Here’s this week’s Media Mix about dueling narratives in the media regarding the COVID pandemic. Though the obvious problem inherent in this split is that the message of “what to do” gets muddled, it’s been obvious for at least twenty years that the media can’t be trusted, at least as an institution, to provide consistently useful information about an issue, even one that so directly affects public welfare, such as this virus. Viewed simplistically, the split is considered political in nature, either right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, conventional vs. contrarian. But in essence it’s mostly an economic matter, especially in Japan. In the U.S., where the so-called cultural divide in the media is more conspicuous, the scramble for attention is also more pronounced than ever since the advertising model that traditionally supported news outlets has undergone such a huge, momentous change since the dawn of the millennium. Conservative types still like to talk about the liberal press, but, as always, conservatives are stuck in a past that they believe was more clear cut in terms of ideological commitments. Actually, the press has never been that “liberal” in the popular acceptance of the term, but the press did once find it easier to be objective about the stories they covered because they didn’t have to worry so much about the bottom line, and, liberal that I am, I think that the more objective you are about a story the more you see through the ideological filters. Conservatism follows a more strictly defined ideology than does liberalism, which I think is more committed to what is actually going on in life. Ever since Reagan did away with the Fairness Doctrine, the media has been freed from this kind of objectivity because, in the mind of conservatives, mandating strict adherence to objectivity isn’t objective at all but rather a violation of free speech rights, and all hell has broken loose as a result. The mud slinging that characterized the most recent presidential election, on both sides, is the culmination of this ad hoc, free-for-all doctrine, which economic changes over the past 20 years, brought about through the dominance of the internet and mobile technologies, has only exacerbated.
In Japan, there are still laws to safeguard fairness in media coverage of political speech, but since Japan doesn’t have a genuine two-party system, these laws don’t really mean anything. The economic gamesmanship that’s a function of the ideological split in the U.S. is also in play in Japan, but there’s not enough of a political balance here to support a true center-left media force. The Asahi and Mainichi are not left wing news organizations, despite what conservatives want you to believe. For that matter, neither are CNN and MSNBC, and it has more to do with adversarial concerns than ideological ones. The inevitable battles are not over who is “right,” but who has more sway over the public imagination.
In the end, the public loses, especially during an ongoing crisis where useful information is not just helpful but sometimes a matter of life and death. No one can say for sure why Japan hasn’t suffered the kind of massive death rates that the U.S. and Europe have seen, but it’s not because the Japanese media has been better at clarifying what needs to be done. This week’s column implies that the media’s investment in the Olympics may be compromising its COVID message, but mostly it has to do with the kind of “objectivity” that says you balance all views. It’s just that the government’s view is so dominant that there might as well not be any other. In the Mainichi interview cited in the column, infectious disease expert Kentaro Iwata sums up this phenomenon rather well when he says that it’s the lack of “objective standards” that has made the reporting of the crisis so frustrating, and has led the populace to grow “tired” of hearing about COVID. Because the authorities are reluctant to tell people what to do, the public eventually realizes they are on their own, and unless they are peculiarly and uniformly civic-minded (and I think that Japanese people, for the most part, are) they will end up doing what they want, and Iwata sees that as a disastrous outcome. It’s up to the media to point out that the government line on the pandemic isn’t a line at all. It’s simply a scheme to shift the burden of responsibility on to the general public, so that, in the end, the government can’t be blamed when things go wrong.