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Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009

MEDIA MIX

Be it booze or cheese, LDP loves to court controversy


Was he or wasn't he? That is the question the media wrestled with last week when discussing former Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa's behavior at the Valentine's Day news conference held during the Group of Seven meeting in Rome. By this point everyone seems convinced he was drunk, but the relationship between the mainstream media and the government, specifically the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is such that a signal must be dispensed from on high before editors will allow reporters to say publicly what they believe privately.

In this case, the dispensation came from former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, albeit inadvertently. Before his appearance Monday morning on the TBS show "Asa Zuba!" most of the major media had interpreted Nakagawa's slurred speech and cognitive confusion as the result of fatigue, something the public may accept if they've ever watched live broadcasts of Diet deliberations, which tend to look like nap time at the retirement home. Prior to Mori's appearance, the Japanese coverage of the news conference was peculiarly tentative, especially when compared with the reaction from the overseas media, which found Nakagawa's behavior shocking, even if no one said outright that he appeared to be in his cups.

The blogosphere wasn't nearly as reserved, but it took Mori's appearance on TBS to set the mainstream media loose. Confronted with video evidence of Nakagawa's incoherence, Mori appeared genuinely stunned. He assumed an avuncular tone and said he had warned Nakagawa in the past about his drinking.

What's been lost in the chaotic fallout from this remark is the reason Mori was on the show in the first place. Mori doesn't really like to talk to the media, and, given his tendency to fly off the handle, it's easy to understand why he shouldn't.

Nevertheless, he retains a reputation as a fixer, and for the past two weeks he's been busy fixing the mess precipitated by his protege Junichiro Koizumi, whose criticism of Prime Minister Taro Aso's flip-flopping comments about postal privatization are said to have caused a huge rift in the party.

Or, at least, that's the way it seems. The tabloid Nikkan Gendai claims that Mori's repair work is yet another cynical scheme to keep the media fixated on the LDP rather than listening to anything the opposition parties have to say. According to Gendai, Mori is an old hand at this. In 2005, he caused a fuss when he accused Koizumi, then the prime minister, of insulting him by serving "hard, shriveled cheese" during an important meeting at the prime minister's residence, where they discussed Koizumi's plan to call a snap election if his pet postal- privatization bills didn't pass in the Diet.

Gendai says that Mori's resentment was faked. That the cheese was actually expensive mimolette, and not some old rancid cheddar, reinforced his image as being down to earth, but that wasn't the point. The point was that the media intensely covered this invented fracas, which became the first act of the so-called Koizumi Theater project. The opposition was effectively shoved off the stage, and the LDP went on to win the snap election by a landslide. What's more, sales of mimolette skyrocketed.

This time, Koizumi and Mori were basically trying to use Aso's plummeting support rate to ensure that the LDP survives. By bad-mouthing Aso, Koizumi convinced the media that there is a portion of the LDP that is not loyal to the extremely unpopular prime minister, so the media starts talking about who in that group might succeed him, preparing the public for yet another LDP-led administration.

But thanks to Nakagawa's intemperance, any momentum that Koizumi and Mori have built up for their alleged plan has stalled. Whatever your opinion of this theory, Gendai's fundamental assertion that the major media can always be counted on to miss the point is a credible one.

In Japan, the scandal was chiefly about whether or not Nakagawa was drunk. The foreign press, unencumbered by any concern over whether it might be perceived as having an ax to grind, didn't see a guy whose drinking problem kept him from doing his job properly. They saw a guy who couldn't do his job in the first place.

Of course, the media, not to mention the Japanese public, doesn't actually believe Nakagawa had any effect on the economy he was supposedly steering. If you equate qualification with results, then the only current Cabinet minister qualified for her job is Minister in Charge of the Declining Birthrate Yuko Obuchi. After all, she just had a baby.

In his blog, former Livedoor CEO Takafumi Horie went so far as to say that Nakagawa didn't have to resign, because none of his possible replacements will have any more of an effect on the economy than he did. It's the ministries who control the ministers, not the other way around. Horie says that if any Cabinet official should resign because he hurt Japan, it is communications minister Kunio Hatoyama, who stopped the sale of Japan Post's network of hotels to Orix Corp. Since the hotels are losing billions of yen a year, Hatoyama should have unloaded them when he had the chance. It's too late to talk about whether or not Orix's bid was too low. All Hatoyama wants to do is create the illusion that he is making a difference.

But making a difference is always less interesting than making a scene, which is why Nakagawa stole not only Koizumi's spotlight but also new U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's. According to the Asahi Shimbun, she was quite disappointed that her inaugural diplomatic excursion to Japan had to share a news cycle with constant reruns of Nakagawa nodding off in Rome. Still, having survived eight years as first lady to one of the randiest presidents in American history, she surely must understand that the mainstream media would rather cover sideshows than the main event.



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