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Sunday, April 8, 2001

MEDIA MIX

FOOT-IN-MOUTH DISEASE

When leaders meet the press head-on


U.S. President George W. Bush's announcement that he will no longer hold "formal" press conferences in the East Room of the White House was met with derision and shrugs by the American press. On Salon.com, Gary Kamiya accused Bush of fleeing reporters "with his larynx between his legs," while Helen Thomas, the so-called dean of White House correspondents, told the same magazine that she can understand Bush's decision because he "does much better when he's relaxed, and he's not so relaxed in press conferences."

In either case, it's clear that the president feels his spin control is more effective in informal settings. And while it's easy to see where he's coming from, the move has reinforced the notion many people have that he's trying to project an image of himself as a working president without actually doing any work.

In Japan, government press conferences are a cinch. Thanks to the press clubs, most have the air of being scripted, which sounds bad only if you ignore the fact that even Diet debates are scripted. The place where reporters ask the difficult questions is in the corridors of power themselves, where journalists brandishing minirecorders and scribbling furiously in tiny notepads crowd around lawmakers as they make their way from one conference room to another, like a swarm of drones escorting the queen bee.

It is during these impromptu press sessions -- exactly the kind of thing Bush, with his practiced chumminess, thinks he can control -- that Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has revealed his contempt for the media. Doomed man that he is, Mori has increasingly allowed himself to vent his frustrations on the press, who he assumes has brought him to this embarrassing juncture in his career. Everybody knows, of course, that the mainstream Japanese press is incapable of embarrassing anyone; that's the job of the weeklies and the tabloids. But Mori doesn't seem to need any assistance in order to look foolish.

There's a difference between being made to look like a buffoon and acting like one, though some people will say that, in the end, it's a pointless distinction. Nevertheless, two weeks ago, even the most jaded reporters were blinking incredulously when Mori exploded in response to repeated questions about his absence from a reception thrown by the king of Norway.

"You're the one!" he yelled at one particular TV reporter. "Go back to your office and tell your boss to quit messing around." The language was something you were more likely to hear coming from the mouth of a yakuza than from that of the leader of a democratic government.

Mori's bluntness could be seen as refreshing, even comically candid, but he doesn't possess the verbal dexterity of someone like Shintaro Ishihara, who can make the most offensive remark sound like common sense. The prime minister just sounds ticked off, and he directs most of his resentment at the Asahi Shimbun, which has run a small column every day since the beginning of Mori's tenure relating verbatim what he says to the paper's reporter during these brief walks in the halls. Mori clearly hates the Asahi. Once, during a Diet debate he responded to an opposition question by saying, "Why don't you ask the Asahi Shimbun? They know more than I do."

In many of these columns, Mori doesn't respond to the questions themselves but simply to their being asked. "I'm not going to talk to you while I'm walking" is a big favorite, as is "I'd rather talk about something else." When he first took over as prime minister, he often responded to a female Asahi reporter's questions with comments about how she was not acting "feminine" enough.

Lately, the column contains nothing but reporters' questions followed by Mori's silences, which are indicated by ellipses. The questions are often irrelevant ("How do you feel about the freshmen Diet employees who started working today?"), which means, of course, that Mori is irrelevant, too.

The columns, however, don't accurately express how these on-the-fly press conferences operate. In print, they look like transcripts of orderly conversations, but they're actually very disorderly. No one makes eye contact, which is why both sides can be blunt and, when push literally comes to shove, rude. In a recent sidebar, one reporter, removed from the hubbub and the desperate need to get in a question, reflected that Mori really couldn't be blamed for reacting the way he does.

President Bush obviously feels that he can handle this kind of informal give-and-take. He proved that his famous hail-fellow-well-met attitude with individual reporters was a false front when during the campaign his comment about a certain journalist being "an a**hole" was picked up by a microphone. Mori, like most Japanese lawmakers, never bothers with such a facade. He always look grouchy in front of the press. Leadership questions aside, it's why Bush can at least be called a politician and Mori can't.



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