Japan’s media watchdog is a lap dog


CLOSING THE SHOP: Information Cartels and Japan’s Mass Media, by Laurie Anne Freeman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, 256 pp. $39.50 (cloth).

This excellent book lays bare the mechanisms of the information cartels in Japan that prop up the state, insulate the elite from sustained critical oversight and rob the polity of the journalistic integrity necessary for the maintenance of democracy. It’s a daunting agenda, and it is a tribute to author Laurie Anne Freeman that she carries it off and in the process makes a significant contribution to our understanding of contemporary Japan.

The Japanese media are co-conspirators in the stifling of independent thought, Freeman says.

Readers will certainly cast a more scrutinizing and skeptical eye on the pablum served up by the mass media after learning about how sources co-opt journalists and how the business of media has undermined the practice of journalism.

The transformation of the media into co-conspirators in the dumbing down of public debate and the stifling of independent thinking is a powerful indictment, persuasively argued here. These are serious charges based on the author’s extensive interviews, research and observations while affiliated with the Asahi newspaper and on grants from the Japan Foundation and Abe Fellowship.

The media cartels that Freeman refers to encompass the unholy trinity of “kisha” (press clubs), industry “kyokai” (associations) and media “keiretsu” (conglomerates). These closely linked institutions make it possible to muzzle the press, restrain competition within the media and abuse the public trust.

She uncovers “the institutionalized rules and relationships guiding press relations with their sources and with each other that serve to limit the types of news that get reported and the number and makeup of those who do the reporting. By reinforcing close ties with official sources while restricting competition among journalists, Japan’s information cartels have redefined the relationship between political elites and news outlets. Instead of anticipating stories and shaping emerging news, the Japanese press primarily responds to an agenda of political discourse that has already been set.”

Freeman traces the Meiji roots of collusive state-media ties and how, instead of protecting the people from tyranny and abuse of power, the media were tamed and distorted into a collective mouthpiece for the elite modernizers of the late 19th century. The patterns and inclinations of that era have lingered, bestowing an institutional continuity on Japan that continues to work against the interests of the people.

Regulating and channeling the flow of information has been crucial to maintaining the “strong state” that prevails in Japan.

The concentration of media power among newspapers, and their powerful influence in TV and radio, facilitates the process of managing news. In many respects, the media have self-regulating rules that serve as a form of institutionalized censorship aimed mostly at ensuring that nobody gets scooped. As in all good cartels, competition is restrained in the economic interests of those who participate in and regulate the cartel.

All journalists face the tradeoff between access and autonomy: The closer one gets to one’s source, the harder it becomes to use information reflecting badly on that source. In Japan there are some unique twists on this conundrum: Fellow reporters are often the first to excoriate colleagues who don’t follow the rules of the game, and sources have the power and influence to kill stories by manipulating these rules. In Freeman’s view, the media fail in their role as watchdog and act as co-conspirators with the state in bamboozling the public.

She explains that “it is not that journalists blindly follow the dictates and wishes of state sources, or that they are subservient to the powers that be, but that the system for gathering and reporting news — a system designed to serve media companies’ economic and other interests — has frequently led them to support state goals. It is in this sense that the media can be understood as collaborators with the state in the management of society.”

What do the media gain? Restrictions on entry (licenses), access to power and a stranglehold on credentialed information. The state and its minions benefit from being generally cosseted and the media are predictably reduced to practicing press-release journalism (“happyo hodo”).

More often than not, the media provide excessively detailed information on a limited range of subjects and, by failing to sketch the larger implications of what they report, ensure that the reading public’s focus is kept on and buried under the unconnected minutiae. As a result, readers may know a lot and be clueless as to what it all means.

Freeman writes that in the symbiotic world of reciprocity that prevails in the multitude of members-only press clubs, “journalists establish close relationships with sources, and get privileged information while sources get their imprimatur on the news. For journalists, membership also means that no one gets scooped, as all members receive virtually identical information in the clubs and frequently make agreements about how and when such information should be released.”

Embargoes on sensitive stories are imposed by sources and obeyed by the media as a cost of this system, even in cases when there can be no conceivable public interest in doing so. In many other cases, out of fear of antagonizing sources, the media practice considerable self-restraint. Freeman argues that this system discourages investigative reporting and places a premium on relying on official sources rather than alternative information.

“Closing the Shop” argues that the exclusionary and corrupting practices of media cartels cost the public dearly because they conform to the agenda set by those in power and restrict the flow of information in ways that interfere with the public’s right to receive relevant information in a timely manner, producing an “informationally inferior product.”

This expose should also be taken to heart with regard to the conglomerates that are now coming to dominate global media. One need only look as far as Time, Newsweek and the once venerable Far Eastern Economic Review to see how far standards have slipped and how the media are leading the race to the bottom. These name brands have been gutted and dumbed down so relentlessly that they bear even less resemblance to journalism than Lite beer does to the original.

At least they are less filling, often reading like corporate newsletters as they vie for “scoops” about computer games and run puff stories that will attract corporate advertising. It is lamentable that journalists have been brought to heel by the bean counters, and that professional journalism everywhere is in retreat as a consequence of the business of journalism.

“Closing the Shop” demonstrates why it is important for the public to be more vigilant about the media, but stops short of offering strategies for tackling this threat to democracy and accountability.

The other quibble I have with this outstanding book is the author’s reticence on the subject of the information-technology revolution and its impact. Can the Web help weaken the power of traditional media cartels or will they also come to dominate this medium?