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Japan's news media needs to bark more as gov't watchdog: former NYT bureau chief

Martin Fackler is seen standing on a street corner in Ebisu, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 30, 2020. (Mainichi/Taro Fujii)

TOKYO -- 2020 is over, and a new year has begun. With the government's performance in question following issues including the declaration of a state of emergency shortly after the New Year holidays, what role is the media playing in overseeing the administration's actions?

    The Mainichi Shimbun spoke with Martin Fackler, a journalist and former Tokyo bureau chief for the New York Times who boasts years of experience reporting in Japan and China, about his new book "The Dogs That Didn't Bark: Media Control in Abe's Japan," published by Futabasha Publishers, to find out more about the relationship between Japan's government and its media.

    The original interview was conducted in Japanese.

    Yukinao Kin: What was the thinking behind the title, "The Dogs That Didn't Bark?"

    Martin Fackler: In essence, the media must act as an overseer of those in power, effectively as a watchdog. If something strange happens, they bark and let the people know. But what is it like in reality? To me, they looked rather more like faithful dogs sidling up to power.

    Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen at a press conference to mark the start of the second Abe Cabinet, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Dec. 26, 2012. (Mainichi/Kenji Konoha)

    While the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would actively offer opportunities for exclusive interviews to media organizations favorable to them, they weren't really offering them to critical media outlets.

    By skillfully using this carrot and stick policy, they were able to apply an unspoken pressure that says, "If you want to report on us, cooperate." That cooperation is spreading information convenient to the government.

    YK: As someone in the media, it scares me that opportunities for interviews could disappear. In such scenarios, we'll be unable to fulfill our duty.

    MF: Getting close to people in power to obtain information is called "access journalism." The concept itself is by no means a bad thing; it's necessary. But, Japanese media is overly reliant on it. Fundamentally the media has to have a good balance between investigative reporting based on its own investigations and access journalism, and to report issues with a multi-faceted approach. Investigative journalism takes time, people and money, but to bring to light buried issues it is an absolutely necessary method.

    But in the present situation, the amount of reporting from access journalism far outweighs that of investigative reporting. We can say that the Abe administration has skillfully exploited and used this. Effectively, journalists are given the right to access on the condition that they won't write articles critical of the administration. I feel like that relationship has been achieved in a section of the media.

    YK: Why do you think investigative journalism is less prevalent?

    MF: One of the issues is from a business perspective. Japan's newspaper companies are quickly reducing the number of papers they print. With the base of the business getting weaker, newspapers are likely having to dilute the effort they put into staff, time and money for investigative reporting. If it becomes this way, then however you go about it the information obtained at press clubs is going to become the easy option.

    Also, investigative reporting comes with risks. If an article strikes a blow to the administration and has an impact on society, opposition and claims against it can also appear. A symbolic example of that would be the reporting around the "Yoshida Testimony."

    In May 2014, the Asahi Shimbun released articles it made based on unpublished transcripts of testimonies given to a government investigation panel by Masao Yoshida (deceased), the plant manager at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Holdings Inc.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station at the time of the March 2011 nuclear disaster. The news caused quite a stir.

    Tadakazu Kimura, center, the then-president of the Asahi Shimbun, is seen at a press conference convened to explain the circumstances around the publishing of articles on the "Yoshida Testimony," in the capital's Chuo Ward on Sept. 11, 2014. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)

    But the headline read, "against the plant manager's orders, they evacuated the plant;" phrasing which lacked accuracy and was interpreted as saying that workers at the plant disobeyed Yoshida's orders and evacuated. The Asahi Shimbun got a lot of criticism for it, and in the end the article was withdrawn. I feel like, after that, many media organizations have been drifting toward avoiding risk.

    YK: When you were working for the New York Times, what were your thoughts on having a distance from powerful individuals?

    MF: I had this unforgettable experience. In February 2009, during the Aso administration, I had just become the Tokyo bureau chief and I contacted the prime minister's office and went to introduce myself to the international press secretary.

    There, the press secretary made a point to mention that my predecessor at the bureau had written articles critical of the administration, and then they said: "If you want cooperation from the prime minister's office in your reporting, you should criticize the former bureau chief's articles, and offer a statement to the effect that you will report differently to the previous bureau chief." I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

    When I was a journalist for The Associated Press, I worked in Beijing and Shanghai, and had experiences of being told similar things by Chinese authorities. I was reminded of that, and said to the press secretary, "Is the Japanese government requesting the same things from me that the Chinese government would?" They got flustered and denied it.

    In the end, I didn't submit the written statement sought from me, and I don't know if it's the reason why, but for the around 6 1/2 years after that I was at the post, I never once got an exclusive interview with a prime minister.

    YK: Did that bother you?

    MF: I never thought of it as inconvenient. There is an abundance of channels for getting information without going through the prime minister's office. I think rather that the administrations lost a chance to get their viewpoints out to the world.

    Although access journalism is needed, I don't think there's value in carrying out cooperation with powerful people to the point of self-sacrifice. For readers, too, it's better instead to write articles based on original investigations.

    Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is seen motioning to a journalist at a press conference at the prime minister's office in the capital on Feb. 27, 2020. Suga, now the prime minister, was notable for dodging questions, and statements including, "Your assertion is incorrect." (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

    YK: The Suga administration has now been established; do you sense a change in the media's position?

    MF: Soon after Suga became prime minister, I began hearing that many media journalists have been attending his "pancake meetings." Of course there are probably some journalists going with the purpose of writing critical articles. But there's no getting around that readers may have thought that this was an automatic development after getting used to "customs" established during the around eight years of the Abe administration. Is it okay for the media to become a lapdog of the government? That's being asked again now.

    YK: If you were invited to one of the pancake meetings, would you attend?

    MF: Hahaha. I think I would. But, in my case, I'd be looking at how the other reporters behave, what kind of exchanges they have with Suga, and write an article about that. To give readers an insight into what goes on there. If the purpose was to become close with those in power, I wouldn't attend.

    YK: What should the media do in the future?

    MF: U.S. President Donald Trump named and criticized specific reporters on Twitter. The prime minister of Japan hasn't gone that far. Compared to the U.S., the political pressure Japanese media receives is much smaller. So there's really no need for the media to be intimidated. It should get out of this situation of over-relying on access journalism by putting more effort into investigative reporting.

    In the Japan of the past there was a strong herd mentality among many industries, and every company in that sector made similar products. What about now, though? Each company produces goods that showcase their originality. But the media is the only one yet to change.

    If you open a smartphone, it's full of huge amounts of free information. There's a lot of fake news now too, and we're in a time where people don't know what they should trust. Amid this, there should be serious thought on what information has value enough that readers would feel they want to read it even if it meant paying. If they can realize that and succeed in reporting things only they can, I think the media has a future.


    Martin Fackler is seen in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 30, 2020. (Mainichi/Taro Fujii)

    Profile: Martin Fackler

    Born in 1966 in Iowa, U.S., Fackler began at Bloomberg's Tokyo Bureau before going on to work at the AP's Tokyo Bureau, its Beijing Bureau and then as chief of its Shanghai Bureau, among other postings. Between February 2009 and July 2015, he was head of the New York Times' Tokyo bureau, and now works as a freelance journalist. His published books include "Credibility Lost: The Crisis in Japanese Newspaper Journalism After Fukushima," and titles which roughly translate to "The New Age Opposed by Elites and the Media," and "Data Literacy to Survive the Age of Fake News," among others.

    (Japanese original by Yukinao Kin, Integrated Digital News Center)

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