VETERAN JOURALIST WARNS AGAINST ARROGANCE OF MEDIA
I recently read with great interest The Arrogance of Journalism—the latest work by veteran journalist Masuhiko Hirobuchi (Shincho-sha; July, 2017)—and wish to recommend it as a must-read book.
The mainstream Japanese media, such as the mass-circulation dailies the Asahi, the Mainichi, and the Tokyo Shimbun seem intent on a biased line of reporting on the so-called “Kake Gakuen” affair. NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting body supposedly committed to pursuing fair and neutral reporting under the Broadcast Law, is following suit. In point of fact, most of the news and variety shows on commercial television stations across the nation are no exception.
Hirobuchi warns: “Do journalists realize how dangerous it is to be driven by a false sense of mission and report in a frenzy on things that haven’t really happened?”
The author has served as bureau chief in New York and London for TV Asahi, also heading its news production department in Tokyo. His opinion on the media is grounded in an unfailingly fair approach to reporting perfected over many years.
As much as the media in all nations are out to bring down powerful politicians, they also love flattering those who listen to what the people have to say. If the media judge all politicians on the basis of likes and dislikes apart from how much their policies truly benefit national interests, the whole nation will be eaten by populism, with politicians driven to heed popular opinions solely for the sake of higher support ratings. But that naturally does not contribute to national interests.
A typical example is the “Aquino revolution” in the Philippines, as Hirobuchi points out. In 1983, former Senator Benigno Aquino was assassinated at the Manila international airport—an incident that led to a rapid decline of the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos, who had been in power for near 20 years. Three years later, in February of 1986, Aquino’s widow Corazon was elected Marcos’s successor.
While covering the new president’s news conference on her visit to Tokyo, Hirobuchi says he sensed she was “diplomatically tone-deaf” when he caught one word she used in her remarks—“Betamax.” (Editor’s note: She used the word in reference to the repeated recordings shown of her husband’s assassination. The Betamax format was popular in the Philippines at the time and the word “Betamax” had become synonymous with VTR recorders. However, there was a fierce corporate battle underway then in Japan between proponents of the Betamax (Sony) and the VHS (Matsushita, JVC, Hitachi) formats. For Aquino to seemingly endorse Betamax showed just how insensitive she was to such a delicate topic in Japan.)
Hirobuchi goes on to discuss more serious diplomatic mistakes Ms. Aquino committed that continue to undermine the Philippines to this day.
The US highly valued Ms. Aquino when she took over from the corrupt Marcos administration, but she made a fatal blunder by bowing to populist pressure from the Filipino media, which pushed their own propaganda: “True democracy means putting to practice what the people desire” and “The Philippines does not need American bases.”
Following the Dictates of Populist Opinion
Following the end of World War II, the Philippines did little to enhance its military strength for national defense. Two huge American military facilities—Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay naval base—protected the nation. Of all things, Mrs. Aquino ordered the US to withdraw these bases within a year—by the end of 1992.
Ordinarily, Mrs. Aquino as president should have guaranteed the stationing of the US troops by patiently explaining to the populace the pros and cons of a continued presence versus an abrupt withdrawal of the bases. But she pandered to the popular wishes at a crucial juncture where she absolutely should not have.
When the US troops pulled up their stakes from the Philippines as requested, the Chinese lost no time in infiltrating the country. The Chinese have since kept up their aggression, making a clear attempt to turn the area around Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea into a permanent Chinese naval base.
In 2013, Mrs. Aquino’s eldest son, Benigno Aquino III who served as president 2010-2016, filed an arbitration case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague against China over the disputed area around Scarborough Reef. The son inherited the fruits of his mother’s naive policy towards China.
Rodorigo Duterte, the incumbent president, appears to have given up any desire to confront China. As a result, the Philippines will continue to be brought under greater control of China. It will be next to impossible for the Philippines, which failed to recognize the strategic importance of retaining the U.S. bases, to retrieve on its own any territory deprived by China.
Clearly, Mrs. Aquino’s sorry misjudgment has allowed China’s aggression and a decline in the prosperity of the Philippines.
Hirobuchi feels that an infatuation on the part of Japanese newscasters with newspaper background to “speak their minds” grossly impairs the quality of Japanese television news.
As an example of someone who did not go down this path, Hirobuchi cites the activities of American journalist Ed Murrow with CBS during and after World War II.
In 1937, when Germany invaded Poland, Murrow daily reported on the war as a London-based correspondent. He became a media hero by continuing to objectively cover what was happening under his nose, including the Blitz, steadfastly keeping his personal feelings to himself.
After the war, Murrow returned to the US as an indisputable star at CBS. In 1954 he took up the matter of Senator Joe McCarthy in a special program. McCarthy at the time maintained that the US State Department was undermined by some 250 staffers who were members of the Communist Party. He condemned them and was instrumental in getting many of them expelled amid a witch-hunt hysteria that spread across the country.
The technique Murrow employed to challenge McCarthy was factual reporting, doing his utmost to shun subjective views of his own. Given a chance to refute Murrow on his program, McCarthy repeatedly resorted to foul language, revealing his true colors as an agitator, according to Hirobuchi. McCarthy’s performance further damaged his already fading popularity—and brought about the eventual end of his political life.
Discovering the Truth
In describing how he confronted McCarthy, Hirobuchi writes that Murrow “defended the freedom of the press in America.” Today, Murrow is revered as a role model for students at journalism schools across the US. But there is another side to his story.
During the days of Roosevelt and Truman—even before McCarthy laid charges against communists within the US government—Soviet operatives and spies infiltrated the center of power within their administrations. This has been amply revealed through the outflow of massive information from the Kremlin that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the “Venona documents” on wartime Soviet espionage in the US released in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the last war.
As it turned out, most of these documents proved that communist infiltration of the core of the US government which McCarthy warned against was a reality. What this means is that McCarthy—the “demagogue” responsible for his infamous communist witch-hunt—was right, and Murrow, the hero of American journalism who pursued the “truth,” was wrong.
This turn of events shows how difficult it is to discover the truth, and how profound journalism is—a profession which commits journalists to unearthing the truth. As regards the McCarthy-Murrow episode Hirobuchi introduces, a complete reversal of what was supposed to be the truth happened thanks to the documents released more than a half century after the war. I do not think I am alone in holding journalism in awe. This episode is a fresh reminder that I, for one, cannot but be too careful in pursuing my mission to report nothing but the truth.
Against the backdrop of Japanese journalism tilting dangerously towards biased reporting, Hirobuchi proposes that journalists improve their “intellectual capacity” while making sure to not become entranced by false ideals or flowery words. I take it as his warning that journalists should see to it that journalism should not be controlled by the liberal forces who “preach ideals impossible to realize and firmly believe that they can steer the nation or influence its systems on the strength of their principles alone.”
I am very pleased with the publication of the Hirobuchi book, bringing to light the arrogance of our media—the most conspicuous arena of the activities of the liberal forces in Japan. It is a timely book, especially now when the arrogance of the Japanese media appears to be getting out of hand.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column #765 in the August 10, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)