Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about suspicions among certain media outlets that NHK’s planned restructuring has something to do with bowing to government pressure. As pointed out in the column, NHK has always been more or less in the government’s pocket but that certain producers and divisions nevertheless make shows that are valuable in terms of information, including information that is not flattering to the authorities. However, this information comes mainly from the Production Division and not the News Division. The latter is mostly involved in daily news and breaking news, and NHK has always seemed over-cautious in both areas if not downright solicitous to those in power. Much of the reason for this caution is the nature of news reporting in Japan, which is only more pronounced at NHK. Most broadcast reporters in Japan are recruited straight out of university and trained to be reporters by the media outlets that hire them, meaning they aren’t necessarily driven to be journalists. It has more to do with corporate culture than press culture: Reporters for the major TV stations, including NHK, are constantly undergoing on-the-job training, which is why their copy tends toward the drab, their on-air skills are lacking, and their understanding of the topic under consideration is shallow.
One bit of intelligence that came up in our research for the column that I wasn’t aware of is that at NHK reporters have more power than directors. During the cited discussion on the web channel Democracy Times, former NHK director Kozo Nagata explained that this power balance is unique to NHK, and he thinks it’s central to the “overwork” problem that the restructuring is meant to solve. To me, however, this explains why NHK daily news is often worse than it is on commercial stations, where directors (in the U.S. we would call them producers) come up with story ideas and then find a reporter to do the coverage. At NHK, the process is the other way around, and while that sounds natural—reporters, being on the front lines of journalism, should be digging up their own stories—given the lack of professional depth manifested by Japanese broadcast reporters, the stories pursued on NHK aren’t going to get much further than press releases and news conferences. Sources will be the most obvious ones, specifically those who have something to gain by talking to reporters. In that regard, sucking up to the government is not a matter of wanting to please the authorities, but is simply what happens when you don’t have the talent or the will to get beyond the official version of a story.