Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the Abe administration’s failed attempt to install a favored bureaucrat in the prosecutor-general’s seat. The column touches on the irony that Hiromu Kurokawa was forced to resign after a weekly magazine caught him gambling with two Sankei Shimbun reporters and a former reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, but it doesn’t go into detail. In fact, I may write about this relationship between government organs and the media more thoroughly in future weeks since a number of freelance journalists have been talking about the problem lately. Our column has covered the topic numerous times in the past, but the sentiment this time among professionals is that they seem more determined to expose the corruption at the heart of the press club system, which is the main culprit. A sub-irony of the case is that, ostensibly, the Sankei and the Asahi are polar opposites ideologically. The Sankei is seen as a right-wing cheer squad and the Asahi as the bastion of Japanese liberalism, simplistic characterizations that obscure the fact that both are equally invested stalwarts of the “mass media” and thus uphold all the practices that make press clubs and access journalism profitable for them. One of the more interesting tidbits of outsider media reporting from the unusual string of news conferences that the prime minister held while addressing the coronavirus crisis was when Harbor Business mentioned that a freelance reporter asked Abe about the problems surrounding the press clubs. Because of the extraordinary circumstances, the special news conferences were open to all journalists, not just those assigned to the prime minister’s residence press club — meaning mass media outlets — and Abe was obviously not prepared for the reporter’s question, which is highly unusual, since press club reporters usually submit questions beforehand. Abe said, obviously off-the-cuff, that it was a matter the media outlets themselves would need to discuss.
Which is true, and a number of freelancers have been doing just that. Former Asahi reporter Hitomichi Ugaya, who is mentioned in this week’s column, said last week that press club members are basically employees of the ministries and agencies they cover and are often closer in terms of friendships to bureaucrats than they are to their own colleagues. In fact, they often graduate from the same universities. It is these reporters, in fact, who tend to get promoted. The most glaring example is Tsuneo Watanabe, the chairman of the board of Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s biggest newspaper in terms of circulation. He started out as a reporter and eventually became close pals with the late Yasuhiro Nakasone through his work and often had dinner and drinks with Nakasone even when he was prime minister. It’s no secret at all that Kurokawa was a gambling addict. According to Yukou Shimizu, also mentioned in the column, there are already books written by freelance journalists who have mentioned Kurokawa’s fondness for mahjong and his buddy-buddy relationship with reporters who themselves would never divulge that information while they are employed by a major media outlet. It’s not only widespread, it’s the way things are done. The reason Ugaya quit the Asahi is because he refused to play the access game (he says he was transferred many times from one post to another before he had enough and struck out on his own). TV talent Dave Spector, when talking about the Kurokawa scandal on a wide show two weeks ago, described the reporters as being “salarymen,” and I think it is this aspect of the job he was thinking about. Their loyalties are not invested in the truth or, even more unlikely, in the public’s right to know, but rather in their employers’ and their sources’ whims and demands.