Japan enters the post-truth age with distorted MXTV report on Okinawa protests
The term “fake news” has outlasted its usefulness. Originally coined to describe purposely false or exaggerated stories on the internet, the term now covers anything in the media that is deemed a lie. The internet is a scrum of competing opinions, and fake news that appears online can be contained to a certain extent. However, once it emerges in other, more circumscribed media, all bets are off. We tend to think of television news, regardless of its ideological prerogatives, as being vetted by a rational impulse.
The Jan. 2 edition of Tokyo MXTV’s “News Joshi” (“News Girl”) included a segment on protesters trying to stop the construction of helipads for the U.S. military in Okinawa. The premise of “News Joshi” is to present topical stories and then have a panel of young female TV personalities talk about them with a panel of male commentators, some of whom are experts. It’s less a news show and more a conventional Japanese variety show, where the appeal is lively but not necessarily informed discussion.
The segment on the protests was reported by Kazuhisa Ogawa, a self-described “military journalist” whose voluble presentation style is typical of show biz reporters seen on daytime “wide shows.” Ogawa went to Okinawa with a video crew, but he never engaged with protesters. Instead, he stood away from the action and explained why it was impossible to get closer. In one scene he lingers outside a tunnel saying that a protest was taking place on the other side but locals had told him it was “too dangerous.” In another he said police prevented him from getting closer because the protest was “so violent.” In the only scene that depicted protesters, albeit in the distance, Ogawa said he would attempt to approach them, but the camera didn’t show him doing that. Later, he revealed he couldn’t get near the protesters because “they gave me such angry looks.”
Ogawa made fun of the advanced age of most of the protesters. To him, they were obviously retired people with nothing better to do. He talked about how “scared” the police were, even of these elderly protesters, who were so violent they “didn’t seem to care about their own lives.”
“I think it’s no exaggeration to call them terrorists,” he said, before interviewing a “local radio DJ” who claimed to have evidence that the protesters were being paid by “a radical group” in Tokyo headed by someone with a Korean name. Ogawa claimed most Okinawans “support the U.S. military” without citing any proof.
Back in the studio, the female personalities were shocked. “I thought (the protesters) were fighting for justice,” one said. “But now I’ve changed my mind. I have no idea why they’re protesting.”
That’s because Ogawa didn’t explain their objection to the helipads, which is ostensibly about protecting the local environment but mainly about self-determination, which has always been the issue in Okinawa. Since Ogawa didn’t talk to any protesters, he didn’t present their side of the story.
The reaction to the report has been harsh, with various groups saying it was biased, irresponsible and even racist. Officials at MXTV admitted to the Asahi Shimbun that they had not properly “checked the content” of the program, while the producer, Akiko Hamada, explained that they didn’t solicit opinions from protesters because among them are “groups who are engaged in illegal acts.” In response to charges that the segment constituted “hate speech” against Koreans, Hamada said the purpose was to reveal Korean involvement and, in any case, characterizing the report as a form of hate speech was itself an affront to press freedoms.
Sugok Shin, a representative of Norikoe Net, the anti-discrimination citizens group mentioned by Ogawa, has filed a complaint with the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization claiming that she was slandered by “News Joshi.” In a public statement, Shin said she is used to such abuse on the internet, but the kind of “fake information” conveyed on the show was “totally inappropriate for television” since viewers tend to believe what they hear on TV. The broadcasting authority has asked MXTV to investigate.
Including MXTV, eight TV stations nationwide now carry “News Joshi.” Two of them, Miyagi TV and TV Aichi, decided not to broadcast the segment in question after viewing it, and Saga TV reportedly is still mulling whether or not to air it. The program is co-produced by DHC Theater, an affiliate of the cosmetics and dietary supplement maker DHC, whose commercials accounted for 14.3 percent of MXTV’s advertising revenues in 2015. DHC’s president is reportedly known to support nominally right-wing causes.
So far, only a few media have mentioned the controversy, but one aspect has received special attention. The emcee of “News Joshi” is Yukihiro Hasegawa, a deputy editor at the Tokyo Shimbun. Hasegawa has a conservative outlook, which makes him an anomaly at one of the country’s most liberal daily newspapers, and a number of commentators have expressed alarm that a professional journalist would countenance the kind of sloppy and slanted reporting evident on “News Joshi.”Masaru Sato, a Tokyo Shimbun columnist, called on the paper to discuss Hasegawa’s involvement, while Jiro Yamaguchi, also in the Tokyo Shimbun, said it was Hasegawa’s responsibility to “acknowledge lies” when he hears them. The fact that he didn’t in this case reveals that “the post-truth age has come to Japan” and “the collapse of the media is just around the corner.” Hasegawa hasn’t responded.
What needs to be stressed in this situation is that fake news is less of a problem than the fact that the protests in Okinawa get short shrift in the mass media anyway. The money Norikoe Net was accused of paying protesters was actually travel expenses given to “citizen correspondents” — people from Honshu sent to observe the protests who then report what they saw on social media. They were essentially asked to do the job the mass media should be doing. When fake news is allowed to be the only news, you know you’re in trouble.