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Sunday, March 22, 2009
The cowardly whisper of politics
A few weeks ago I watched "All The President's Men" for the first time in more than 20 years. Set in the early 1970s, it was a potent blast from the past, but what struck me wasn't the relative youth of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman or the pre-Internet drudge work that their real-life characters, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, carried out while investigating the Watergate break-in. What struck me was their professional attitude.
The movie's drama springs from the relentless search for at least one source who will allow his name to be printed. The most memorable line in the movie is Post editor Ben Bradlee's frustrated cry, "When will somebody go on the goddamn record?"
How times have changed. Unnamed sources and off-the-record comments have become the rule, not the exception. The Bush administration essentially sold the Iraq War by leaking information about Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction to a gullible media, including the Post and The New York Times. This information always came from anonymous officials and experts.
An anonymous source was the reason for the resignation of Nippon Television President Shintaro Kubo last Monday. On Nov. 23, the NTV news show "Bankisha" ("Beat Reporter") aired an interview with a former construction-company employee who claimed that he helped set up a slush fund for the Gifu Prefectural government. Gifu officials subsequently launched an investigation that found no slush fund, and on March 9 the source was arrested for obstructing government operations. Obviously, his anonymous status on "Bankisha" didn't prevent police from locating him. He told them he lied in order to receive compensation from NTV, which says that it never paid him. It is an open secret that news organizations pay "pocket money" to sources, and the source in this case said he received money from other media in the past.
During his news conference, Kubo admitted that the reporters did not properly corroborate the source's story, and expressed remorse over the possibility that viewers would think this is how TV news coverage is carried out. However, as Asahi Shimbun pointed out, Kubo did not explain in detail the coverage and what NTV did wrong. By saying that he hoped his resignation would drive home to NTV employees the seriousness of this particular mistake, he implied that the problem was more fundamental than sloppy reporting. Nevertheless, Akira Fukuzawa, the emcee of "Bankisha," said during an on-air apology that the "cause" of the sloppy reporting was the false information given by the source himself. In other words, it was basically the source's fault, not NTV's.
But NTV would not have gotten into trouble if its reporter had insisted the source go on the record. In all likelihood the source would have refused and the story would have died. But such an assumption denies current journalistic practices. News investigations start out with a premise, in this case the continued existence of a slush fund, since the Gifu government was once found to have maintained a slush fund in the past. All newsgathering is thus geared toward supporting the premise rather than seeking the truth. Veteran editor Hiroshi Hoshi decried this sort of coverage in a recent Asahi editorial, saying that all political journalists want to do is catch politicians being inept or venal. They care more about seikyoku (the political situation, i.e., factionalism) than about seisaku (policy).
Off-record statements and anonymous sources are acceptable if they satisfy a journalist's agenda. During an off-record conversation with reporters March 5, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Iwao Uruma supposedly said that the current investigation into Democratic Party of Japan chief Ichiro Ozawa's alleged acceptance of illegal political donations would not "spread to Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers." Many people already suspect that the Ozawa investigation is a government hatchet job, which Uruma's statement seemed to bear out, so the reporters gleefully reproduced the quote and attributed it to a seifu kokan (high government official).
The LDP was embarrassed. In order to show that the government was not targeting Ozawa, who is the head of the opposition party, Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura exposed Uruma, though his identity was hardly a secret. According to NHK radio, only two people are ever referred to in the media as seifu kokan, and one of them is the deputy chief Cabinet secretary. Then Uruma was called before the Diet where he claimed he didn't remember making the statement. The reporters cried foul, saying that they all heard him say it, but "off-record" means that comments aren't recorded, so it was their word against Uruma's. End of story.
And what a pointless story it was. It's obvious that the major media already knew about Nishimatsu Construction's illegal donations to Ozawa's political-fund group long before prosecutors busted his aide. The morning after the arrest all the newspapers had full, detailed reports on the matter, indicating that they've been sitting on this information for a long time. According to Shukan Post, they were just waiting for prosecutors to make their move, thus implying an understanding between the prosecutors and the major media. The source calls all the shots when that source is all you've got.
The Ozawa investigation may very well be a hatchet job. After all, it's a scandal about accounting errors. On the other hand, Ozawa may very well be trading favors for political donations. Given his political education at the feet of some of Japan's most corrupt politicians, he certainly attracts suspicion. But the investigation is totally in the hands of prosecutors, who then leak what they think is useful to the media. It's how things are done these days.