Japan's meek media kowtows to the government by Jeff Kingston
Last week I compared the Catholic Church in Boston and Japan's "nuclear village" of atomic-power advocates -- two powerful institutions that stifled embarrassing revelations for some time. The Oscar-winning film "Spotlight" depicts the comeuppance of the church hierarchy after investigative reporters from The Boston Globe broke the story about pedophile priests in 2002, including how the church chose to reassign them to other unsuspecting dioceses where they continued to prey on children.
Unlike the pedophiles and their enablers, the nuclear industry has avoided accountability over its culture of wishing risk away and corner-cutting that put public safety at risk. The nuclear village has also overcome massive demonstrations and opposition to nuclear power and revved up a reactor near quake-stricken Kumamoto despite having a dubious evacuation plan and its proximity to active volcanoes. And now two "antique" reactors in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, have been cleared to operate beyond their 40-year shelf life. The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was given an identical clearance just a fortnight before the three meltdowns in 2011. On April 24, Gerald Curtis, professor emeritus at Columbia University, appeared on TBS and questioned the wisdom of operating nuclear reactors in such an earthquake-prone nation. Lessons ignored?
U.N. Special Rapporteur David Kaye -- who recently put a spotlight on the Abe administration's media-muzzling ways -- cited a star journalist in the Asahi Shimbun's award-winning investigative team working on the Fukushima debacle who was punished for his reporting with a salary cut and reassignment to a clerical job. Japan's nuclear village took down the Asahi's investigative team, clipping the wings of the media organization that did most to expose the mismanagement of risk and regulatory capture that lay at the heart of Japan's Chernobyl. For many journalists it remains hard to understand why the Asahi rolled over and conceded without a fight. For others, it is an object lesson of what happens to those who speak truth to power.
According to Curtis, the spineless local media has much to answer for: "The big difference is that the U.S. media stands up to power, as the 'Spotlight' movie documents, and the Japanese media all too often kowtows to it."
Curtis believes the self-censorship is a result of "the pressure from people in senior management and middle-aged reporters who want to be considered for promotion ... the salaryman mentality keeps everyone in line."
He adds, "There are many talented and courageous journalists in Japan, but the media's craven abdication of its responsibility to defend them and to protect freedom of speech is what needs to be put in the spotlight."
In March 2011, shortly after the disaster, the Asahi established an investigative team of more than 20 reporters to focus on various aspects of the Fukushima accident. On the strength of the investigative team's reporting about the nuclear disaster, the Asahi garnered Japan's equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and 2013. This sparked jealousy with rivals and, according to Martin Fackler's chapter in my forthcoming edited volume on press freedom in Japan, Asahi insiders also resented the fact that an outsider, Yorimitsu Takaaki, had been recruited to lead the team. Fackler explains that Yorimitsu had been hired away from his position at the Kochi Shimbun to be editor in charge of the special investigation team, and to inspire his team Yorimitsu put up a sign in the office: "Datsu pochi sengen," or "Declaration against pooches." Media lapdogs were not amused.
Yorimitsu encouraged his reporters to spurn the access journalism of cozy "press clubs" where journalists are spoon-fed information by companies and government officials in exchange for pulling their punches -- the woeful norm in the nation's mainstream media. Instead they were exhorted to find important Fukushima disaster stories others weren't telling as a way to regain the public's trust and make up for the media's meek reporting in the first two months after the meltdowns, when it failed to challenge cover-up efforts.
The Asahi reported on May 20, 2014 that during the 2011 disaster some 650 workers decamped to the Fukushima No. 2 plant -- 10 kilometers away from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 plant -- leaving a skeleton crew to cope with three meltdowns. This scoop was based on a leaked copy of plant manager Masao Yoshida's testimony, which had been kept from the public. The Asahi reported that workers ignored the orders of Yoshida -- an exaggeration, since he said that he did not actually authorize this relocation -- but suggested that his instructions were vague and probably garbled as they got passed along the chain of command. The Asahi made it seem like a chaotic mutiny rather than an improvised plan that many workers had reason to believe was authorized, even if it wasn't.
According to an investigative journalist who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of ongoing work, it is this imprecision that made it difficult for other liberal media outlets to defend the Asahi when the conservative media pounced in August 2014. That month, the Yoshida testimony was leaked to the Sankei Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun, possibly by the prime minister's office, in order to further discredit the Asahi as it was reeling from an orchestrated campaign of vilification by these same rivals over the "comfort women" issue.
The revelation about the exodus of workers was big news because it underscored the risks of effectively managing a nuclear accident. In 2012 an official inquiry also revealed that Yoshida acknowledged that he did not properly operate emergency equipment. Human error in a cascading disaster is understandable if not inevitable, but it does give pause in considering nuclear safety.
The Asahi article challenged the heroic narrative of Yoshida and the "Fukushima 50″ saving the plant. The narrative "served the nuclear industry's purposes," argues Martin Fackler, former Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, "by giving the public the reassuring image of the plant manager firmly in control during the crisis, and plant workers as selflessly working for the greater good. The Asahi article seemed to punch a hole in both of those claims by reporting that Yoshida had actually lost control of most of his plant's workers, who the article implied had abandoned the plant for fear of their lives."
The Sankei and Yomiuri slammed the Asahi for its sensationalized version of the exodus, but, Fackler says, "rather than using their copies of the Yoshida transcript to hold Tepco or nuclear regulators accountable for their nation's biggest postwar trauma, the two had instead focused their ire exclusively on Japan's leading left-wing newspaper and antagonist of the prime minister." Cui bono?
Tatsuro Hanada, a professor at Waseda University's Institute for Journalism, asserts that Japan's political elites were prioritizing damage control -- arising from the exposure of the nuclear village's usually hidden flows of money and patronage -- over recovery of the disaster-struck communities. Taking down the Asahi was part of that agenda.
"These efforts to demolish the Fukushima article had clear benefits to Japan's nuclear establishment," says Fackler, "by casting doubt on the Asahi's critical coverage just as the Abe administration was moving to restart reactors idled since the Fukushima catastrophe."
Under fire, on Sept. 11, 2014 -- a month after the Asahi admitted that 13 articles published on "comfort women" in the 1980s and '90s had relied on one veteran's discredited testimony (just as its conservative rivals had) -- the Asahi capitulated ignominiously, retracting the exodus story and spiking a robust rebuttal by the investigative team. Instead of a simple correction about the exodus, the team was downsized, key journalists transferred to nonpolitical desk jobs and management shifted the spotlight away from Fukushima -- futile gestures of appeasement and damage control. The Asahi's response heralded similar capitulations across the industry and the subsequent purge of prominent newscasters critical of Abe.
Not since U.S. President Richard Nixon has there been a democratic leader as paranoid, hypersensitive and menacing toward the media. Very uncool, Mr. Abe.