Media Mix, March 21, 2021

Asahi Shimbun headquarters in Tokyo

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the telecommunications ministry scandal, which was handled gingerly by the major media until it got so intense and ridiculous that they had no choice but to dive in. Still, it was up to peripheral media, like those I reference in the column, to provide the background that would explain why these wining-and-dining episodes were so compromising for the ministry. But it shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the top executives of the major newspapers all have meals with the prime minister himself every so often and usually give the excuse that they are doing so for news gathering purposes, which nobody really believes. Rubbing shoulders with important political leaders is a kind of lobbying activity for corporate officials of press organizations, many of whom are not reporters anyway. As mentioned in the piece, newspapers get a break on the consumption tax and can sell their shares to anyone they please, dispensations that aren’t granted to other industries. For their part, politicians always say about such meetings that they never talk business—those caught dining with Tohokushinsha said the same thing—but that’s not the point. The point is to maintain a fraternal relationship that makes it easier to ask for favors when favors are wanted; or, even better, cause those in power to do the favor even without being asked to. 

As for TV, we’ve already seen how the government uses its leverage with broadcast licenses to control the news. Several years ago, eyebrows were raised when Sanae Takaichi, then the telecommunications minister, made veiled threats against the media for coverage that rubbed the ruling party the wrong way, saying that it was in her power to suspend operations of broadcasters who continually aired “politically biased” reporting. In most developed countries, the airwaves are controlled by non-governmental bodies, and when the Americans occupied Japan after the war they set up an independent agency modeled after the Federal Communications Commission to oversee broadcasting functions. But when the Americans left in 1952, one of the first laws the new Diet enacted was to put this agency back into the hands of the government, which, of course, completely controlled all media during the war. Also, all the headquarters of major media companies, both newspapers and broadcasters, are located on prime real estate in Tokyo. It’s often been reported that the land these headquarters occupy used to be owned by the country and the companies were able to either purchase or lease the land at rock bottom prices, in particular Asahi Shimbun, the main propaganda arm of the imperial government. One explanation for such largesse is that major media companies need to be centrally located in order to do their jobs effectively, so it’s good for the country. But when we say “good for the country” it isn’t necessarily the same as saying “good for the people.” 

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