woman, whom I will call H even though her name is already well known, joined in the search for the boy and that night stayed at her parents' home. The media detail decamped to the parents' house. H agreed to talk to a few reporters, apparently in the hope that they would go away, but more kept coming. She complained to the police and to the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization, saying that the attention was ruining her life.

By this time, the boy's body had been found but no one publicly speculated that H was a murder suspect. However, reporters had already been talking to her neighbors and acquaintances.

Finally, on May 25, Shukan Shincho published a six-page article offering information about the case that "the newspapers can't write about." Though the article did not mention H's name, it described her under a headline that stated Shincho knew who the murderer was.

The race was on, and within a few days every other weekly magazine, as well as the morning wide shows, were reporting on the woman in a similar fashion.

The media is well practiced in the art of demonization, and its reductive characterization of H had an inevitability about it. When the police accused her of abandoning the boy's body, it was enough for the tabloids and the wide shows to assert that she might have also killed her own daughter, who was found drowned in a river last spring. The police ruled that death as being an accident, and as of this writing the case remains closed. (The latest media assertion is that she did it for insurance money). The press also said she showed no sign of remorse, a subjective observation that was definitely getting ahead of the situation.

When the murder charge finally came, along with a confession, the press was freed from its nominal self-imposed restraint. Reporters immediately printed her name and built a narrative out of all the stuff they'd dug up. Given that their sources were anonymous interviews, they could build any narrative they liked. Even the major newspapers and the TV news shows fell into the trap. Writing in Shukan Kinyobi, media critic Kenichi Asano said that he was shocked to see NHK talking to a faceless neighbor who conjectured about H's guilt as if she'd already been tried and sentenced. "The arrest," said Asano, "was the climax of the story."

But not quite. The press discovered that H was persecuted as an adolescent. Initially, the bullying she suffered was seen as being prophetic rather than causative: See, the reporters said, even as a teen, people realized what a terrible person she was. Then, the yearbook from H's 1991 high-school graduation class was brought out. Her classmates knew she was planning to leave town for a job in another prefecture. One person wrote to H in the yearbook, which is distributed to all graduates, "Don't come back," while another said, "You should stay away forever." The ultimate comment was, "If I see you again I will kill you."

Bullying is as common as chalk in Japanese schools, but it's usually carried out furtively. Here, it was out in the open for everyone to read. In fact, considering how small the town is and the relationship that some of the anonymous sources admitted to having with H, it's easy to believe that some of them could be the same people who wrote those comments.

"I thought it was a joke at first," said a TV Asahi reporter about the yearbook remarks on "Super Morning," which ran a multipart, in-depth look at the case. "What a school!" the host said. Here was a town filled with mean lives made even meaner by cruel gossip.

But isolated from the weeklies' breathless prose and the wide-show reporters' melodramatic tones, the details weren't that special. H suffered from low self-esteem and was from a family that may have been abusive. She tried to leave and start a new life but failed. She returned with a man she later divorced. By herself, she raised a daughter who may have been neglected. The press tried to make it all sound so unusual ("When she returned, people were surprised to see that she had started wearing makeup!"), but it's the story of thousands of unfortunate young women who never kill anyone.

After her arrest, H had her lawyers hold a press conference to explain her motive. In return she wanted the media to not cover her family, but of course they did. H knows that she has already been tried by the press and that the relatives of criminal suspects have no rights. Perhaps she thought she could curb some of the wild speculation.

But speculation is all the tabloid press has to work with. A crime writer who acted as a commentator on "Super Morning" told the show's host that the story behind the murder could turn out to be different from the one the press had formulated.

"I hope you cover the trial, too," he said. Fat chance. By then, no one will be interested any more.



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