The most talked-about media moment from the Lower House election on Dec. 14 was the victory interview Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave to Nippon TV.
As is the custom, the leader of the winning side, in this case Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, made the rounds of all the major broadcasters without leaving the organization’s headquarters, where he took questions from people in the NTV studios. At one point, anchorman Nobutaka Murao asked Abe about the decline in real wages under his economic plan so far, and the prime minister seemed put out by the query. He removed his earpiece and spoke about the plan’s accomplishments while Murao tried to get him to address the question, which he couldn’t hear, seemingly on purpose.
Abe can be proud of some of the achievements of “Abenomics,” but he’s demonstrated an acute sensitivity to anything that smacks of criticism, an unfortunate tendency for a national leader trying to bring about major changes. Commentators viewed the NTV exchange as representative of the LDP’s general distrust of the media, though all it proved was that Abe doesn’t like to participate in discussions he can’t control. He’s never displayed the kind of talent his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, had for handling reporters with bland rejoinders that nevertheless made him look cool under fire and in command of his rhetoric — Abe just gets defensive.
On Nov. 18, when he announced the snap election, he appeared on TBS and was shown a series of street interviews with regular people, most of whom expressed doubt about Abenomics. Rather than comment on what these people were saying, Abe questioned TBS’s methodology, implying that it selected subjects who would make him look bad. Though man-on-the-street interviews are a common and mainly pointless news-gathering gambit, Abe couldn’t help but sound petulant by complaining and not responding to these people’s remarks.
There were those who thought this testy exchange was the reason behind the letter the LDP sent out to all the major news outlets two days later demanding fair, unbiased election coverage, complete with instructions. During a news conference at the Japan Press Club on Dec. 1, Abe denied he was behind the letter, but an anonymous LDP executive told an Asahi Shimbun reporter that Abe had been quite upset about the TBS street interviews, since, taken as a whole, they seemed to indicate Abenomics was a failure. Later, Tokyo Shimbun reported that TV Asahi, in order to “ensure neutrality,” cut two outspoken commentators scheduled for a political debate show.
Regardless of the effect of the letter, the media didn’t show much interest in the election. According to research company M Data, the five commercial networks and NHK devoted a total of 26 hours to it during the seven-day period after the Lower House was dissolved. During the corresponding period following the Lower House dissolution in 2012, coverage came to 74 hours. Granted, this was more than the 50 hours for the 2009 election, but less than the 90 hours prior to the 2005 poll.
The main difference, according to the Asahi Shimbun, was less coverage by morning news and information shows. In 2012, Fuji TV’s “Toku Da Ne” and TBS’s “Asazuba” focused on campaign issues that affected average voters. This time there was practically nothing, and while the subsequent forced retirement of “Asazuba” host Monta Mino, who doesn’t suffer high-ranking political fools lightly, may have had something to do with this loss of interest, it doesn’t explain everything. That week, the only stories the “wide shows” covered were the death of movie actor Bunta Sugawara (without mentioning his late-career social activism) and the winners of this year’s “buzzword awards.”
A TV executive quoted by Asahi explained that information programs that covered the 2012 election drew miserable ratings. These shows tried to be more serious after being criticized for turning coverage of the 2005 general election into “political theater,” so the feeling was that when these programs act more responsibly viewers tune them out. As another executive for a different broadcaster put it, daytime wide shows are supposed to be entertaining. If anything, the LDP letter gave them an excuse to ignore the 2014 campaign since, unlike the one in 2012, this time there was no threat to the ruling party.
Everyone knows low turnout benefits those in power, and curtailed coverage has the effect of dampening interest in voting. But this sort of logic sounds like conspiracy theory and lets the media off the hook. Excluding NHK, which is doctrinaire in its dull-as-dirt even-handedness, the major TV stations and newspapers have always maintained a love-hate relationship with the LDP that works to the latter’s advantage. Last week, Tokyo Shimbun, which, being a local paper, is not privy to this relationship, ran a post-election piece that described how, despite his prickly attitude toward the press, Abe has had dinner with media heads more than 40 times since becoming prime minister, and that includes the Asahi Shimbun, supposedly the bete noire of the LDP.
Still, Asahi is the only national daily to fulfill at least part of its mission to speak truth to power, even if it has to use someone else’s voice. The paper ran an essay by political critic Satoshi Shirai in which he criticized Japanese media for infantilizing the public. There are too many programs and articles obsessed with Japan’s virtues, especially in comparison to other countries. A mature society doesn’t have to pat itself on the back all the time, and the deriding of China and South Korea is a sign of Japan’s arrested development, the result of five decades of peace and prosperity under the American umbrella, which obviated the need to address its relationship with Asia in an honest and forthright manner. Abe’s thin skin is the perfect analog for this situation, since it is the only thing that protects him from the realities of the wider world.