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Thursday, July 6, 2000

MEDIA MIX

Law inhibits election coverage and debate


Prior to the Lower House elections June 25, commentators both here and abroad complained that the parties weren't putting forth concrete proposals, but instead only vague assurances that they would rebuild the economy and return Japan to its former glory as the world's last bastion of civility.

In the midst of all this hand-wringing the media ignored one important aspect, namely that the election laws themselves indirectly assist in this obfuscation and vagueness.

During the designated campaign period, newspapers and broadcasters cannot show or report individual candidates unless they show or report all of his or her opponents. The purpose of this rule, which is to ensure balanced coverage of all the candidates and parties, is understandable but it can get out of hand.

In a review of a new book by media maven Kyosen Ohashi, the Asahi Shimbun last week related an incident that happened several days before on an NHK talk show on which Ohashi was appearing. The former producer and talk show host, who is semiretired and lives mostly abroad, is known for his outspokenness. He is also infamously negative about the Japanese political process. According to the review, he started saying critical things about "a certain political party," which the interviewer quickly put the kibosh on. Ohashi asked him innocently what was wrong. Later, the announcer apologized to viewers for the gaffe.

The reviewer used the anecdote to show how Ohashi is a man who "doesn't mince words," and therefore his book, which appears to be yet another manual for living, can be relied upon for its emotional honesty. The point is that, for at least the campaign period, Ohashi has to muzzle his on-air political opinions and the media who deal with him have to make sure he stays muzzled.

The reviewer also implies that Ohashi may have been violating the taboo on purpose. His incredulous reaction was ingenuous in that he knows more about the way TV works than anybody in the business.

Still, that doesn't make his reaction any less legitimate. Why can't he as a private citizen, not as an NHK employee, criticize the Liberal Democratic Party on the air? Are voters so simple-minded that they wouldn't be able to consider his remark in the proper context? By revealing the hypocrisy of a rule that was implemented in the name of fairness, Ohashi indicated something important about the lack of useful discourse during the campaign.

He also probably ensured that he won't be appearing again on NHK any time soon.

These same election laws also affect postelection coverage. Just because newsgatherers are limited as to what they can show on the air during the campaign period, it doesn't mean they stop gathering news. It also doesn't mean they won't broadcast or print what they gather, only that they'll do it after the elections.

That's why they concentrate on candidates who have more of a general "human interest" potential, since by the time they appear in newspapers or on TV, their interest as candidates will be markedly diminished. Prescience is important, so LDP candidates who seemed to be headed for defeat were a popular subject, as were shoo-ins belonging to any party. The surest shoo-in was Makiko Tanaka, the voluble, sometimes abrasive daughter of the late Kakuei Tanaka. As the heir of Japan's most controversial and charismatic postwar politician, Tanaka is almost assured continued re-election in her Niigata district as well as constant press scrutiny.

Though a member of the LDP, Tanaka isn't afraid (in fact, she seems more than willing) to speak out against her colleagues if it suits her temperament. (It should be noted that she started her political career years ago as a nonaffiliated candidate.) This relative freedom from party cant allows her to appear to be her own politician, despite the fact that, like those politicians she's rebuffing, she doesn't say anything substantial policy-wise.

Last Saturday, TBS' newsmagazine "Broadcaster" ran a long feature on her campaign. Dressed casually in a big T-shirt, Tanaka was shown constantly being waved and giggled at by middle-aged housewives and yanmamas alike. "She's funny," a young, orange-haired woman said in admiration.

One of the guest commentators, a magazine editor, remarked that it was easy to understand Tanaka's appeal. The report didn't attempt to reveal anything instructive about the nature of the election or Tanaka's ideas. It only presented the indefatigable Makiko doing what she does best: playing to the cameras and mouthing off. It made for great television that, given the retrospective context, was also disorienting in a way.

It's as if the media were telling the voters, "This is what happened while you were asleep."



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